A Ballad of Browser Tabs

Let’s talk browser tabs for a sec.

I read this newsletter about how someone kept all their browser tabs open: partially, as reminders to open tasks as a rough to-do list, but also as historical relics for reminiscing over past browser behaviors. As they waxed poetically about the archaeological significance of accumulated clutter, I couldn’t help but virtually roll my eyes; certainly, this was an exaggeration—aggrandized for shock value and reader effect. Someone keeping this many tabs is an edge case, a power user coercing computers to do their unnatural bidding.

Yet, I was quickly reminded that perhaps I was the exception. In between various Zoom calls, presentation setups, and just being in the office working through someone else’s laptop, I realized that most people legitimately have, easily, 30–40 tabs open in a single browser window. On smaller laptop-sized screens, each tab’s horizontal real estate shrunk down to a handful of pixels, the favicon —serving as both a brand and a visual memory trigger—reduced to a few pixels or going away altogether so at least some of the tab border UI is still visible. I’m continually amazed by both the memory and dexterity needed to navigate browser windows that are more Slinky than website.

I’m old enough to remember a time when tabs weren’t as ubiquitous for the web; early browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape/Mozilla Navigator didn’t bother with tabs in the early versions, and it took a few years for all the major browsers at the time—IE7, Safari, Firefox, Konqueror on Linux—to add the feature1. It’s to the credit of web technologies that almost everything a modern computer is used for—reading, social media, productivity software, even games—can and is accessed through its web browser, so much so that Chromebooks and ChromeOS satisfy the needs of some users, including the vast majority of students. With their increased usage, though, there’s been a need for additional technical optimizations, like unloading tabs in the background consuming heavy resources.

At the same time, recognizing that tab overload is a real user experience issue, there have been plenty of efforts to improve, or at least organize all the tabs. Arc, for instance, has a hierarchy of entities that represent how persistent a tab should be and keeps on introducing new features that tweak how long a specific type of tab should persist. Chrome has introduced pinned tabs and tab groups, and a recent redesign of mobile Safari wandered so far adrift from how users are used to tabbed interfaces that they had to make the entire thing optional coming out of the beta. Beyond browsers, some apps and services address distinct use cases: read-it-later services help batch articles and interesting content for later batched consumption, and external bookmark managers like Raindrop.io help keep favorites under control. Meanwhile, many consumer apps ship Electron-powered webapp wrappers as native apps—partially as a bid for more dedicated system resources, but also to keep from being reduced to just another tab.

Some of the psychology behind why we have so many tabs open is fascinating. One study showed that we think of open tabs as opportunities, and we don’t want to admit that we’ll never get around to consuming all the content we aspired to at one point, analogous to hoarding too many unread Instapaper/Pocket articles or Steam games purchased never to be played. On the other hand, I suspect some of the digital clutter mimics real life; people can’t be bothered to clean up their browsers with obsolete tabs, just as they’re not inclined to deal with that pile of clothes or the stack of documents left on the end table.

That said, I only looked into this because I’ve spent a bunch of time trying to break specific use cases into their own apps, pinned favorites, or plugins and browser extensions2. Most people wouldn’t bother, as the flexibility of the web makes it so much more convenient to just—attach another tab.

  1. My parents, whose web usage is shaped by that era, is one of the only people I know who don’t use browser tabs, though keeping 20 browser windows open in the Windows taskbar amounts to the same thing.

  2. I am no better than anybody else on this; totaling the various apps I have open and the different browsers I run, I’m also hoarding roughly 40–50 tabs worth of stuff…across 4 virtual desktops.

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