We all need to gather our thoughts every now and then. Some of us do that by just writing in a simple text editor, such as Simplenote, but others may find the look of a blank page intimidating. Also, some people tend to be more visually organized than others; if you're one of those people, perhaps a mind map is what you need. MindMeister (various pricing from free for personal use to $20/month) is a low-overhead, efficient online tool for creating such mind maps, on your own or with others.
A mind map is simply a diagram with a concept in the center, and branches leading off it to various directions. If you remember Google's Wonder Wheel feature, you know what a mind map is. For example, if you were to consider adopting a dog, the core idea could say something like "New dog," with a branch for "possible names," another branch for "shelters" (i.e, where to look), yet another branch for "desired characteristics," and so on. Each of these branches could have sub-branches, so you could have "names suggested by Sam" and "names suggested by Bill," both under the "possible names" branch. The end result is a very visual representation of your thoughts.
While there are free and simple mind-mapping applications you can download (such as Blumind and FreeMind), MindMeister lets you create a mind map using nothing but a Web browser. Each node (or "idea") can have its own icon, as well as a color, font size, and text style (bold/italic). If you have more than a couple of words to say about an idea, you can attach a note to it. You can also add URLs to an idea, and even attach files to it.
You can use MindMeister as a project management system of sorts: Any idea can be made into a task, given a priority (on a scale of one to seven), a due date, a completion percentage, and an assignee. Each of these changes is reflected visually on the mind map, so you can see all task properties at a glance.
If your idea is complex, a mind map representing it can become cluttered. MindMeister helps alleviate this by making each idea collapsible. So if you don’t want to think about names for the dog at the moment, simply collapse the "names" branch, and you can focus other branches.
Unlike downloadable mind mapper TheBrain, MindMeister only lets you link each thought with just one parent. It also keeps things simple (perhaps too simple, for some) by not letting you specify link types to indicate relationships between different ideas ("inspired by", for example).
MindMeister has powerful collaboration features. You can invite collaborators over email. When editing the map simultaneously with another person, any changes you make are reflected in real-time on both systems--MindMeister calls this "brainstorming mode," and it’s easy to see why. It's actually a lot of fun to use: Move a node, and it moves on the other person's computer. This could get confusing, so MindMeister animates the moves smoothly and highlights any changes with color as they’re made, so you can easily see what the other person changed.
Another powerful MindMeister feature is the History View. This is a horizontal bar with color-coded dots (according to the color assigned to each collaborator). You can use this bar to travel back in time to a previous version of the mind map. As you scrub back to past versions, the map changes instantly, so it’s easy to find the version you were looking for.
MindMeister offers multiple visual themes and apps for iPad, iPhone and Android. It also works well with Google Apps for business users. All in all, it's a robust, friendly way to visually collaborate on ideas.