TiddlyWiki: A Personal Non-Linear Web Notebook

Wiki Wiki

Your what hurts? A personal non-Tiddly, what? Look, buddy we don’t need any of that Communist dogma here.

Okay, it’s not what you think, I’m not stealing secrets. The name and tag line are a little different, but what is this tiddler…tattler…whatever? Well, before describing it, let me first state how I discovered it. It started a few years ago while looking for a specific kind of productivity software that ran on Windows. Like many of you, possibly, I use a Mac at home, but am stuck on a PC at work. For researching and writing at home, I would use any number of tools on my Mac, from OmniOutliner, to Scrivener, to Notebook. On OS X and now iOS, there seems to be no end to these types of tools. When I found that, at work, I needed some of the same software I used at home. I thought it would be easy. After all, there’s so much more software for Windows than there is for Mac, right? What I found though is, if there is a deluge of research storing, note-taking, and outlining software for the Mac, then there is a dearth for Windows. At least there was several years ago. I haven’t looked recently, and things may have changed since. Needless to say, I didn’t find what I was really looking for when it came to a native Windows app. In my hunt, though, I did stumble upon a great tool that I have found useful, not only on my PC at work, but on my Mac at home.

TiddlyWiki's Home Page

What I discovered was a little tool called TiddlyWiki.

What’s A Wiki and How Does It Work?

TiddlyWiki is a portable wiki. If you are not familiar with what a wiki is, let me provide a quick background. You’ve no doubt heard of the term “Wiki” from Wikipedia and on the news about WikiLeaks, but what is a wiki? It’s basically a website that allows you to edit its pages in place using easy to remember markup codes. I believe its creator gave it the name wiki (originally WikiWikiWeb) to denote “quick” editing.

How does a wiki work? After all, it’s not often that you go to a website that you can change the contents of in place.  All webpages are coded (written) in something called hypertext markup language (HTML), as well as cascading style sheets (CSS), and JavaScript. In other words, in order to develop and make up a web page/site you need to have some skill in these languages of the web. Wikis, like Wikipedia, work around this by running off a “wiki server” and so are little different. They allow you to edit the wiki webpage in place using simple formatting characters as opposed to HTML, and save your changes into a nicely finished webpage/site. In the end, it’s a webpage coded in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript like any other, but editing and adding text, as well as other media is easier. Those are the basics of how a wiki works. That is how TiddlyWiki works as well. However, TiddlyWiki doesn’t need a server to do its magic. Instead, TiddlyWiki gets around having to set up a messy wiki server by doing its pokey jiggery with JavaScript.

With TiddlyWiki you still use simple markup to post your content, but to add content to TiddlyWiki, you create an entry called a tiddler. When you create a new tiddler, you are presented with two empty text fields: the first being the title of the tiddler; and the second being the tiddler’s content. TiddlyWiki uses a lot of the same simple formatting characters you’ll find on most wikis, and similar to something like Markdown. There are many other formatting characters to do tables and other things too. If need be, TiddlyWiki also allows you to do in-line HTML to customize your content or do something that’s not normally available within TiddlyWiki. You can customize how the page looks, what shows up when the page first loads, and several other options. Third party developers have written several plug-ins providing TiddlyWiki the functionality to display reminders, tasks, calendars, and many other things.

The standard TiddlyWiki page has what are called shadow–tiddlers which allow you to customize the site title, subtitle, left side main menu, colors and text options, as well as which tiddlers get loaded when the page first loads. A tiddler can hold text, HTML, JavaScript, hyperlinks, images, text organized in tables, code (programming examples) and roughly any sort of information that can be stored and displayed on a webpage. Since TiddlyWiki is just a standard webpage, made up of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, you can run in a web browser from Internet Explorer to Safari.

Why TiddlyWiki?

That’s what a wiki is and what TiddlyWiki is specifically, but how is TiddlyWiki a good note-taking and researching tool?

For one, TiddlyWiki allows you to create and store your notes or other information in a nonlinear fashion. Yes, you could store notes, images, hyperlinks, and other media inside a Pages document. So it may be best to think of it in terms of working on a project. This is what first drew me to TiddlyWiki. I was looking for a tool to act as one part outliner/organizer and another as sort of a information repository. With a project, you tend to collect all sorts of information and media throughout the entirety of the project. As a project progresses, information you have stored or need access to, can become less or more relevant. Some information is relevant at the beginning of a project, some at the middle, and some at the end. Some information is relevant for the entire project or may be relevant from one project to another. That is why it is nice to be able to store information in a nonlinear fashion that allows you to access the most relevant information quickly and easily while keeping — but hiding from view — older, less important information.

With TiddlyWiki, you can organize tiddlers to display in whatever order you wish when the page loads, or to not display at all. Whether your wiki displays a certain tiddler or not, it’s still there and the contents of it are searchable. Yes, you could store all this information in a word processor as I mentioned above, but shuffling around bits of information is not what that tool was meant for. TiddlyWiki’s strength is in its ability to hide tiddlers you no longer care about, but still allow you to search for information contained within them. This, along with being able to allow you to arrange tiddlers in whatever order suits you and have certain tiddlers show up at the top when the page loads, make it a very powerful tool with just those functions alone. Add to that you can share your wiki with others either on a local network or across the Internet by hosting your TiddlyWiki on a web server.  Of course, TiddlyWiki doesn’t need a server to be hosted on, but there are sites out there that do just that. Once hosted on a server, you can decide whether or not others can make updates to your TiddlyWiki or not.

Let me be clear on who TiddlyWiki is for and who it is not. If you’ve ever used a wiki before, or done a little HTML, or have some experience with other simple markup languages such as Markdown, then you’ll feel right at home. TiddlyWiki is relatively user friendly and even if you’re not the geek type, shouldn’t be a big learning curve. However, TiddlyWiki is only for you if you don’t mind a little “noise and friction.”

What do I mean by noise? I mean dealing with tags or formatting characters.  You need to speak a little “wiki” to get things to look like you want. In other words, you need to know TiddlyWiki’s markup language.

Below is an example of what this markup looks like.


>#_This_ is ‘’TiddlyWiki’’ //formatting//. It’s not very [[wysiwyg|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wysiwyg]].

Results in:

1. This is TiddlyWiki formatting. It’s not very wysiwyg.

You can also insert images, tables, and other things.

So that’s the noise.  What’s the friction? The friction is the amount of effort it’ll take for you to learn getting around TiddlyWiki. Before I scare you too much, let me state that all you need to do to start using TiddlyWiki, is:

  1. download a little HTML file
  2. open it in your favorite browser, (Firefox probably works best, but it’s supported in nearly every one)
  3. click “new tiddler”
  4. type something
  5. hit done

You’re done. That’s all there is to it. You can easily have a TiddlyWiki that is functional and works for you, without a lot of trouble. If you’re more geeky and like playing around, there are all sorts of plugins and configurations you can do to customize your TiddlyWiki and make it more functional for you. In fact you can get so carried away with it, that I read where someone said it should be called “FiddlyWiki” since you can spend half the day fiddling around with it rather than getting real work done. I can second that.

Get “Tiddly-ed”

You can find TiddlyWiki at TiddlyWiki.com. Lest you think I’m the only one using it, there are probably dozens upon dozens of TiddlyWiki sites, or sites supporting TiddlyWiki, with many of them creating plugins for it. I list a few at the end of this post. I cannot profess to know the origins of the name TiddlyWiki or the term “tiddler.” Just don’t say tiddly or tiddler too fast. I will defer to my British colleagues to know why the term tiddly or tiddler is used, only because TiddlyWiki was born across the pond, from its creator Jeremy Ruston. The question of what users think of the name TiddlyWiki and tiddler has been posed on interview.tiddlyspace.com. Just the statement “TiddlyWiki is a serious productivity tool,” sounds a bit like a joke, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I know TiddlyWiki wasn’t the first of its kind. I believe FlexWiki and MeatballWiki may hold that honor. Whatever the case, I find TiddlyWiki extremely useful in my own work and personal life and sometimes think it’s one of the web’s best kept secrets. TiddlyWiki was first released in September of 2004 by Jeremey Ruston. I discovered it about a year or so later. Since then it has matured rather nicely and currently sits at version 2.6.2. As mentioned, Jeremy Ruston created TiddlyWiki, but has went on to bigger and better things. It seems his company, Osmosoft, which was responsible for managing and developing TiddlyWiki, was bought out by British Telecom.

TiddlyWiki Reference Sites (most, if not all, of the sites below are actual TiddlyWiki’s themselves).