TiddlyWiki – The World’s Strangest Digital Notebook
I hate the name “Tiddlywiki”, and that’s my biggest criticism of the software going by that name, so I’ll be calling it TW for the rest of this post. TW is a digital notebook, but it’s not like anything you’re used to. Like most of the software I’ll review, it’s also free.
But it isn’t “just a web page”. TW is a web page that can modify itself. It can add content to itself and even new features to itself. It’s a plain text file, too, as an added bonus.
Making Life Easier
You open TW in a web browser; it’s a web page after all. You don’t need any new software to view the page, which is nice, but most browsers don’t let you save an HTML page automatically over itself, so when you modify the TW page, your browser will prompt you to download it. This is tedious, and unnecessary.
If you want to use TW or even if you just want to give it a test drive, I highly, highly recommend grabbing a browser plugin called Timimi to make saving the thing a one-click effort. Click here for the Chrome extension (I use Brave, which is based on Chrome, and it works great). Click here for the Firefox extension, which I haven’t used.
I’d recommend grabbing the extension before even loading the web page.
You may not have realized it, but the website hosting the TW download is itself a TW. Since users don’t have file permissions on the server, the page can’t be modified by visitors and so can safely be used as the website. Without experience, I wouldn’t recommend doing that yourself, but it means that you can check out that site for one example of how this software can be used.
TW is a collection of nodes called “tiddlers”. Every tiddler is identified by its unique name. If you try to open a tiddler that doesn’t exist, you’ll get a stub that you can build into a tiddler. With some work, tiddlers can even be used to add functionality to the software itself, meaning the tool doesn’t just let you update the content, but the functionality itself. You can modify the theme, but you can also change how tiddlers work. It’s like a simplified version of gene splicing; the nature of the tool itself changes based on its contents if you want it to.
At it’s core, TW is a wiki. Makes sense, since it’s in the name. Those tiddlers are like articles in a wiki, and they can have images, links, and everything else you think of when you think “website” embedded into them. I recommend storing those bulky files in a folder and linking to them so TW itself only has to keep track of simple file paths and not store the files themselves.
The most straightforward use of the tool is as a wiki, with articles referencing each other and categories containing lists of articles. You can assign tags to articles as well and have them automatically curated based on tags, and there are a lot of other built in features that more advanced users can exploit for the creation of more powerful features, but the tool works well as a simple wiki, too. And what better use for a wiki than as documentation for itself?
Adding features is as simple as dragging elements from one TW to another. Here’s one set of features I haven’t explored much but looks fascinating:
The tool is free. It’s small. It’s easy to get started. It’s plain text. It’s feature set is open to modification. The list of positives is pretty long for this.
There’s also the built-in features. The tool has a button you can add to notebooks to automatically create a “journal” tiddler for the day you are on (or open today’s journal entry if you’ve already created one). I changed formats partway through this and haven’t reformatted the old dates, but you get the idea:
It’s hard to beat TW when it comes to how much you can do with you small the package is.
None of these complaints really reach the level of “bad”, but they are still things that might detract from someone’s experience with the tool.
First, the software uses some strange symbols to convey things like links and formatting. For those who have used markdown or other plain text formatting, this won’t be unfamiliar, but for everyone else, there’s a learning curve. Thankfully, there aren’t that many things to learn, and there are useful cheat sheets like this one.
Second, building a simple wiki or formatting the wiki is something everyone can do, but once you start automating things (e.g. grabbing a list of all tiddlers with a tag value of “abc”), the need for some basic web knowledge becomes apparent. You can find support for all of this, but if you aren’t used to reading things like this, you might be overwhelmed if you try and do complicated things:
<<toc-selective-expandable 'Projects' sort[title]>>
Third, TW doesn’t always feel like a complete package. Given how much praise I’ve heaped on the ability to literally add new features at any time, you might wonder how that could be. There are just a few things that make the experience less than perfect. For example, sometimes, I’ve found I need to save the webpage as a whole with the main save button because saving an article doesn’t automatically do it. I understand why this is, but the need to save manually every time feels incomplete. Since there’s no software running in the background doing things for you, it also feels closer to an analog experience. This is good and bad, but it lends itself to this criticism.
Last, because you don’t want to embed large files like images and video in TW files (even though you could), you have to reference them in your folder system. That makes for a somewhat tedious process when embedding those things on pages. You have complete control over how these things are displayed and stored, but it has to be done by hand, at least as far as I’ve found; that is, you’ll need to type file paths out when you want to use images and other media, unlike a lot of software where these things can be added from libraries with a single click.
Overall, I view all of these critiques as minor. Just things to be aware of.
TW is a seemingly simple notetaking application that can become much, much more with a little work. It’s free, small, fast, easily backed up, easily moved, and easily modified. It can be transformed through new features, copied, shared, and opened anywhere.
I use TW to track goals, projects, reading lists, product reviews, ideas, and more. I keep multiple TW notebooks and back them up in a software repository because they are simple text files and it’s easy to tell differences between versions.
If any of that sounds appealing, give it a try.
One thought on “TiddlyWiki – The World’s Strangest Digital Notebook”
I’ve been using Tiddlywiki as my personal Zettelkasten for almost 10 years now. You can argue it’s not perfect and feels incomplete. But it is so damn flexible and customizable. Even if in 20 years there will be no Tiddlywiki anymore, you can still easily export your tiddlers and import them somewhere else.