One of my current obsessions is understanding exactly how a new idea, such as the “Second Brain” meme I’ve spent the last 5 years working on, moves from the fringes of society to become a part of mainstream culture.

This isn’t idle speculation: in 6 months, on August 2, 2022, my book Building a Second Brain will be released. The purpose of this book is to popularize the many useful and fascinating ideas related to digital notetaking and personal knowledge management I’ve found.

Our mission at Forte Labs is to break this idea out of the nerdy niches where it currently lives, and democratize access to the powerful capabilities a personal system of knowledge management gives people.

I recently encountered the very first mention of “second-brain apps” I’ve seen referenced in the mainstream media. An article entitled The Rise of the Tabulated Self: I Saw the Best Minds of my Generation Being Uploaded into “Second-Brain” Apps by Sophie Hagney was recommended by New York Magazine.

The Rise of the Tabulated Self - Article Headline

This article is a case study for answering the question: How do gatekeepers, tastemakers, influencers, and public intellectuals frame new ideas and introduce them to their audiences in ways that are understandable and attractive?

The sheer number and variety of interesting terms, metaphors, and cross-cultural connections found in just this piece provides a hint of the cultural tsunami to come.

Let me unpack how Hagney introduced the concept of a Second Brain one step at a time. This case study is about one meme, but the lessons it contains apply to any new idea you might be interested in spreading.

Making second-brain apps into a new category

First of all, I was shocked to see the term “second-brain apps” used to define the software category. Somehow it had never occurred to me that this might end up being the label for these kinds of apps. I had always used “Second Brain” on its own as a metaphor, and “notes apps” or “knowledge management apps” to describe the software. Sometimes the most obvious options are hiding right under our noses.

Giving a new trend a label is one of the most crucial steps in signaling to people that this is something new and exciting. People are inherently attracted to novelty, and giving this an interesting, attractive name is an important step.

Telling the history of second-brain apps

Second, it was interesting to see how Hagney provided the history behind the rise of “personal documentation.” It’s always helpful for people to understand where a new trend came from, but they also don’t usually want a lot of historical background. The job of a writer is to pick and choose a few elements of the past to highlight.

Hagney goes all the way back to the U.S. Civil War and the proliferation of printed material printed by businesses and collected by households. Most of her research seems to come from a book on the history of the filing cabinet (affiliate link), which she describes favorably: “The filing cabinet, then, was better than a human brain — it could hold and organize the entire contents of one’s professional and domestic life, broken down into discrete bits of information and made retrievable at will.”

Linking an emerging category of software with a pre-digital era frames it as timeless and evergreen, not subject to the whims of technology trends.

Framing second-brain apps in a positive light

Third, the piece is pervaded by a slightly skeptical lens. Hagney is clearly suspicious of the great feats of meticulous organizing that her interview subjects undertake, such as documenting their romantic relationships or all the books they’ve read. The subtitle of the piece says it all: “I saw the best minds of my generation being uploaded onto ‘second-brain’ apps.”

This kind of techno-skepticism has been around forever. Hagney even quotes a techno-skeptic from all the way back in 1930. But what is most striking about the tone of this article is just how much she pulls her punches and keeps an open mind about how a Second Brain might be a healthy and productive approach to managing information: “It’s tantalizing to consider: the idea that the answers to all of our questions are searchable in our own history and experiences, so long as we’re able to save everything (and arrange it in an orderly manner).” 

This open-mindedness is in stark contrast to journalists’ usual focus on the negative side effects of technology, such as eliminating jobs or fragmenting our attention. People want to be part of trends that are positive and uplifting, and seeing such an optimistic framing of the potential of second-brain apps is a welcome change.

Identifying with the problem that second-brain apps solve

Fourth, Hagney’s description of our current challenges with information is both relatable, and universal. Interestingly, she uses the royal “we” and includes herself in that group, unlike other journalists who tend to treat digital organizers like an exotic species:

We are constantly turning our lives into data, much of it nonphysical: photographs and screenshots and stray notes, reams of text messages and bookmarked tabs and other digital detritus…By now, we may even rely on our devices’ memories so completely that we’ve lost our ability to recall things without them. But the contents of our digital memories have themselves grown unwieldy, fractured across multiple devices and accounts, impossible to process.

Writers and influencers allow their readers to live vicariously through them, which means that one of the most powerful ways to inspire readers to take action is to convey a sense of personal interest and enthusiasm.

Showing how second-brain apps improve on past software

Fifth, Hagney references the more formal or “technical” terms for Second Brains, while also bridging them to the new term she is introducing: “Amid this flood of data, a new category of app has emerged, one that promises to collect all the digital material we generate into one single, seamless interface. They are sometimes referred to as ‘knowledge-management systems’ or ‘personal-knowledge bases,’ though many users refer to them as simply ‘second brains.”

Crucially, she identifies the key feature of the new generation of software, which is that it goes beyond storage to intelligent retrieval: “Like the filing cabinet for the pre-digital era, these apps are designed not only to store everything that our brains can’t hold — grocery lists, passwords, meditation schedules, work tasks — but also to make us better at retrieving the information in them.” And elsewhere: “they allow us to sort our archives into customizable, easy-to-navigate tables – and, in the case of Mem and Obsidian, can even show us how one piece of information (say, your to-do list) is related to another (notes from a recent meeting).”

Triangulating second-brain apps via existing cultural trends

Lastly, I was fascinated to see how Hagney used existing cultural trends to triangulate and define what second-brain apps are and what they’re for. Perhaps the single most effective way of introducing new trends into mainstream conversation is by linking them to existing ideas that most people already know and care about. 

For example, Hagney connects second-brain apps to:

  • Marie Kondo and her tidying methods: “Watching Notion evangelists describe their systems, I was reminded a bit of those devoted to Marie Kondo’s methods of tidying up.”
  • The self-tracking and Quantified Self movement: “rather than emphasizing removal as an antidote to chaos, the answer lies in the act of continued accumulation: every book you’ve ever read, every glass of water you drank for months, every inchoate hunch or feeling.”
  • Wikipedia: “The sprawl of her life had been broken into neat pieces of data: interconnected, searchable, easy to see and act upon. ‘It’s like building your own Wikipedia files,’…”
  • Popular productivity apps like Notion: “The best known is Notion, which was released in 2016 and has grown from 1 million to more than 20 million users in the past two years (and was recently valued at $10 billion).”
  • Search engines and data visualization: “Mem sees itself as a search company — one that will allow you to trawl through a visualized version of your own brain.”
  • Other evocative terms and metaphors: digital detritus, alternate memory, digital memories, personal documentation, externalized personal memory, compendium of self-knowledge, self-documentation are all much more relatable than existing terms like Zettelkasten and Memex

A single article like this one won’t have a noticeable cultural impact. It is just one drop in the bucket compared to what will be needed to truly popularize the idea of a Second Brain and make it part of people’s lives.

But the energy and timeliness of this article at the intersection of many existing trends gives me tremendous hope that mainstream culture is ready to take on this new idea. Information overload and overwhelm have become a crisis of such epic proportions, I believe people are more willing than ever to consider radical new possibilities for how to stem the tide.


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