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Why Closing Tabs is So Hard

Thursday July 22, 2021

A lot of people act as if keeping a lot of web browser tabs open is sloppy behavior. Or at the very least, amusing behavior. I don’t blame them; it’s become a bit of a cultural meme.

In the Google Chrome browser, you’ll see a laughing face icon if you open 100 tabs or more.

What’s a Tab, Really?

Personally I think this laughing face is a visual representation of a problem with the way we think about tabs.

Or: The way we don’t think about them.

To a lot of people, open tabs are “interesting stuff” maybe, or “stuff I forgot about”. The tabs themselves? Just tools. Memory-hogging tools even.

Our fears easily take over, and tell us they’re all clutter.

“Oh no, I’m some kind of data hoarder!” We reach for our most disastrous-sounding fear words.

Opening Tabs is Productive Effort, Even if You Think it’s Lazy

But: I’m here to tell you that opening tabs is work. And I think our minds recognize that—subconsciously, if not consciously.

Quite often, opening a tab is the result of research effort. For example, finding a book you read a long time ago, after finally remembering the title, or something other than the color of the cover.

Even if this is a comic book, or a children’s book, your subconscious mind may know its value better than you do. And the processes you used to find it may have been the same mental processes you use as part of your work day!

A new tab can also represent organizational work. Maybe it’s a workspace, like your favorite online code editor, mailbox, or the set of websites you need to review before you start your upcoming training.

Plus, a new tab can represent super-important progress on a big project that you know you’ll tend to put off again if you close the tab.

In this case, the tab that stays open does so because of analytical effort on your part. You analyzed your own behavior and kept the tab open based on probabilistic outcomes. Go you!

Tabs are Milestones

In some ways I think you could call tabs milestones and you’d have a better idea of what tabs represent, and why they are so hard to close.

Milestones involve positive emotion. They represent a path forward for you. Maybe that path forward involves re-reading that book you enjoyed, and getting your enjoyable lifestyle back into gear. Or maybe it involves completing the training that will surely lead to a promotion at work.

Keeping the tab open is important symbolically at the very least—the already opened tab is a symbol of part of you that is open, improving your life, or loving life, or seeing things in a new light.

A long strip of happy milestones along the top of a browser is, then, more like an accomplishment.

I think we should be proud of our tabs in a lot of cases. And browsers should help support this constructive practice and emotion. A laughing face doesn’t really help, and it may even hurt!

Tabs are Tombstones

After a while, the milestones often turn into symbolic tombstones. The act of closing the tab represents death—but it’s more like death due to giving up, than death due to natural causes.

Tombstone tabs involve negative emotion. Do we need more negative emotion in our lives? Do you? I don’t. Maybe this is why my tabs stay open longer.

The act of “closing tabs” can quickly become something like a mass-funeral. Sometimes we do the work to try to save tabs from this death.

Many of us have used third-party software or browser extensions to preserve the tabs we have open, and transition them to a specially-designated database of our own, for example.

Why do we try to preserve the tabs? Because open tabs are milestones along a longer journey, maybe. A journey that we don’t want to end. Likely for good reason.

So of course, this process is painful and it’s no wonder we put it off.

Preserving What’s Happy, Avoiding What’s Sad

With the tabs themselves representing THIS much sunk cost and emotional content…is it any wonder we humans can rack up so many open tabs, and feel so avoidant about closing them?

I think it’s only natural to find that tabs add up over time, even when we are constructively focused, and despite any fears about a loss of attention span.

This tab stuff is work! It’s progress! We all want to keep our happy progress, and prevent tab death.

Maybe more browsers could help us out with that part.

The browser can have its tabs back, but I want to keep my progress.

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