Tabbed browsing: a worrying double-edged sword


I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to tabbed browsing. Ever since I first started using Mozilla Firefox (and Safari after that) I’ve been steadily increasing the average number of tabs open in my browser. I’ll have stacks of webpages waiting along the top of my window: YouTube videos, blog posts, Wikipedia articles. No big deal, right? Well, I’ve noticed that keeping all these tabs running is having a slightly frightening impact on my behaviour – my attention span is being whittled away to nothing.

Today on Professionally Incoherent, I’m going to explain why tabbed browsing is at once increasing our online productivity and fragmenting our already fragile concentration. Hit the jump for more – just be sure to read it to the end before you close this tab!

I can’t exactly remember when I first started using tabs – five or six years ago, at least. Even then, I usually only kept two tabs open at once –just enough to allow a smoother browsing experience. But now, it’s nothing for me to have six or seven tabs all going at once – sometimes more. I can remember a few weeks ago when I was exploring the articles on the TARDIS Index File, the Doctor Who wiki, and I had so many tabs open (10 or 11) that they were all displaying the little circular “Connecting” animation as they jostled for bandwidth.

Obviously, tabbed browsing was a great software innovation, being adopted by the majority of Internet users in the late 1990s-early 2000s. If it weren’t for tabs, composing this blog would be an immensely annoying experience: generally when I write, I have tabs for my Wordpress dashboard and Facebook, and two or three that I use for research and pulling up the URLs I need for the links in my posts. Without tabs, I would either have to open a number of RAM-consuming iterations of my browser, or be constantly navigating between pages. I find myself asking how I even managed before tabs.

The boost in productivity offered by tabbed browsing does have an unfortunate side effect. By keeping all these pages open, I find that my attention span is split up over all the content. I move interesting links from one page onto tabs, and the number of tabs steadily amplifies as I succumb to “Wikipedia syndrome”: the compulsion to jump from link to link in an effort to find out more about all the inter-connected bits of information.

Eventually, I have a browser-crippling number of tabs piled up, and then I have to “purge” them by whizzing through the content on each one – not really absorbing it but skimming the contents so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something. I even find that I’m watching the time counter on YouTube videos, to see how long it will take to finish watching the current one before I can move on to all the other fun ones waiting in the “Related” column or in my Subscriptions queue.

It seems like this is an unavoidable consequence of the exponentially increasing amounts of media available online, whether it’s text, images, music or video. I increasingly feel that in order to take it all in, you have to make use of crazy numbers of tabs just to keep up on all the compelling material you want to take in during a “browsing session” (Ugh. Such a clinical way to describe using the Internet). Sometimes (this is one of the scarier things I’ve noticed) I even start to feel a bit tired after clearing a line-up of tabs, as if I’ve been doing some kind of tedious office work. To me, it’s disconcerting if an experience meant to expand my mind or entertain me is starting to feel like drudgery.

As I said at the start of article, I’m addicted to tabs. I don’t think I’d be able to go back to single-page browsing – I’d probably fall apart. The concept of not being able to take in all that content at my current pace – brrr, I shiver at the thought (I’m not even being sarcastic). In fact, the miracle of tabs is even starting to affect my life outside the Internet. Now, when I’m reading a book or a newspaper, I find that I don’t have the attention span that I used to. For example, I recently started re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring (remember, I’m a hard-core fan) and I was disappointed to find that I couldn’t manage the same multi-hour reading stretches I was capable of several years ago.

I have a similar experience with newspapers (yes, I still read the hard copies). While I was reading today’s Globe and Mail, I found that I would rarely finish an article completely; I would skim pieces and gravitate to the short, magazine-style blurbs instead of tackling a multi-page spread. It was like the tabbed browsing of newspaper reading: trying to double or triple the amount of information I process at once. The Internet has officially started to shape my offline reading – and I might end up liking it!

What do you think about the effects of tabbed browsing? Am I merely an overreacting Luddite? Is there something to be said for our fragmenting focus, and is the way we use Internet to blame? Take a few seconds out of your busy browsing and leave your comments below! Tomorrow on the blog, I’ll be reviewing tonight’s episode of Doctor Who, which was written by Neil Gaiman (Whee!) – check back for that!