Whenever my computerfreezes and shuts down, I’m not surprised. I have a tab problem. As I’m writing this, I currently have 72 browser tabs open: my email, my calendar, the dinner menu of the restaurant where I’m meeting a friend tonight, directions for how to get there, an order confirmation for a refill of Sonicare toothbrush heads, my local yoga studio’s weekly schedule, medical claims forms, Ina Garten’s lemon orzo recipe to make this weekend. My phone, meanwhile, has no fewer than 263 open tabs.
These tabs reflect what’s on my mind. They contain my agenda and provide answers to the mundane questions that demand my attention (“How tall is Paul Giamatti?” “Are wine glasses dishwasher safe?”). Some of them — long-form articles I’ve been meaning to read, skin-care products I can’t afford, an eight-session pottery class that I swear I’ll take when I have the time, trailers for movies I’ll never have time to see, the Wikipedia entries for dog breeds I don’t own (but would like to), shoes I probably won’t buy but am considering because they are (or, more likely, were) on sale — tell a story about the kind of person I aspire to be. Some are reminders of things I don’t want to forget, like the real estate listing for the Sheepshead Bay apartment my grandma grew up in, or parking tickets I need to pay.
Browser tabs have been around since the 1990s. Their creation is credited both to a firm called BookLink Technologies, which created a tabbed browser called InternetWorks in 1994, and a software developer named Adam Stiles, who in 1998 released a separate browser called SimulBrowse. Stiles was initially inspired to design tabs when he was using an HTML editor that allowed him to flip between documents. He wanted the same intuitive capability on his web browser. The convenience and organizational benefits of having all your web pages collected with the ability to toggle among them became obvious, and by the 2000s, tabbed-browsing was the standard.
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.
Ali Jaffe Ramis is a segment producer at “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”