January 16, 2015
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What Is Tinderbox?

A New User’s Perspective

by John Wiegley

I've been reading the manual, playing around with Tinderbox, reading every resource on the Web, and comparing Tinderbox to apps which seem "adjacent" in the information management space.

It occurs to me that Tinderbox is confusing to people because it consists of layers of increasingly advanced functionality, and that one is not required to know or use all the layers to make use of Tinderbox.

These are the layers I see, as they unfold:


Initially Tinderbox is a place to take notes, but not to do anything with those notes. And at first it's just titles and text. Lots of tools do this. It's a convenient place to dump tons of small snippets of text. (It could be better at capturing such information from other apps too, by providing a clipping service).


Once you have lots of notes, you can organize them, either hierarchically or visually. Lots of tools do this also, but I like the way that Tinderbox links the outline and map views. OmniGraffle can do this also, but the Outline is definitely the second class citizen in that context.


Later come attributes, stamps and prototypes, as ways of better managing the metadata associated with your notes. This is a very easy way to tag things, add checkboxes, etc. It doesn't necessarily have much value initially (it's hard to know what metadata to track, which prototypes need to be created, etc), but lends itself to real power down the road.

Not nearly as many tools do this, or do it well. I've never found rich metadata to be a strong suit of either DEVONthink or OmniOutliner, for example. There is some capacity, but it's never as convenient in the way it can be with stamps and prototypes.


Here we find agents, aliases and inter-note linking (made visual in the map view). Other apps call these smart groups or folders, symbolic links (or replicants), hyperlinks, etc. They provide ways of perceiving and building relationships among all the data you've accumulated.


Tinderbox's ability to provide intelligent, metadata-enriched presentation using patterns, background plots, display expressions, hover expressions, columns in map view, smart adornments, etc., are things I've rarely experienced in any other tool -- at least not in such a well-integrated way. I also think many of those who peek at Tinderbox (from what I've seen) never fully perceive this level.

And by presentation I don't just mean "you can see your notes on a corkboard". I mean that Tinderbox can reveal your data in content-driven ways that make it possible to visualize inherent, complex relations.

For example, let's say I'm a volunteer coordinate, and I need to pair up volunteers with projects. This is a many-to-many relationship, with volunteers possibly working on multiple projects, and each project having multiple volunteers.

In the map view, I organize volunteers using a People prototype on the left side, and projects using another prototype on the right side. I then draw lines to connect volunteers with the projects they've chosen to work on.

Next I create a rule within the prototype to color people and projects based on the number of incoming or outgoing connections. I want people to be colored on a spectrum from blue to green to red, where blue means available, green means fully tasked, and red means overloaded. Conversely, projects are colored so that blue means unstaffed, green is fully staffed, and red is overstaffed.

Now I can glimpse at the board to see where attention is needed, who is likely to burn-out, which projects are being neglected, etc. I can also use agents to summarize the hot spots, and suggest possible volunteer/project pairings based on need and availability. Or I could add metadata to indicate strenths and interests (as lists), which would make the suggested pairings even more intelligent.


The final piece of the puzzle is that your data can transparently mutate and evolve, based on all the above. This is where rules really come into play, so that data can change in response to additions and changes elsewhere in your "note space".

This aspect of Tinderbox is the least visual, and the most programming-oriented, and is an area I think few venture into. Yet it is also the most enabling capability of the app, since it can free one from rote manipulations that become impossible beyond a few hundred notes.

Finally, all these areas of the application fit together fairly seamlessly, so that it can be hard to see that in fact there are multiple tools available within this tool.