The organized chaos of my web browser

Why are there so many tabs open on my web browser? When I’m researching a project, which I almost always am, I leave a lot of tabs open. Some of these tabs may remain open for weeks. This has been a source of extreme aggravation to people who have tried to work off my laptop through the years, or have simply looked over my shoulder and observed all the different little grey boxes stretching across the screen. Unfortunately for the blood pressures of these poor people, I will henceforth use that question as an opportunity to share my cognitive process.

(Screenshot of my browser. You can count nine different tabs in this picture, but I promise there are at least three more)

My web browser is not a mess, it’s distributed cognition

Whether I’m using Safari, Chrome, or Firefox, my browser is one of the tools I rely upon most. At this very moment, I have a tab for listening to music, four different email accounts, a library catalog search, class readings, and my notes on those readings.

“Surely,” argue people who care about my mental health, “you could at least close the email accounts. Pop-up notifications will let you know if you get a new message.” This is true, but that’s not why I leave the emails open. Each email has different responsibilities associated with it and tasks that need to be accomplished. Keeping these open, reminds me that I need to go into them later and make sure that I have completed those tasks. If I do, I get to close a tab. In this way, I’ve offloaded the organization of my responsibilities to the web browser so I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything important. I’m using the space and layout of my browser as a memory aid and an organizational tool. My multitudinous browser tabs are an example of distributed cognition, where “work materials become integrated into the way people think, see, and control activities, part of the distributed system of cognitive control.” (1)

Like my email accounts, my tabs of articles shouldn’t have to remain open once I’ve read them, but having them there, since I don’t have printed copies, helps me to remember with a quick glance at their titles what each piece was about so that I can consult them quickly if needed. The not having printed copies part of this is key. I’ve remediated what was once a desk covered in stacks of papers, notebooks, and actual books into a “stack” of tabs. The “stack” simply moves horizontally across my screen instead of vertically. I’m focusing on this behaviour because, like Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsch’s example of the use of the airspeed indicator by pilots, I’m using these tabs in a way that was not necessarily intended from a system design. (2)  Norman writes, there is “the system view and the personal view,” which are different, when looking at cognitive artefacts. (3) From a system standpoint, the tabs were constructed to allow users the ability to visit a new webpage without having to leave the page they were currently on. Rather than a new window, the tab function allowed for easier navigation between different places on the internet, as the names of the pages remained at the top of screen. Referred to as tabs, this design was meant to replicate the experience of consulting neatly labeled file folders. To follow through the metaphor, things placed into a physical file folders are usually then placed in a drawer, or stored out of sight, as they are no longer in immediate use. FIle folders aren’t intended to be left in piles on a desk. By leaving, what some might call an excessive number of tabs open, I have also remediated a messy desk. No wonder many people find this stressful.

With this knowledge in mind, what would be a “neater” way for me to keep track of everything I’m working on. I don’t want to close the tabs and make it more difficult to navigate back to the right spot in the future. I don’t want to bookmark everything this would lead to an excessive number of bookmarks and a new place of mess and confusion. Maybe what I need is a virtual stack into which I can drag and drop my active webpages, keeping my main workspace “clean.” Until I find that software, I will likely continue to let my browser tabs accumulate.


(1) James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 178.

(2) James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 180.

(3) Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, ed. John M. Carroll, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 17.