Death by 1,000 Tabs: Confessions of a Tab Hoarder

New Year’s Day: a time for renewal. A time to start with a clean slate. I’m not one for resolutions, but I do take the time to clean up a bit: wipe down that grimy phone, dust off the monitor, and do some digital purging of unused apps, deleting history, that sort of thing. This year though, in a fit of sudden bravery, I did something I haven’t done in years, maybe forever. Something that causes me great anxiety.

I closed my browser tabs. All 1,314 of them. There’s no denying it: I’m a tab hoarder.

How did I get to this point? Not the closing, that was more an act (crime?) of passion than cold-blooded calculation. No, how did I end up with a dozen browser windows with ever scrolling tabs, spread across 4 devices? And will this really be part of a change to a life of, if not minimalism, than at least digital sanity? Is that what I even want?

My tab hoarding started around the turn of the millennium, when I was but a young college student discovering a little browser called Phoenix (later to become Firefox). The idea of having multiple sites open at the same time was amazing, and coupled with things like ad-blocking extensions, it was exactly the right time to be coming of age with the internet.

I started opening up new tabs: Here’s a cool story to read later; oh that’s a neat program to download; hey, it’s some advice about how to not procrastinate…and on and on and on. My precious tabs all looked interesting or useful or weird at some point. I just didn’t have time to look at them right away, or perhaps ever as it turns out. Looking back, all I’ve done is just open more and more, got more devices to open up more browsers on, always going to the limit of what my computers thought they were capable of. I got more RAM. A better CPU. And the main thing I would do with my upgraded computer? Open more tabs.

My computer would crash. I can still feel that sudden catch of breath, that sinking feeling when I think it could all be gone. All that information, I was saving it for just the right time, a modern retelling of that classic Twilight Zone episode.

I would not be deterred. More technology was the answer, not self-restraint.

I tried all sorts of browser extensions that would save open tabs and restore them, back them up, any type of insurance policy for my collection of websites. Sometimes I would make a massive list of bookmarks, and then look into making sure that got backed up or synced to other computers. Still, I lost tabs from time to time. Surely they were amazing websites or articles, lost to me forever in my thirst for more.

For a while I even had a good routine while I was living in Tokyo. Before I left for work I would skim through my feeds of frequently-read websites, discarding what wasn’t interesting and saving the rest. I could then read these on my tablet without an internet connection on the train. My feed list was near zero, my read-it-later list quickly dwindled, I was even finishing a book every few weeks. I was on top of my information diet.

It all came crashing down when I moved back to the US. The lack of good public transportation has yet another downside. There is no reading while driving, and my enjoyable commutes by bike or foot also didn’t give me opportunities to read. Things quickly spiraled from there. Combined with the ever increasing amount of content out there, it wasn’t long before I became buried in tabs. Sometimes I would organize tabs into windows or try to make some order out of the chaos by dedicating an entire browser to a specific type of tab. It never really took.

I didn’t realize how out of control it was until seeing my brother diligently working with just a handful of tabs. I couldn’t understand it. Then I showed him how I lived, poor guy nearly collapsed from the stress of seeing me scrolling on and on through all my tabs. And that was just one window.

That is how I lived. It has gotten easier to be a tab hoarder. Browsers work better, they seem to embrace the lifestyle of people like me, asking to restore tabs when you re-open (even after a crash), keeping those tabs from hogging up resources until you are ready for them.

No more forced blank slates. I’ve kept my computers for longer too, and new devices simply sync up with where you left off.

Why do we do this? I know I’m not alone. I’m probably in the majority, if a bit on the extreme end. (I laugh when I see these articles about having “many” tabs open, “dozens.” Please, that’s not a knife.) There are several possible reasons we do this, which are familiar to any tab hoarder:

  1. Digital FOMO: Clearly I suffer from this, after all I use a feed reader to make sure I don’t miss a single story from some of my favorite websites. 
  2. Procrastination: It is easy to click on a bunch of links, and to feel productive while doing so. But often I never ended up reading them.
  3. The messy desk: Our computers are our new desks—instead of having stacks of papers and books everywhere, it is files filling the desktop and browsers with half the internet open on them. In other words, it is a problem of information management.
  4. Because we can: Just like we will pack to fill up whatever suitcase we choose, many of us are just wired to fill up whatever there is to fill up. As the inventor of browser tabs himself, Adam Stiles, said, “perhaps it gives some people too much freedom.”

And then there were none.

I closed them all on New Year’s Day, and so far have managed with just a few. I open what I need for what I am doing, and then close them. Novel, I know. I think it is easier right now because I have so few. Each one is significant in a way it can’t be if it is one of a thousand. There is now an aesthetic to keep, a sense of order to maintain.

I am liberated. Free of the baggage of all those things I was going to do, read, learn about. I declared tab bankruptcy. I’ve let go, accepted that there is a never-ending and overwhelming torrent of information in our online world.

I am also lost. A blank slate is intimidating. I also know that I’m just a few clicks away from letting it all unravel again, from the dam breaking. There used to be the comforts of those old tabs waiting for me, the things I took time to find and open, that I knew I’d get to one day. Gone.

Are there benefits to this lifestyle? Maybe? My computer feels a bit snappier possibly, but that could be in my head. I think a bit more about what I open: am I going to use this right now? Should I save this somewhere for later? I don’t think I want to adopt any strict rules and limits. That feels like a poor proxy for control, avoiding the issue of why I feel the urge to open tabs, what is truly valuable to read, and how to spend my time. I dipped a tiny bit into my old read-it-later list, which I’ve mostly not added to in the last few years.

It has 2,537 items.

But at least those tabs are gone, right? Well, not quite, I must confess. Before I closed them, I bookmarked them in a bunch of folders. They are there with the other times I’ve had to save some tabs, as an unorganized mess. The name of that top folder, where I hide my shame?

“Temp,” of course. There’s a Greek proverb my father once told me: nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

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