May 8, 2020

Centralizing Highlights

There’s been a gap in the general productivity” app space for years now, and it baffles me that no one has cracked it yet.

Highlights.

You can highlight content in read-it-later apps like Instapaper and Pocket, you can highlight content in Apple Books and Kindle, you can highlight text on the web using extensions, or natively on Medium, or you can simply clip bits of text into your note-taking app of choice.

What you can’t do is access all of these highlights from one place.

Knowing that I have highlights scattered across the vast plains of productivity software in my life is infuriating and—frankly—a little demoralizing. I feel less inclined to highlight good passages because I’m always second-guessing where I should do so.

Is it better to try and copy everything into my notes app? That works fine for web things, but it’s cumbersome for content from books. I can try to keep the majority of things in two buckets—Pocket or Instapaper for web highlights and Kindle for book highlights—but then I have two databases, neither of which is good for searching through or using those highlights.

Or it requires that I periodically pull the content from one into the other to try and keep a single silo of highlight data.

It’s a small comfort to know I’m not alone in this concern.

In fact, I’m writing this piece because I just found out that one of my favourite design thinkers might be tackling this very problem right now.

Reading through this teaser piece, I found myself nodding almost constantly.

I don’t want to deal with organizing things. I don’t want folders. I don’t want categories or structures. I don’t want to think about how to make sure I’ll be able to find this later. I want something to do the job FOR ME.

I think about this a lot.

If the app I’m using—ostensibly to help with productivity—is making me do all the organizing and retrieval work anyway, then what is it actually helping with?

Our biggest challenge with modern productivity tools is that they’re asking us to build, maintain and control our own system…At the time we’re putting our structure in place (folders, tags, categories) we’re doing it with our current knowledge of how things work…We feel productive categorizing things, putting them in folders and maintaining our new system…Eventually, a piece of information, be it a note, an image or a bookmark, won’t fit into our existing structure…Ultimately, our system falls apart. We become our lazy selves again and abandon the tools and the structure we so carefully put in place.

I have no knowledge of what exactly this tool is like, or even whether it helps to alleviate some of this frustration around highlights and separated silos of information, but I’m excited that someone seems to be looking at the problem from a similar perspective to mine.

I hope it’s the first step toward a less fragmented future for highlights.


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