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Chief Notion Officer

I’ve been thinking a lot about corporate knowledge management systems recently.

If we think about a company as an organism, then a knowledge management system is essentially the (collective) brain that keeps that organism alive and running. A corporate knowledge management system should contain every single bit of codifiable information within the company resulting in a library of all projects, processes and procedures.

In an ideal state, it is the single source of truth that helps to inform every individual in the firm about what everyone else is up to. Information should be easy to add (input) as well as easy to search and find (output) resulting in quick knowledge transfer between different employees.

In reality, however, this hardly ever is the case. As anyone who has ever worked at a larger company can attest to, company knowledge bases always end up being a huge mess.

What starts with a neatly organized Confluence wiki, over time morphs into a multi-headed monster consisting of millions of notes and documents that live across Google Docs, Dropbox Paper, Asana and half a dozen different wiki tools. Most docs will be outdated, some will contradict others and the one you are really looking for only shows up on page 14 of your search results.

It seems like things usually start to fall apart once a company surpasses the Dunbar number of 150 employees. This is probably when people start to realize that all the different documents of explicit knowledge they were amassing over the years have been held together with implicit knowledge.

It’s easy to find – and understand – the right documents when you know every other person in the company, but once you’re past that point, you need a system to organize all the data so that people can make sense of it.

The idea behind tools like Notion is to solve this problem by using just one tool for all your different knowledge documents. Instead of Google Docs AND Asana AND Trello AND Airtable, you just do everything in Notion. This reduces complexity because you don’t have to switch and search across different apps. At the same time, Notion forces you to think about a system that makes information easy to find with its folder-like structure and links between different databases.

I’ve never used Notion with more than half a dozen people myself, but from what I’ve heard from people at larger companies, Notion knowledge bases also don’t scale very well beyond a certain number of users. Once too many people start contributing to it, things become bloated and unnavigable.

A friend at Stripe recently suggested – half-jokingly – that we should hire a librarian to organize all our internal data and documentation. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Perhaps every company should hire a Chief Notion Officer once it hits 100 employees?!

An alternative approach to Notion is a knowledge management system that can live across different tools and without active manual curation because it’s based on really powerful search. The folder structure of your Google Drive, for example, doesn’t really matter because looking up documents via search is faster and more convenient. Meta search tools like FYI are supposed to offer the same but across different productivity tools.

But again I’m skeptical that this really works beyond a certain amount of users (and thus documents). I remember even Google’s internal search engine doing only a mediocre job of surfacing the most relevant documents (and even if it did you weren’t sure if there wasn’t a better or more up-to-date version of it).

I’m sure we’ll get there eventually, but until then we probably need a mix of automated search and manual human help – which is where Slack comes in. I’ve always thought Slack plus Notion plus Spoke would make a really powerful product (and I’m surprised Slack hasn’t made any major acquisitions in this space).

If you think about it, Slack is basically a search engine powered by humans: Most Slack messages are just questions. It’s 911 for when everything else fails. So if Slack had access to your entire knowledge base, it could answer at least the most commonly asked questions automatically. The rest would still get answered manually by the channel participants. Or your Chief Notion Officer.

Do you have thoughts on this topic? Please leave your feedback here.
Thanks to Jan König for reading drafts of this post.

Nov 20, 2020  ×  Berlin, DE

Is this real life?

In his bestselling book Sapiens, Yuval Harari argues that humans became the dominating species of planet earth because we are the only animal that can cooperate in large numbers. This, he claims, is due to humans’ ability to believe in purely imaginative things and concepts. A company like Google, for example, doesn’t really exist. Sure, there’s the Google.com website and physical Google offices with real Google employees – but the idea of Google as a company is just a fictional concept. It only exists because multiple people believe in it. The same is true for legal systems, nations, religion or money. Every large human cooperation system is based on a fictional idea that only lives in our collective minds.

What Harari doesn’t discuss in his book is the extreme other end of this cognitive ability: Conspiracy theories. I’ve been fascinated by Jon Glover’s recent essay on QAnon, in which he compares conspiracy theorizing to alternate-reality games. Participating in QAnon conspiracies, he says, feels like playing a real-life multiplayer game based on secret insider knowledge.

Social media has made conspiracy theorizing so addictive and immersive that the line between story and reality can become incredibly blurry.

“A lot of these groups are like cults […] They have beliefs that border on religiosity … And when you contradict them, it’s like telling them Jesus isn’t real.”

The religion analogy is interesting because it’s a perfect example of why fact checking as a countermeasure is useless. Google, Facebook & co have all introduced fact checks and fake news labels to combat conspiracy theories. It’s naive to think that they will work.

Think about it: Science (which, you could argue, is also a form of fact checking) has been around for centuries trying to debunk most religious beliefs – and yet religion still plays a major role in Western society. If entire education systems teaching millions of people about science haven’t worked, why do you think adding a small fact check disclaimer below a YouTube video would?

In fact – as you would expect from a perfect alternate-reality game – fact checks (and how to circumvent them) have actually long been part of the game.

It’s worth pointing out that science is also just another belief system. We laugh about flat earthers, but how many people can actually explain why the world is round in a scientifically correct way? Most of us don’t know science, we believe in science.

What should give us hope though is the fact that many people believe in *both* science and religion despite their contradictions. This means that multiple realities can co-exist even when they are at odds with each other.

We don’t live in just one reality – we switch between different realities (and play different characters within them). It’s a bit like Westworld, where guests can explore different theme parks: Westworld, Shogunworld, Warworld, etc.

Similar to Westworld, it’s increasingly becoming more difficult to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. As Aaron Z. Lewis points out in his brilliant essay You Can Handle the Post-Truth, we have created a fragmented reality with hyper-realistic CGI influencers, bots, deepfakes, AI pretending to be humans and humans pretending to be AI. We don’t live in a single timeline with a single history, but in a variety of “contradictory reality bubbles“.

Bruno Maçães paints a similar picture in his excellent book History Has Begun. America, he believes, is in the process of transforming into a new, post-liberal society, distinct from current Western civilization. It’s a society that has not only been heavily shaped by television but one where reality and fantasy overlap.

This transformation has been in the making for a while: Kennedy had the aura of a movie star and leveraged his image through the medium of television. Nixon created the first political soap opera with the Watergate scandal. And with Reagan an actual movie star moved into the White House.

Trump is the ultimate culmination of this trend. His entire presidency feels scripted. His tweets end with cliffhangers. A House of Cards screenwriter would not have been able to come up with a better story.

Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger used the social capital and entertainment skills they acquired as actors to appear more likable and competent as politicians, but at least they tried to be politicians. Trump, on the other hand, uses politics as another stage for his acting performance.

“Americans see the world as an action movie” Maçães writes. I think this became especially apparent during the current covid-19 crisis and the most recent wildfires in California. People in my social media timelines seemed only superficially worried. Instead, their posts contained an underlying sense of excitement about real life finally catching up with the science fiction aesthetics of Blade Runner and Akira.

Perhaps this is Hollywood’s greatest achievement: It gets us excited about our dystopian future. The world might be ending, but at least it’s an ending that’s entertaining to watch.

If Hollywood created the fantasy worlds that reality is catching up with today, who is creating the fantasy worlds of tomorrow?

Maçães thinks the answer is Silicon Valley, which he describes as “a fantasy land where engineering talent and capital come together to power the serious project of creating new worlds out of nothing”. It’s one of the most idiosyncratic descriptions of how startups work that I have read. VCs are the new Hollywood studios; founders are the directors and actors.

A founder’s job is essentially to create the most compelling narrative of what their company will look like in 10 to 20 years time. It’s not lying, it’s telling pre-truths. Being contrarian just means that you came up with a novel fantasy plot no one else had thought of yet.

Sometimes founders are able to re-create the fantasy narratives of their pitch decks. Sometimes you end up with Theranos.

And even when you do end up with Theranos, at least you get material for an exciting new Netflix series. Perhaps VCs should buy the movie rights to the startups they invest in as a hedge against their biggest portfolio failures?

The concept of the tech industry as a creator of fantasy worlds immediately reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Max recently. His theory is that it’s not the lack of tech talent or venture capital that explains why Europe hasn’t been able to create a tech ecosystem on par with the US. It’s the absence of religiosity that has kept Europe from creating its own Google or Facebook. The US is able to create larger companies because it’s able to believe in larger and more ambitious narratives.

Silicon Valley is not just creating new fantasy worlds, it is building tools that allow others to create their own fantasy worlds. Enter social media.

If TV has taught us to think of ourselves as characters in the story of our lives, then social media has allowed us to actually write and edit the script and build fictional characters. Social media is essentially the democratization of virtual world building.

As I wrote in Signaling-as-a-Service, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook are just massive virtual status arenas that allow us to build social capital through signaling. Some of that social capital might be built on top of real stories and actual achievements, but most of it is not based on reality. Every time you are applying an Instagram filter, you are already changing reality.

It’s not just that we bend reality in our social media narratives, we also play different characters. As Chris Poole already pointed out years ago, we all have multiple (online) identities. There is not just one reflection of yourself – identity is prismatic. Twitter-Julian (armchair intellectual) is not the same as Instagram-Julian (hobby photographer) or Facebook-Julian (high-school drinking buddy). Google Circles and Facebook Lists always got this wrong: They let us change who we shared with, but not who we shared as.

This is why social networking is not a winner-take-all market. We need different channels for our different, contradicting online personas.

The problem is not that we live in multiple realities or that these realities are sometimes at odds with each other. What’s problematic is that we sometimes get so immersed in one virtual world, that we forget about all the other realities – which brings us back to the problem of online conspiracies.

In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Dom Cobb uses a spinning tractricoid top that tells him if he is awake or still dreaming. You can think of the mechanisms I describe in Proof of X as social media’s equivalent of the spinning top. As influencers rent grounded private jets to pretend living a billionaire lifestyle, social networks introduce new proof-of-work hurdles to make sure our status games remain grounded in truth. Proof of reality.

It feels like some of the new virtual realities we have created need more than that. A kill switch that automatically brings us back to base reality.

So if you have reached this point of my essay, perhaps now would be a good time to close your browser window and enjoy real life. Or at least the closest simulation you have thereof.

Thanks to Aaron Z. Lewis, Jan König and Max Cutler for reading drafts of this post. If you have thoughts on this essay, please leave them here.

Sep 25, 2020  ×  Vienna, AT

A Meta-Layer for Notes

What’s the digital equivalent of sticky notes?

01 Hey

This was originally supposed to be a blog post about Hey. I wanted to write a longer essay about Basecamp’s new email tool and test if the app actually lives up to its hype.

After playing around with it for a few weeks, my conclusion is this: Hey’s most interesting aspect is not its radical approach to email – but its fresh approach to note taking!

We have long treated notes as a distinct silo in our productivity stack, when we should have integrated them right into our workflows instead. While email might need an overhaul, I see a way bigger opportunity in rethinking digital note taking.

So instead of my Hey review, let’s talk about notes and my idea for a radically new kind of note taking app.

02 A Closer Look at Notes in Hey

Hey has two interesting notes features.

The first are so-called Thread Notes. These are basically emails to yourself within an email thread that only you can see. You might have seen similar internal notes features in shared inbox tools like Zendesk or Front. Thread Notes in Hey are effectively the single player version of those.

I’d find Thread Notes super useful in combination with snoozed emails: “Show me this email again in [insert time] and remind me of [insert note]”

This feels like a way better workflow than adding a note in a separate reminder, to-do, CRM, or note taking app.

a) Because there’s no need for context/app switching.
b) You might not even remember that you took a note related to an email when it resurfaces in your inbox a few weeks later.

To-do and reminder apps (and calendars!) work great for tasks that are tied to a specific day or time. But many tasks – and especially notes – are not dependent on time. Their relevance is based on other trigger points. Only when certain conditions are met, should these notes resurface: “If [insert event] is true, then show [note]”

In the case of our email, the note becomes relevant in [insert snooze time] or whenever the recipient replies to the email thread. The fact that many tasks have external dependencies (which are usually linked to an email thread) is one of the reasons I believe that your email inbox should also be the place where you manage your to-dos. You shouldn’t need a separate to-do app.



The second note feature in Hey are Inbox Notes.

As the name suggests, these notes are added to individual emails in your inbox. Similar to Thread Notes, you can use them to quickly jot down things you need to remember, but they also help you to highlight specific emails.

Thread Notes and Inbox Notes feel similar, but they serve two slightly different use cases. Thread Notes work more like reminders (“Don’t forget X when you reply”), whereas Inbox Notes feel more like bookmarks that highlight the most important messages in a long list of emails.

Together, they remind me of one of my all-time favorite note taking tools: Post-it Notes.

03 Post-it Notes

I’m a huge fan of physical note taking and there are two writing tools that I use every single day: A physical notebook (for longer thoughts, including first drafts of my blog posts) and post-it notes (for all kinds of quick notes).

(Disclaimer: When I say “post-it notes” I’m referring to all types of sticky notes, not just those sold by 3M.)

Post-it notes serve two of the same functions that Hey’s note features offer: highlights and reminders.

One of the reasons I still read a lot of non-fiction in physical book form is because it’s easier to bookmark and annotate passages that I quickly want to find again later. Similar to Thread Notes, sticky note bookmarks help me highlight the most important items in a long list.

Apart from helping you find important passages in a book later on, sticky note bookmarks also allow you to add additional context to the section you highlighted (e.g. *why* you bookmarked a particular section or thoughts you had about it).

You could write down notes like this in a separate notebook, but then you’d lose the connection to the source they are based on. What makes post-it notes so interesting is the spatial relationship between the notes and their respective context.

It’s this spatial relationship that also make post-it notes great reminders.

Post-it note reminders are similar to Hey’s Thread Notes in that they are triggered not based on time but on events that don’t have a (forecastable) deadline. They are essentially like notifications that appear when you look at specific objects.

A post-it note on your front door, for example, is like a notification that pops up when you’re about to leave the house: “Before you go, don’t forget to [insert note]”. A shopping list on your fridge is a data request notification that surfaces when you are most likely to have new items to add to your list.

Together, post-its essentially become a notes layer that augments the real world. Instead of a physical notebook that lists all your notes and tasks in chronological order, post-it notes are scattered around your house but tied to specific places or objects where they are most relevant.

The question is: Why isn’t there a digital note taking tool that works like this?

04 A Spatial Note Taking Layer

There are dozens of great note taking apps out there: Evernote, Google Keep, Apple Notes, Workflowy, Notion, Roam … the list goes on and on. Every one of these tools has its own unique angle on note taking, but they all have one thing in common: They are stand-alone apps.

This strikes me as suboptimal. Neither the creation nor the consumption of notes should be treated as separate workflows.

As John Palmer points out in his brilliant posts on Spatial Interfaces and Spatial Software, “Humans are spatial creatures [who] experience most of life in relation to space”. Post-it notes are so powerful because they have a spatial relationship to their context.

Many notes shouldn’t live in a dedicated note taking app that you explicitly have to open and search. Notes should emerge automatically whenever and *wherever* they are most relevant.

As long as note taking remains separated, users constantly have to switch back and forth between different applications, which is not ideal. It reminds me of the recent discussion around productivity and collaboration – which have historically also been treated as two separate, isolated workflows:

The platonic flow of productivity should minimize time spent not productive, with collaboration as aligned and unblocking with that flow as possible. By definition, any app that requires you to switch out of your productivity app to collaborate is blocking and cannot be maximally aligned. It’s fine to leave your productivity app for exceptions and breaks. But not ideal when working.

The same applies to notes. You shouldn’t have to switch apps and context to take or consume notes. It should stay within the same workflow!

(Side Note: You could argue that note taking is essentially single-player collaboration where you communicate with your future self – but that’s a whole new discussion I’ll save for another blog post.)

Natively built in note taking features like email notes in Hey feel like a good step in the right direction – but email is just one distinct silo in your productivity stack. Imagine you had to buy different sets of post-it notes for every single room or object in your house.

What we need instead is a spatial meta layer for notes on the OS-level that lives across all apps and workflows. This would allow you to instantly take notes without having to switch context. Even better yet, the notes would automatically resurface whenever you revisit the digital location you left them at.

Let’s look at a few examples.

05 Examples

One use case that immediately came to mind when I thought about spatial notes is bookmarking.

Most of us don’t use just one bookmarking app for everything. We use different bookmarking apps or bookmarking features depending on the type of object we want to save for later: Podcasts are usually saved in a dedicated podcast app, for example. Articles are bookmarked in Pocket, books on Goodreads, songs on Spotify, places on Foursquare, products on Amazon … you get my point.

Bookmarks are great to remember *what* you want to revisit later – but not *why* you saved something in the first place. I would love to be able to add notes to my bookmarks directly in each app so that I have some context on why these objects are important when I return to them later.

Ideally, these notes wouldn’t just show up in the one place I originally left them, but across all apps and websites that reference the (semantic) object I bookmarked. A note attached to a book I want to read in Goodreads, for example, should also emerge when I see that book in my Amazon search results – or when someone mentions it in my Twitter timeline.

People are a similar type of semantic object you could tie notes to. Instead of a stand-alone CRM tool, you would leave a note attached to a person straight from your current workflow (e.g. your email client). That note would then automatically re-surface whenever the person it references becomes relevant again:

  • When you’re in an email thread with them
  • When you add them to a calendar event
  • When you’re visiting their LinkedIn page
  • When you look them up in your phone book
  • etc


Another use case for spatial notes are instructions on how to use specific software features or improve workflows. These could be quick reminders to add permissions to new calendar events or to use Filtered Views in Google Sheets. You could also use these notes to train users on keyboard shortcuts.

You could imagine employers shipping corporate laptops with pre-installed notes to make it easier to transfer (previously tacit) knowledge and thus improve the onboarding process for new hires.

06 Closing Notes

I could go on and on about potential use cases for a spatial note taking app. The possibilities are endless – but blog posts shouldn’t be. So I’ll end things here.

A final note before you leave: I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole idea. What would you use a spatial note taking tool for? Let me know what you think in this Twitter thread!

Thanks to Kevin Yien, Matthew Achariam, Max Cutler and Nathan Baschez for their detailed feedback on drafts of this post.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy the following essays:

Sep 04, 2020  ×  Berlin, DE
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