Category: Science

On the cognitive value of having a bazillion tabs open on your browser

my open tabs

Right now, I have 52 brower tabs open. Behold the madness above! (The tabs are off to the far right; it only shows the top 21.)

It’s kind of nuts. Why do I work like this? Is there any good reason to keep open so many tabs?

“Tab freaks” like me are in the minority. When the Mozilla foundation did a study of Firefox users, they looked at the high end of people’s tab usage, i.e., what was their maximum number of tabs they kept open. The biggest chunk of people clustered around 5 or so tabs — people with 20 open tabs were pretty uncommon. Nutjobs like me, with 52 tabs open, are so far out on the X axis we don’t even appear on the chart, heh.

chart showing how many tabs people keep open in Mozilla Firefox

Why precisely do we “power users” keep open so many tabs? Me, I do it partly as a memory aid. As I’m reading and researching, I’ll find a link to something interesting, and open the tab in the background so I can read it later, when I’ve got time free. Or, in the middle of a piece of reading, I’ll get an idea I want to chase down — so I’ll briefly interrupt myself to a) google the concept, b) find a relevant document, and c) open it in the background so I can, again, come back to it later.

How typical is my “memory” behavior? Pretty common, it appears. A while ago I read this fascinating 2010 research: “A Study of Tabbed Browsing Among Mozilla Firefox Users”, where the researcher Patrick Duboy and his coauthor interviewed 21 browser-users to ask about their tab usage. Many of the subjects talked about using tabs to manage remembering things:

  • “Having the tab open is a reminder to me. […] if it’s at the end of the day or lunch time while I am cracking a sandwich or something and I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to go back and look at that link’ because I see the tab sitting there.”
  • “If I search for something on Google, I just go ‘right-click, rick-click, right-click’—you know, opening all the tabs. And then I would look at them later.”
  • “Usually I find interesting links halfway through the article, and that’s why I like tabs.”
  • “Just a quick little side task, when, you know, I want to come right back to what I was working on.”

I often leave tabs open for days, which again turned out to be a reasonably common behavior:

  • “If it is something I plan to refer back to in the near future, like later that day or the next day, […] sometimes I’ll leave the tab open.”
  • “I will often lose interest in something, and I think I might go back to it, so I will leave the tab open and open a new one. I don’t necessarily always go back to them, but the opportunity is there if I want to.”

One interesting finding: Of all the tabs people opened, 25% were never looked at. People opened them to leave dangling the possibility that they might look at them … but they got around to it before closing the entire browser window.

It also turned out that people flipped between tabs pretty frequently, using them to A/B compare stories or pieces of information. In fact, this was such a common behavior that 71% of the time someone flipped over to a tab, it was a revisitation.

When I look at all this data, and reflect on my own behavior, it reminds me a lot of the ergonomics of paper — and specifically, “pilers” of paper.

A black and white old photo of a man looking at a pile of paper on his desk

Back in the 80s, MIT’s Tom Malone (not the person in the picture above, BTW, that’s just some rando) studied people’s desks and how they dealt with paper documents. He found two types of people: The first group were “filers”, people who filed every document after working with it, because they liked having a clean desk. Then there were “pilers”, who had stuff all over the place and were quite happy with it. You might think that the pilers are just disorganized freaks who never get anything done, but that’s not what the research showed; indeed, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper found in The Myth of the Paperless Office, “pilers” could usually find a document just as fast, or faster, than someone who’d filed it neatly away.

What’s more, the riot of documents in front of “pilers” could be creatively useful. In a terrific 2002 article on “The Social Life of Paper”, Malcolm Gladwell summed this up nicely:

But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that “knowledge workers” use the physical space of the desktop to hold “ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.” The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to “recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay” when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.

In a way, this is what I do with browser tabs. I let them pile up — sometimes for days! But later on I can wind up re-glancing at them and having a memory or idea triggered. Sure, the tabs are chaos, but they can be creative chaos.

I say “can” be, because frankly the ergonomics of browsers are still pretty lousy. Paper strewn around a desk — and an office — has good glanceability. You can often tell what a paper document is with a very quick glimpse. Book spines work the same way: When I pass by my bookshelves a quick glance at a spine reminds me of the contents of a book, which can trigger memories and new ideas.

color coded books on a shelf

Not actually *my* bookshelf. Very pretty, though!

(This is why I recoiled in total horror at the Marie Kondo insistence that one should toss out nearly every book you own, keeping only 30 of them. I have about 1,000 books around my house — mostly nonfiction and poetry — and getting rid of even one feels like I’m lobotomizing myself. I wrote a column for Wired a few months ago detailing my freakedoutness at the Kondo concept.)

But browser tabs aren’t as glanceable as paper, I find. For the last year I’ve been using the Vivaldi browser (which you can see in the screenshot above) in part because it has superb tab-management features, including a control-E quicksearch that lets you refind a tab and zip over to it. That’s great for refinding, but not for idly rummaging your mind’s eye over your open tabs. Frankly, I’ve never seen anyone produce a good browser plug-in that lets one visualize open tabs nicely. I think it’s a problem of the comparatively tiny size of a computer screen. Even a 27-inch monitor is pretty chintzy compared to the real estate of a desk, where you can really spread out documents and look at them. (I seriously doubt I want to work all day long with a VR helmet on, but I was intrigued by a point that Kevin Kelly made in his piece on VR — which is that truly high-rez VR could allow you to view lots of different digital documents, spread out before you, in the way we spread out paper.)

One problem with having tons of tabs open as a memory device is that it can create huge psychological “sunk costs”: I resist closing the browser because, well, hey, there might be something valuable in an as-yet-unviewed tab, and I’ll LOSE IT FOREVER.

But while talking about tab madness on Twitter the other day, Sue Gardner pointed me to One Tab, a supercool browser plugin: When I have 53 tabs open, a single button-press closes them saves them as a single list. Which you can later open up! So now I’ve been using this thing like mad, because it adds a new mnemonic heuristic: I can look at a big huge list of days and days of links, getting jolts of serendipity and remembrance.

Indeed, I don’t keep a diary, but sometimes I think tab history is just as good better. It’s a record of where your mind has been.

“Genius hesitates”

I read Carlo Rovelli’s book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a layperson’s description of the big breakthroughs in modern physics. It’s a blast, but one throwaway comment really struck me.

Rovelli is discussing Einstein’s 1900 paper about photons and light. He quotes what Einstein wrote …

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.

Then Rovelli makes a nifty point …

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial “It seems to me …,” which recalls the “I think … ” with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea of that species evolve, or the “hesistation” spoken of by Farraday when introducing to the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

Genius hesitates. I love that! When we approach a truly enormous idea, of the sort that tilts the world on its axis, we’re not excited and arrogant and confident. We’re unsure; we hesitate. I’ve noticed this in the scientists I interview. The ones who are doing really groundbreaking work are tentative, cautious, almost unsettled by the implications of what they’re saying.

It’s not a bad litmus test for the people around us in everyday life. The ones who are proposing genuinely startling and creative ideas are liable to be … careful about it. It’s the ones with small ideas who are shouting them from the rooftops.

By the way, that notebook of Darwin that Rovelli mentions? It’s online, and here’s the page he talks about. You can see Darwin scribble “I THINK” at the top …
darwin's notebook
The full scan of the page from Rovelli’s book is below the jump if you want to see it …
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