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Is plain text best?

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
2 min read

Derek Sivers and Patrick Rhone, two of my favorite writers, have just posted about how the simple text file is the most stable, malleable format for storing your thoughts and work.

This is probably the most widely accepted truth among nerds I can imagine. Who would be stupid enough to argue?

I’ll be the “yeah, but” guy here, because:

  1. This has not been my experience.
  2. It really doesn’t matter.

The incident

When I switched to the Mac in 2008, all of my text file notes got corrupted in the move. I didn’t notice for a while because work occupied most of my time, and (non-developer) corporate work never happens in text files.

By the time I went back to my notes, all of the titles and meta data had been replaced with gibberish. Luckily, the internal copy wasn’t corrupted, and I didn’t care enough at the time to dip into my backups, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

The meta data of a note/file is critical to me now. It gives valuable context the internal text usually doesn’t.

A business idea from when I was a 25-year-old idiot carries very little weight compared to one I came up when I was 40. A content strategy tip from 1999 is not likely as applicable in 2022. I won’t even get into titles, tags, and location. You get the idea.

It doesn’t matter anyway

Use whatever medium and constraint works for you.

Every medium for ideas is corruptible. There’s no magic file format. Most are likely to last long enough for you to convert to something else if need be. It’s more important to find the constraint that works for you. Text may be it. But maybe it’s audio. Maybe, with storage and transcription becoming less of an issue, video will be the most prized and stable format those with shorter attention spans (I see it in kids right now).

I wouldn’t worry too much about your archive, though. Nothing digital is of archival quality. There hasn’t been enough time to test any format or storage method. When it all shakes out in 400 years or so, I doubt anything we use now will be the preferred format. I’m not even sure humans will be a preferred biological format.

You know what has lasted longer than text files for me? Email, Word docs, and PDFs — all file formats I would never count on for their archival qualities.

Also, none of this really matters. Legacy is a sales tool. No one is likely to dig through your thoughts in any file format.

What matters is how you transform the text into useful stuff for you and others. Even then, it will be forgotten quickly.

It’s important to think of your captured thoughts as fleeting bits of information across all formats and uses. Maybe you’ll get back to them. Maybe you’ll use them. But investing everything in one, stable format doesn’t take away their fleeting nature. Thoughts will exist here and there for a while, then be gone and forgotten. Just like you.

I find that very humbling, but comforting as well.

I’m sure Derek and Patrick agree with most of this, and choose the text file as the best candidate for them, given all the above. It’s just not for everyone.