It's Tana time.
New app, new possibilities.
If you’re connected to the PKM/TfT community, you may have heard that the ground shook a bit over the weekend.
There’s a new kid in town:
And, I can finally talk about it now because they’re officially out of stealth mode! 🥷🏻
What is Tana?
Tana takes the simple structure of an outliner-style notes app à la Roam and Logseq… and grants users with database superpowers so they can add rich multi-dimensionality to their data. This allows you to build anything from a simple task flow to a content creation machine to running a company with it. Check out their website for a good teaser on what’s possible.
There are so many cool things I want to share about Tana but can’t possibly cover in this short newsletter… but if I had to summarize who Tana was for, it would be for the person, group or company that deals with a. lot. of. information.
All day long you juggle Ideas. Tasks. Reminders. Agenda items. Client concerns. Character plot lines. Cake recipe tests.
And while these items appear at random times during your day, there may have been a half-dozen places those things wanted to end up in order to be actioned. But to get them there is difficult. Your shopping list is on a dedicated todo app on your phone. Tomorrow’s agenda is a word doc on the company server. The brilliant idea for improving your cake recipe should go into the marginalia of your cookbook if you’re ever going to have a chance to remember to try it. Everything has its place, and while you aren’t able to offload these items immediately, all your mind has space for is remembering all. these. things.😵💫
Tana is designed to handle information that is meant to be “in formation”. Pieces of data that change with time, with milestones, with insight.
Still not sure about the significance of that?
How many apps make it easy for you to turn your appointments into meeting notes, where some items turn into tasks for a project, which gets assigned to a team which has a kanban board to track all incoming tasks, whose team members move tasks as they get completed, that are linked to KPI reports which automatically get compiled for monthly reviews—all in one app? Your appointments three months ago can literally turn into investor summaries within the same interface.
What about apps where you take notes from books which are a mix of your insights, criticisms, questions, and favourite quotes, and are able to see all quotes across all books you’ve read that have to do with culture, or filter by criticisms related to a research question, or insights filtered by the claims they support, or order quotes by date authored? You have a multitude of ways to see the information you distill from books, helping generate insight through collision and cross-pollination between them.
While the information flows described above may seem natural, even obvious, it has actually been very difficult to practically achieve because up until today we’ve never had one app that could handle so many different types of data. Traditionally:
Calendars handle dates and appointments.
Word handles meeting notes.
Asana/Trello handles tasks.
Slack handles team communication.
And your email for the rest. Right? 😏
This leads to a situation where
all these separate services develop using the paradigm “THIS is how WE do X”📯 where they design their perfect calendar/task/chat app and hope their users will agree with their decisions too
there is really poor integration between different apps. It relies on goodwill, diplomacy and the dev culture of the company, and more often than not there is no way to connect two apps
duplication of information is a necessary evil across platforms, leading to messages getting diluted, errors introduced, and high overall churn on information management. A lot of switch cost!
To understand the way Tana approaches data management differently, we need to look at two things.
The first is ontologies.
The ontology of your information
Ontology is (roughly) the science of defining a thing. On a practical level, Tana can tell the difference between a Quote and an Appointment because you define what they are. For example:
A Quote has an Author, and perhaps a Source.
An Appointment has a Date, with Attendees, and Agenda Items.
Every Quote and Appointment ought to have these pieces of info attached to them, and Tana makes this dead simple to do by using supertags and fields in Tana.
Supertags, which are really souped-up tags, define things via the “is a” relationship. X is a Quote, or Y is an Appointment.
Fields, which are exactly what they sound like, define attributes of a thing via the “has a” relationship. A Quote has an Author. An Appointment has a Date.
The significance of this is that you are free to define anything and everything exactly the way that your heart desires.
To see how someone with mastery of ontologies uses Tana, I highly recommend checking out Rob Haisfield’s Tana Tour with Maggie Appleton:
Maggie is an absolute wizkid when it comes to data structure.
When Maggie is working on her graph, I’m imagining her gracefully manipulating data like waterbenders control the flow of water around them:
Whenever I get stuck trying to build something in Tana, I ask myself: What would Maggie do? 🌊
The second thing that Tana does differently is allow for different “views” of your data.
Search and query your data
Most apps (except for maybe Notion) are built around very fixed ways of viewing your data.
Being able to build rich data structures, and then query this rich data is a powerful one-two punch in PKM. Advanced PKM/TfT folk have known the power of building contexts for their data. And while they’re happy to hack their way to desirable results, it is often not part of core functionality and many regular users are left out in the cold.
Tana completely blows that apart. The app gives you the tools to build completely custom views of your data out of the box. You want TODOs created in the Blue and Red project within the past 14 days? No problem. You want to switch between seeing all active bugs as a table for quick triaging or a kanban-style board for the team to easily assign status to? You got it. Need all recipes that have broccoli in them? It is the easiest thing.
Tana uses fields to make your information smart, and queries then allows you to have conversations with your data. It is really simple yet also revolutionary, because while this has been possible from a technical standpoint for a long time, no one has been able to figure out how to put such powerful tools in the hands of mere mortals… until now.
Fei x Tana
Thanks to Twitter-friend Stian Håklev, I had the privilege of being able to try Tana as they refined many core functionalities over the summer.
These are some of the things I built in Tana that I enjoy using:
custom task-team-project workflow for my work at an architecture firm
bread-baking log to record my adventures in making bread so I can iterate between attempts
time-logs to record how much time I spend on different tasks
book-writing setup (because yes, I am writing my MVZK book here!)
Eventually I want to bring my zettelkasten setup here too, and my first attempt at doing this will be at Nick Milo’s LYT Workshop 9 coming up soon! I can’t wait! Will you be there? Let me know :)
Maybe I’m being incredibly bullish here, and I admit I am easily excited about new tools, but Tana scratches an itch I’ve had for decades, one that I’ve had since dealing with relational data in Excel, FileMaker, TiddlyWiki, and most recently Obsidian/Logseq.
Things that were impossible/took me WEEKS to figure out and set up in the aforementioned platforms could literally take me maaaaybe half an hour in Tana, tops (barring any bugs🙃). Anyone remember setting up many-to-many relationships in Filemaker?
Tana’s strength lies in their ontology-first approach to data. They’ve created a huge gravitational force that I predict other app developers will have to reckon with, due to the overwhelmingly positive response they’ve received by addressing this specific user pain point.
It doesn’t end here though. The Tana team has lots of improvements coming down the pipeline, and they’re listening closely to the community. I don’t know precisely what’s coming next (I mean, I have an idea but can only speak vaguely about it🙃) but I can tell you this: they’re just getting started, and there’s still a lot behind the curtain that they can’t wait to unveil once it’s ready for showtime.
Are you on the waitlist to get early access to Tana? While you wait, here’s a list of things you could do to ensure you hit the ground running once you get in:
Check out CortexFutura’s free Tana Fundamentals course for a basic breakdown of Tana
Watch the Tana Tour above with Maggie Appleton (video) to get a sense of the power and capabilities of Tana
Like Maggie demonstrated, try to think about the ontologies and schemas of the data that you want to use in Tana. Write out the things (supertags) and what the things have (fields), and how you’d like to see that data (views, layouts, panels) depending on the task you’re doing. For instance:
Has the fields Meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks), Ingredients, Instructions, Notes
A recipe index which is a list sorted by Meal, or card view
A fullscreen recipe view with all nodes expanded
If you can get used to thinking about your information in terms of how it ontologically breaks down, you will be very prepared to hit the ground running in Tana once you get in.
As you can tell, I’m fairly excited about Tana. I may use some newsletter real estate moving forward on interesting things that come up in the world of Tana, and I hope you’re ok with that!
Until next time,
Great newsletter. The earth did indeed shake this past weekend. I signed up on Saturday… :-)
There has definitely been a fundamental change with Tana coming on the scene. They have absolutely nailed the blend of block-based & structured data. Being a Notion user and then a Roam user, it always felt you were on two sides of the note-taking spectrum yelling at the other why it was better.
Tana is like a mediator that is bringing both my wonderful worlds (& friends) together. It's spectacular. I knew as soon as I saw the first video that I was switching over!