Obsidian is often described as a note-taking app, or as the developers have said, “a powerful knowledge base on top of a local folder of plain text [Markdown] files.” Essentially, the application enables you to create files on your local drive, tag the files with keywords, execute full-text searches of those files, and bidirectionally link files together.
Whew! It sounds impossibly techie, but the combination creates a writing tool that “moves at the speed of thought.” And for that reason, Obsidian has become the basis of my almost-integrated writing environment (IWE).
Coders are familiar with the concept of an integrated development environment (IDE), which RedHat defines as “software for building applications that combines common developer tools into a single GUI.” Building on that concept, Ryan J. Murphy coined the term “Integrated Thinking Environment” when describing the merits of apps like Obsidian and Roam Research. He writes:
An Integrated Thinking Environment (ITE) is an app that provides tools to make thinking easier, enabling us to be more innovative. ITEs provide features that take care of some parts of the work of knowledge management and knowledge innovation. In the apps that I’ve seen, these features help us craft personal, contextual ITEs.
As an early adopter of Obsidian, I didn’t realize that I was building a “personal, contextual ITE.” I just thought I was using an app to build what I was calling a Universal Notebook. What I wanted was a tool where I could store all my writing notes — new notes as well as thousands I’d written over the past four decades in physical notebooks, Word documents, Evernote, OneNote and Scrivener. And I didn’t want to just store them… I wanted to have a way of making these notes “present” to me when I was working on a piece of writing that was contextually relevant.
For instance, I’ve been reading Hubert Dreyfus’ work since the mid-1990s, and I have taken various notes on his ideas. If I wanted to write an essay today about his views on technology, I needed a tool that would make surfacing relevant notes almost automatically, so that even the notes I might have forgotten could help me do my work.
Prior to Obsidian, I never found an app that delivered on its information-management promises. I even wrote a manifesto — I would have created the app, but I’m not a developer! — for my Universal Notebook, outlining its functionality and use-cases. The app I envisioned would allow me to use existing folders of digital files (PDFs, text documents, images, etc) as the basis of my notebook, and I’d be able to link them together, tag files to relate them together by topic or subject, merge them into collections, and use advanced search to find words and phrases regardless of the kind of file that held them.
At about that time, I stumbled across the term Zettelkasten, which described how the prolific German academic Niklas Luhmann used a note-taking system to pen more than 70 books in his career. As I learned more about his approach, I discovered some new apps that sought to digitize his analog “slip-box.” I checked out tools like Roam Research and theBrain, but quickly settled on Obsidian.
What I did not expect was Obsidian’s extensibility. While it met all the minimal requirements of my Universal Notebook — advanced search, folders, tagging and bidirectional linking — the app was almost infinitely configurable. Users could choose from dozens of themes and customize them to their hearts’ content, hiding elements of the application, highlighting others; a community of coders began to develop hundreds of plugins to extend Obsidian’s built-in functionality, so that one could integrate tools like tasks, web browsing, other apps, daily journaling and more. With a keystroke or click of the button, a writer could go from a single blank page to an advanced project management environment. Here’s an interview with one of Obsidian’s two developers that really gets under the hood on this aspect.
So as my use evolved, it occurred to me that I was creating — within Obsidian — a personalized app that combined many essential writing tools into a single GUI and helped me with all of my “knowledge+writing” management tasks. Among those tools: a timeline plugin to help plot fiction, a mapping tool that I use for historical research, an outliner, integration with my task manager to help me stay on top of freelance assignments, and options for formatting output to almost any kind of document I need to create.
Thus, Obsidian became for me an integrated writing environment. At about the same time this recognition was beginning to solidify in my mind, I stumbled upon this post by a fellow Obsidian user who arrived at the same idea — actually, he knocked it out of the park. It turns out that there is a Wikipedia entry for IWE, too.