Browser tabs: the first wave of the new digital clutter

While digital is slowly freeing us from physical clutter, digital clutter is rising to replace it.

One of the reasons I love digital is that it is slowly freeing me from the digital clutter of books, CDs, DVDs, negatives and other things that have become digital. But that doesn’t mean that new forms of digital clutter aren’t arising:

Sure, all those browser tabs don’t actually require physical storage space. But they intrude on my computer every bit as much as physical clutter intrudes on my home. Every window is another window to flip through as I go looking for the web form I had half-completed before my last phone call. Every tab is a nagging claim on my attention, however minute. I’m often running so many browser tabs that I can’t actually find the tab I’m returning to, and have to open yet another Facebook or Gmail tab. And then I have the audacity to complain because my computer’s too slow.

I’m actually afraid to look at my Safari tabs right now – there’s a couple of dozen open on my MacBook Pro, and probably a smiler amount on my iPad. And, as John Gruber points out, Safari is particularly bad for usability with high numbers of tabs:

Once Safari gets to a dozen or so tabs in a window, the left-most tabs are literally unidentifiable because they don’t even show a single character of the tab title. They’re just blank. I, as a decade-plus-long dedicated Safari user, am jealous of the usability and visual clarity of Chrome with a dozen or more tabs open. And I can see why dedicated Chrome users would consider Safari’s tab design a non-starter to switching.

Two levels of digital failure

This feels like two levels of failure: it’s a user experience design failure, as browser designers have failed to take account of these behaviours.

Samuel again:

If, hypothetically speaking, I were to have three browser windows and a total of 37 tabs’ worth of tankini swimsuits open on my desktop, that’s not hoarding: it’s my browser’s fault for failing to make all those tankinis re-findable, retainable, and well-organized.

But it’s also a failure of us to find find ways of storing this information — or acting on it — in ways that make sense. Trying to too too much with browser tabs cripples all three uses:

I can’t find or re-find anything, because I have too many tabs open (though my Chrome browser history can sometimes reveal what I’m seeking). I can’t actually keep stuff in my browser, because half the time I quit or crash my browser before bookmarking or saving the articles I want to keep. As for organizing and managing: all too often it seems like my browser tab have become what I’m trying to manage (with an ever-growing series of bookmarking tools and tab managers) rather than the thing that is helping me to organize and manage my life or work.

Sometimes solving one problem — physical clutter — opens up more for us. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue solving them. Browser tabs haven’t changed much for a decade now. Something needs to happen.