The twisted psychology of browser tabs—and why we can’t get rid of them


At this very moment, I have 63 tabs open across five different browser windows.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because most of us have a tab problem. New research out of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) found that 55% of people surveyed had trouble closing tabs, not because they couldn’t find the tiny X to click and close them, but because those tabs contain information they might need or want. That leads 30% of people to report having a “tab hoarding problem.” And a quarter of people said that their endless tabs were causing actual problems by crashing or slowing their computers.

“Some of them almost liked when [their computers crashed] because they could claim tab bankruptcy,” says Aniket Kittur, a professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon. “[It offered] a plausible deniability to their future self for this happening!”

Tabs are broken. But fixing them is no simple matter either. Because we are actually strongly emotionally attached to the tab.

[Illustration: FC]

Just why are we using tabs anyway?

The invention of the modern tabbed browser can be traced back to 1998, when the Pasadena software developer Adam Stiles published SimulBrowse. It was the world’s first tabbed web browser. That meant, instead of forcing users to open more and more windows when surfing the web, it stuck new pages into little gray tabs at the bottom.

It took a few years, but the idea caught on—first and notably with Mozilla (makers of Firefox) in 2002, then with everyone else. That’s because tabs were a lifesaver when exploring the ever-widening web. Tabs let us look at more of the internet at once. They let us perform multiple searches on one topic, without losing vital information along the way. They let our minds wander from one topic to another, with each tab serving as a little anchor or signpost to where we’ve been.

“If you think about it, Google does a good job giving us thousands of search results,” says Kittur. “But that entire process after search results is being done pretty much entirely in our heads. If you think about how we’re managing that, we’re using tabs to do that, almost exclusively.” In other words, tabs assist in building our mental model for the internet into something our brains can synthesize.

[Illustration: FC]

As Kittur argues, tabs haven’t significantly evolved in decades. But now we have an internet that is literally a billion times bigger than it was about 20 years ago, that now requires a trillion human hours a year (10% of all labor) to make sense of. And tabs are the de facto tool to organizing all of that.

To get a better view of how and why we use tabs, CMU researchers followed the browsing habits of 10 people for two weeks. They conducted deep interviews, in which subjects listed off their tabs and explained why they were still open, and what it would take for them to be closed. After that, the researchers conducted online surveys with 103 more people about their tab habits.

Kittur’s team discovered all sorts of common, repeated reasons that people couldn’t close their tabs. They needed tabs to lighten their mental load, to serve as a digital memory. They needed some information for quick reference again and again. But the largest common takeaway came down to a phenomenon core to human psychology, and one that sums up my own reluctance to close a tab (and probably yours, too).

“People are attached to tabs because they view them as opportunities,” says Kittur. “They’re kind of like opportunities for a better life: gathering more knowledge, getting a better job, becoming enlightened. People are queuing up these things and hoping to get to them because no one likes to lose out on opportunities.” And when you close a tab that you’ve yet to consume, that opportunity seems lost forever.

[Illustration: FC]

Is there a solution to tabs?

Tabs are doing a poor job of scaling to our needs, and frankly, no one needed research to prove that (though it’s certainly vindicating!). The question arising out of Kittur’s work is, if not tabs, then what?

The industry is trying to answer this question already. Google recently added the option to group tabs together in Chrome, so you could combine many links into a single container. Microsoft has changed the presentation of tabs in Edge, opting for a vertical list instead of an infinite, sideways scroll; and OneTab has tried something similar.

Of course, these approaches don’t solve tabs. They just present tabs differently. Organizing tabs can mean just burying them a bit, feeding into the very anxiety of giving up on a tab. “It’s sort of like you have a leaky boat, and it’s like, ‘Let’s make the boat a little bigger!’ as opposed to solving the problem,” says Kittur.

He argues that the technology industry needs to rethink the tab itself, not as a one-size-fits-all solution for any type of browsing you’re doing. The way you want to save a funny YouTube clip for later is fundamentally different than the way you need to process five medical journal articles to figure out what that red rash on your arm could be.

“We need tools where we can offload our brains in a way that captures the rich structure inside of them . . . and allows you to move beyond these units of information,” says Kittur. “Why is it I need to open six tabs and keep them all open for a restaurant I’m thinking of going to? Because one has the menu, the other the Instagram photos, the other the reviews. Shouldn’t there be a way to collect that all together?”

By “this way” to collect information, Kittur doesn’t just mean grouped tabs. He means we need something richer, that we should be collecting information by “task” or another word he brings up again and again, “context.” And furthermore, we need better ways to surface tabs that are just something you want to read later, to avoid that black hole effect that makes us so scared to close tabs in the first place. (Yes, apps such as Pocket are an option for link saving, while Pinterest has tried to solve this issue visually too. But no one has cracked the code to universally fixing tabs.)

In response, Kittur’s team is developing its own Chrome browser extension, called Skeema (you can sign up to try the beta here). It’s reminiscent of work- and list-tracking software such as Todoist. Skeema tracks all of the tabs you have open, and it allows you to assign them to a loose “holding tank” or to group them into specific tasks—tasks that you can even link to a date and time to meet deadlines.

[Image: courtesy Carnegie Mellon University]

Kittur says that in early testing with a dozen users, 75% chose to keep using Skeema daily two months later. Trying it for myself for a day, I found it completely overwhelming. Every time I opened a new tab, there was Skeema! It was staring me in the face with not just one, but all my unread tabs and undone jobs—so much so that I began bracing for impact every time I opened a new tab. I dreaded browsing the internet.

[Image: courtesy Carnegie Mellon University]

The UI itself is also quite a heavy lift to get used to. It mixes all sorts of groupings and scheduling/priority options. It certainly goes deep, but I found that depth overwhelming compared to the simple sensation of opening or ignoring a tab. There are likely some good ideas in Skeema, but even if the software works, two decades of a tab addiction are tough to break.

[Image: courtesy Carnegie Mellon University]

Kittur agrees about some of the project’s shortcomings and views it as active research rather than the final solution to tabs. He notes the challenges of decreasing tab anxiety and the opportunity in resurfacing those old interesting tabs in novel ways beyond building the equivalent of a Netflix queue to be stored and ignored.

The team has tested displaying a random saved story for people to read next. Kittur also suggests that surprising you with Skeema’s saved stories in your Facebook feed or other, more natural places to bump into them holds a lot of promise. I agree. If I could somehow send my unread tabs to my Google News feed on my phone? Sign me up.

Ultimately, though, Kittur views tabs as one of the deepest problems of our age—and one that, if we can solve it, could offer a huge upside to humanity. He suggests that a tab organizer could push beyond Google search. As you search on any topic, your tabs ultimately become a depository of knowledge. If we could find a way to leverage and share, not just links, but these larger resource lists and the methodologies in building them, it would mean that we wouldn’t each need to be our own personal researchers working in our own bubbles.

“Can we capture some of that work, make it useful, so everyone doesn’t have to start from scratch every time?” asks Kittur. “That’s the long game we’re trying to play here. What if we could capture that, aggregated in a privacy-sensitive way, and kick off a virtuous cycle of knowledge acceleration? So every time someone does something [online], it gets better.”