Whatever the inventors intended us to do with tabs, they probably couldn’t have imagined how emotionally attached to our tabs we would become. A recent study examining internet tab usage found that 25 percent of respondents experienced crashing browsers multiple times a week because they had so many tabs open at the same time. You may even be reading this right now on what feels like your zillionth tab.
When I sit down at my computer, the first thing I do is open my browser and see all my tabs lined up neatly for me. It feels soothing, as if I’m shrinking the infinitely vast internet into a familiar neighborhood. I go in looking for directions to the Korean restaurant my friend wants to try, and the next thing I know I’ve clicked on another tab and I’m looking at concert tickets for an indie-rock band from the early aughts that is touring again. Sometimes I click through my tabs just to remind myself what’s there. Oh, right — you, old friend!
I let my tabs build up until they are tiny little squares squished together and their identifying logos are almost too small to make out. I open a new window only when I want to separate a group of related tabs to keep myself focused. That’s rare, though — I prefer working among the chaos of all my tabs, where my method to the madness is that I know (mostly) where everything is. I’ll often spend hours on the internet and not close a single tab before I shut my laptop. To close a tab means to celebrate a mission accomplished, or saying goodbye to a desire I’ve outgrown or an opportunity I’ve let expire.
Some people get stressed out by too many tabs. They have a valid point: Science has proved again and again that multitasking reduces productivity. It’s distracting to have little winking reminders of everything else you’d rather be looking at than the task at hand. At this point, though, tabs feel like an extension of myself. If my computer suffers a surprise restart, the first thing I do when it boots back up is click “Restore All Tabs.” For a split second, I wonder anxiously if they’re gone forever — along with all that time I spent curating my personal internet, and all those valuable, if forgettable, web pages lost to the void of cyberspace. Once they’re gone, I won’t be able to find them again. They are little parts of me — my desires, memories, goals — that I’m scared to forget. But they usually reload, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Maybe a part of me longs for the pre-social-media days of Web 2.0: the delightfully random StumbleUpon, chat rooms and the strange and surprising Reddit that I used in high school. In my head, exploring the internet via a browser creates a more concrete experience than scrolling through platforms like X or Instagram, where algorithmically tailored content yields paradoxically impersonal results. Of course, that algorithmic infrastructure powers everything about our online experience today. But I cherish my tabs because they remind me of a simpler time and give me a sense of control and ownership. They make me feel like there are tiny pieces of the web that are mine. Would you scroll through a friend’s browser tabs without permission? Probably not — it’s as much a violation of privacy as looking through a friend’s journal. After all, few things are more personal than the things we admit only to our search bar.