There was some discussion/interest in these two approaches and the trade-off between, in the org-roam Slack, when thinking about future features. The definitions of “outliners”, here, is not fully precise for me yet.
For those of you who haven’t already, I would encourage you to look at Roam Research, Dynalist, Workflowy (and other outliner apps) in some detail and contribute to this discussion about their thoughts when compared to org and OR. I think “outliner” is a bad way to describe these apps, I think “bullet-pointer” is a better term (Please read the post below to see what I mean by outliner so that we are clear about what we mean.).
I will start by some thoughts from my discussion in Slack thread:
TL;DR : After some internal debate I really think that future features relating to links/backlinks should be at the bullet points/subheadings level (with nesting). Two obvious examples are transclusions and backlinks context. This is in opposition to the whole org file/note which I think exposes too much information; and on the opposite end having just the link which exposes too little information. Currently I’ve seen other apps that use the whole note for transclusions, and (at the moment any way) paragraph context for backlinks in org-roam. I think this really comes down to plain text vs outliner, but I’m really hoping that org-mode/emacs allows us to have the benefits of both worlds.
I think we have different ideas of what we mean by outliner. Of course, I agree that you can still continue to “outline” in OR in the normal sense i.e. using bullet points, headings/subheadings etc. But “outliner”, software like Workflowy, Dynalist, Roam Research are based on the philosophy that the bullet point being the smallest unit, rather than the whole note (i.e. org file). And sure you can mimic in org and so OR, by limiting a single idea to each org-file — though this will probably complicate things. I am probably missing something, I am not an avid org user, but I would say that org lies closer to the plain-text side of the spectrum when compared to the above apps.
I think the bullet-atomic approach is worthwhile. It is more flexible, and allows for what is now being called “threaded thinking” (see Roam Research twitter et al. (two links; see references within)). Outliners group bullets into a page/note, but link and transclude at the bullet level — maintaining the advantage of both approaches.
To be clear, I am not advocating against plain text at all. Among other things I love the idea that plain text is human readable (to some extent) and there is virtually 0 vendor lock-in involved, and you own your data. I love those things, and I think any Personal Knowledge/Management system should have these as core values. Outliners, currently aren’t plain text and are typically dependant on vendors, so do not have these advantages.
However, there are advantages to outliners which unfortunately aren’t readily avialable with plain text (and of course vice versa). The obvious examples, as I mentioned is transclusions (i.e. block refs) and black links context. I think this is what makes Roam Research powerful. Not the features themselves alone in a sperate manner, but their combination. It is an outliner AND has black links (with outline context) AND has (bullet-level) transclusion. Now, if we can add plain-text to that mixing pot, I think we have a very powerful platform for something amazing.
In fact, I don’t really see the point of transclusion if it is not at the bullet point level — if you have links why would you want to embed a whole org file into another org file. You could just have a link to the second org file and view it separatly. Allowing for selective transclusion is what makes it powerful, it gives you the choice to include only that which you deem relevant. And this will be updated automatically, should you chose to do so. Bullets (ideas) can now live in more than one place. Note, “live” is the operative word here — the transclusion is “alive”, whenever you update a thought/idea/point it is updated where ever you have transcluded. Your notes are evolving at the same pace as your learning. Cognitive effort used to make association have a bigger return on investment in the future. And you can make associations more boldly knowing that if you change your mind, these will be updated too — no association becomes outdated (unless you chose to do so).
Tbh, I think that on the surface level OR could achieve “plain text pseudo-outliner” / or at the very least approximate nested bullet level context. Am not so sure about transclusion, although I think that would be very powerful. And users that want to avoid this complexity should be given the choice to opt out. I feel like that an outliner is more granular and so its not impossible to avoid the complexity should you choose to do so. Any way nesting is already a thing in org, so users are somewhat used to them anyway.
Summary : I think I can narrow my argument down to this point: backlink context and transclusion (and relevant future features) should be at the heading level. Perhaps not specifically in O-R, but more generally in org.