It’s Not Just a Pretty Gimmick: In Defense of Obsidian’s Graph View
“Is the graph view useful” is a common question that comes up in the Obsidian community. Some people think that it’s just a gimmick because it’s pretty, and I understand why they think that, but the graph view is actually surprisingly useful for me. Some people actually use it for navigation! I don’t, but I can see how and why people would.
Most of the time, it’s not a great way to share information about your nodes with somebody else; I think the part where we share pictures of our graph is absolutely just sharing pretty things.
But when it comes to using the graph, there are a lot of different ways to do that, and I’m not like the person who is doing this in the most advanced way. @CalHistorian does a lot with this, and @Emile developed the Juggl plugin specifically to make the graph even more feature-rich. It has a some great hierarchy functionally. @SkepticMystic created the breadcrumbs visualization and adjacency matrix options, but for me personally, I just my graph mostly to make sure I haven’t messed up my organizational system.
If there are a bunch of orphan things hanging out around the edges of my graph, I know that I have not updated my indexes. If there are a bunch of floating dots, I know I haven’t touched that folder in awhile because Zoottelkeeper hasn’t indexed things I added when Obsidian was offline, so I should double-check to see if I’ve integrated everything or missed something when I was dumping things.
After awhile, I got sort of a feel for what my notes look like on the graph, and I could tell when something had gone wrong — I often notice sync errors on the graph first, because they manifest as duplication errors, which means extra notes show up in places I might not think to look if I wasn’t getting a “top-down” visual view of my whole vault.
The graph view also gives me a sense of how I can flow from section to section — for me personally, the way that my newsletters tend to “float” in between my atomic notes and my stories, with source notes on the other side of my atomic notes, is really useful to see because it gives me a pretty accurate sense of which concepts I use most often in my stories and should consider writing more nonfiction about.
Also, since I use the Johnny Decimal folder organization system, it lets me filter things pretty easily with just numbers (although you can do something similar with a tag-based system). The filtering is handy because it lets me easily filter out “noise” and just look for connections between, say, only my atomic notes and newsletters (which function as literature note collections, kind of), which is also handy for getting a sense of what ideas are developed enough to possibly turn into articles.
I’ve found — to my surprise, honestly — that my graph view gives me genuine insights about how my knowledge work integrates, and where I should focus my time. I was honestly surprised to discover how often I rely on my newsletters and refer back to my newsletters, as opposed to my “atomic notes” because although the newsletters aren’t synthesis, they are good topical overviews. Like the graph view shows, I use the newsletters a lot for different kinds of things — they inspire a lot of stories, and they help me synthesize a lot of different articles and notes that I’ve read. Those notes are sort of the glue that helps organize my thoughts, which has led me to doing a lot more with them that I used to in terms of writing synthesized topical sections than just summarizing and linking to a source.
For my articles, I have a lot of work in progress articles that are not well linked up — they’re just sitting there in a little sun, and that tells me that whatever that concept was, it probably needs some more work to develop it. Whereas, if something in that section is messy and interconnected, I know that it’s probably built out a little more and is ready to go if I need to write something for a deadline.
Sometimes, when I’m reviewing my graph, I like to zoom in on a node, and just kind of float my mouse around different things to see if there’s something that I could be inspired by that I haven’t used… but might be useful. And I find that to be a really nice way to explore my notes, more so than just clicking on a bunch of random things in a folder (which is much more effective when I’m trying to find something quickly and can’t remember how to search for it).
Most people I know navigate their graph view using the local graph, but this doesn’t work particularly well for me because of my indexes and wonky tags and the Zoottelkeeper plugin, but I also have a smaller screen than most, so, as with anything in the personal knowledge management space, your mileage may vary.
Let me know if you know of other great ways to use the graph, though — I love getting ideas for more ways to leverage systems I’ve already gone through the trouble to set up!