Once again, we’ve asked online social tools guru Stowe Boyd to write for us on digital information management. Thank you, Stowe, for sharing your insights with us!
In almost everyplace I have ever lived, there has always been one drawer — usually in the kitchen near the backdoor, or near a wall phone — filled with all sorts of junk: old chinese food menus, elastic bands, pencils, garbage bag ties, condiments, and nubs of crayons left over from elementary school. Basically a black hole of odds and ends that forms a backdrop of a hectic life, where there isn’t always a perfect place for every last thing. Sometimes you need a “miscellaneous” category, a catch all, a kitchen drawer for random things.
I have a hectic life, but one that has increasingly gone digital. In the same way as my non-digital life, I have found the need for a general purpose information organization tool: a place to store the myriad bits of information that I use and share on a regular basis.
My digital kitchen drawer is Backpack, an online information management tool from 37signals. 37signals is a company that has built an international reputation for its tools, like Basecamp (a collaboration tool for project teams), Highrise (a CRM tool), and Campfire (a chatroom solution).
I have the “solo” account ($7/month), but 37signals also offers accounts for groups and with larger storage.
All About Backpack
Backpack is based on the model of a collection of pages, and on each page you can add, edit or delete any number of information scraps: notes, lists, files, photos, and writeboards. Writeboards are a 37signals sort of online word processing document — providing styled text — but otherwise not much like Microsoft Word. Because I use other tools for serious word processing, though, I hardly ever use writeboards. However, I use all the other bits and pieces.
In the screenshot above, you see Backpack is open. I have already logged in — it’s password protected — and I have clicked on one of the many pages displayed in the right-hand margin, in this case one called “Thoughts about /Aviso.” /Aviso is a monthly, half-hour web show that I will be launching at the end of August, and I have been using Backpack as a means to collect my ideas, and to share them with my production partners. You can see at the upper right-hand corner that the page is shared: I invited some others to take a look at the page, and perhaps to edit it, although none of them actually made edits. Backpack also allows publishing the page so that it is completely public, but I have not done so in this case.
Here I have added an additional note field, created a title, and added some text. Note the asterisks arounf the word “text,” which is part of a markup language that Backpack supports called Textile. I could alternatively used HTML for markup, though, if I wanted to.
Textile has some great features that I have used in many ways, such as the music in the screenshot below. This is a song that I wrote (yes, yes, a Renaissance man, I know, I know), and I have taken advantage of Textile’s simple technique for creating tables as a means of aligning chords with words.
The Textile tables are created by simply placing vertical bars (‘|’) around the table entries, like this:
|Halfway cross|the world|
Needless to say, I have found this extremely helpful. And, I use tables in some often-used pages. For example, I have a page where I store passwords and IDs for various services that I use.
The photos that can be placed on Backpack pages don’t really make it a replacement for something like Flickr, but if you were using Backpack to plan a dinner party you might include a photo of a planned recipe or a snapshot of the people coming to dinner. Backpack scales the image down to this gallery size, so it is not a good way to share images; for that, you would have to upload the image as a file, and manually add the HTML to a note, as I have done in the page, below:
Backpack pages automatically have an email address, and you can direct email to them, which occasionally can be useful. I have also used the email addresses for various online services that need an address, since it means that 1. I can later delete the page to avoid any spam, and 2. It keeps the email out of my inbox.
Backpack provides a calendar and a reminders tool, but I seldom use them, since I work with time through my Google Calendar; however, these might be useful for others.
As I have written about in the past, I keep the overwhelming majority of to-do items in my Remember The Milk account, which is tightly integrated with Gmail, but occasionally I find myself making checklists that aren’t to-dos exactly, or tasks as part of some activity that I am working on with others. For example, in the page below, I was making a checklist of travel arrangements that I shared with an assistant:
Online and Offline: Packrat
I know that many people are uncomfortable with keeping information like their passwords in a service online. Since Backpack is itself password protected and encrypts transmissions through SSL, I am personally satisfied with that aspect of things. However, I do want to be able to get access to the information in the rare situation that I am not online, like my seat on a flight. Enter Packrat, which is a companion application that runs on my Mac, and which synchronizes with my Backpack account.
In the above image, you see that I use Backpack to write posts for Unclutter, and the nice folks at Unclutterer copy the material and post it on the blog.
The only negative about Packrat is that I have to remember to synchronize with Backpack before getting on that flight to London or I won’t have the most recent information available.
It Must Be In There Someplace
Backpack uses a page and margin approach to organization, here shown by clicking the “all pages” option. (The reason for “all pages” is that you can opt to take a page out of the navigation in the right margin, dropping seldom used pages from view.)
Backpack supports tagging, so I can pull up all my recipes, all my music, or all the pages tagged “Bonnie Raitt,” simply by clicking on that tag.
For Groups, Too
Backpack was conceived principally for the needs of the individual, but scales up for small teams, or families.
I already mentioned being able to invite others to share pages, which can be done with anyone, even people who don’t have Backpack accounts. Plus, a Backpack account can be set up with mutiple users, and they could share pages, calendar, reminders and the other capabilities of Backpack.
One very interesting feature recently added is the “Journal,” which is designed to allow the members of a shared account to remain in contact like the popular Twitter service does. Similarly, 37signals recently added a “Newsroom'” feature that allows users to see what has been recently updated and by whom, which isn’t very interesting for a solo user like me.
I Like That Kitchen Drawer
It’s one of those obvious things, in hindsight: As I used Backpack more and more, I discovered more ways to use it. Ultimately, I closed down other accounts — including 37signals’ own Basecamp — and migrated the bits and pieces of my messy, messy life into the free form pages of Backpack. It’s worked out well for me, and seems just as natural now as that kitchen drawer.