On various writing platforms
The medium influences the telling of the message
A few years ago, I claimed there were three schemes of communication: the Herald, the Manuscript, and Hypertext. The distinction between these will be relevant today; Herald messages are intended to be read aloud, Manuscripts are intended to be physical artifacts, and Hypertext are neither.
Our topic today is online writing platforms. While none of them can permit text to spiral and go boustrophedon, they do have a variety of properties not present in older systems. We primarily use Substack for our communications as a Herald, and Notion for our communications in Hypertext.
What are the properties of a Herald that are useful? The desired output is a series of linear messages with timestamps; in other words, a blog. Blogging platforms have been incredibly trend-sensitive over the past two decades. Blogger, Wordpress, Medium. Today, Substack is the hot new thing. It has solved one problem that has plagued the industry for decades: how to pay for content. That is of little interest to us; more relevant is the clean user-interface, the fallback to email as a distribution channel (as RSS has largely died out, and Twitter has its own problems), and a hassle-free comment system.
Regarding Hypertext and Manuscripts, the first distinction is the defining metaphor. A manuscript is designed to be written on physical paper, and hypertext is not.
Microsoft Word is the canonical example of a manuscript editor. It is very clearly tied to a printable artifact that the digital version represents. There are a massive array of options regarding what characters are where: choices of fonts, text size, text color, text spacing. It is also not collaborative, as one curmudgeonly columnist comments.
In a hypertext work, these display details are often left as an exercise to the reader. There are a few style options across the whole document, but you generally cannot make individual words or paragraphs have different font faces and sizes. If your goal is to print a physical document, this is not ideal. Different tools for different goals.
Notion is our current choice of a hypertext editor, our site at http://yevaud.com/ uses it. It has one key feature which Quip does not have: the collapsible list. (Quip does have collapsible sections, which are quite different). I cannot over-emphasize how important this feature is. It makes certain asides (which are not suitable for separate pages) not overwhelm the page space. It allows for “Spoiler warnings” and “Choose your own adventure” style narratives. It is, in a word, vital.
Beyond this, there are quite a few other features of note:
Notion has a limited palette of colors; 9 text and 9 background colors. This is actually better than having a palette of 60-ish colors, as it’s easier to remember which specific color is being used.
Notion does not have either tables or spreadsheets. It is also lacking the ability to at-mention a formula. This is a serious deficiency. On the bright side, it does allow for LaTeX-syntax equation entry and display.
Notion’s tools for tracking revision history are substantially deficient, particularly composed to Quip’s. This doesn’t matter for a solo project, but could be disqualifying for a medium-size team.
Notion allows for in-line /slash commands when writing a document. These are useful for adding colors (though only at the section level), adding headings without a context switch, and a few other features like the aforementioned LaTeX equations.
Notion is, by all accounts, very pretty. Having designers who think James Turrell is the person to mention in the screenshots on your home page is a good sign. In particular, moving sections within a document is joyful.
Notion is not friendly to archiving; as far as I can tell the Internet Archive cannot display publicly-shared Notion documents at all.
Notion provides a standard :colon-based selector for emoji; most operating systems handle non-ASCII languages (Chinese, Greek, Arabic, etc.) but do not have a great solution for emoji.
Notion doesn’t provide for alternate titles. In Wikipedia-speak, there are no redirects. There’s no easy way to have one page about both John Brown’s Body and Battle Hymn of the Republic, and to be able to at-mention either term to get to the same page. For certain pages, I have resorted to old SEO tactics in naming, for example “Films, Movies, and Cinema”, so the autocomplete will hit more often.
The other problem of Wikipedia titling, disambiguation, is not a big issue. If there were more collaborative tools, you could run into issues where one person refers to Hog as a motorcycle, and another as a barnyard animal. For a single-person system, the at-mention system generally solves the issues.