On Browser Tabs

It's always surprised me how little I hear about browsers. Browsers are portals. They allow us to to tend to our internet acreage. A lot happens around new sites and apps on the internet but not much has happened to the browser itself. A common problem I have is how browser tabs work. I have a lot of tabs open all the time and I’m not the only one.

What do tabs represent? Is this a design problem? Is there a neurological basis? These are questions I’ve been thinking about for a while. Some thoughts below.

Browser Tabs

The relationship between windows and tabs is important to highlight. When I use a browser window, it's often to organize a mental space. It houses relevant tabs towards a goal. There are edge cases but when I find myself with dozens of tabs, they usually have some common thread.

Tabs and windows are functions of our internal cognition. As I find new information, I ask more questions creating more tabs. These tabs represents my train of thought as I discover more information.

Many people I know have dozens of windows like this. Tabs so small they can't even see the full title. Keeping these tabs open is a form of externalized working memory. Jumping back in should feel akin to the last time a user was immersed in that window. At some point though, the number of tabs begins to toe the line between externalized memory and information hoarding. The desire to keep tabs open for too long with no end-state is similar to physical hoarding.

I know there are some solutions that "save" tabs. These extensions are designed to snapshot a window and store it. I’ve used these before and find them useful although they still feel very unorganized and stiff. There’s also a significant amount of cognitive load to readjust to all of the information. These solutions address the problem directly but the tab issue is a manifestation of a more “core” issue around organizing goal-driven information consumption. Unpacking the relationship between tabs and cognition may be a step in the right direction.

The tab is also just a wrapper around what’s really important: the content inside it. Maybe it’s a paragraph, a piece of code, or a video vs. everything else that comes with the site. Part of the solution here is rethinking the way we organize the information that we think is relevant on a given site.

The Seeking Circuit

At the cellular level, this type of behavior is heavily influenced by the seeking circuit in the brain. In some sense, the brain is a collection of different neural circuits executing some desired function. Two of the most prominent circuits are the seeking circuit and the reward circuit [1]. The seeking circuit is on the constant look out for any type of reward. It’s what makes us curious about a new idea and drives us to search for it. Once a the seeking circuit finds something that’s rewarding, the reward circuit is activated.

Interestingly enough, the seeking and reward circuits also act on information. The acquisition of information generates reward [2]. Looking for information on the internet activates this circuitry and may be part of the reason why we accumulate so many tabs. As the seeking circuitry seeks, tabs accumulate. An even more important note is the dominance of the seeking circuitry over the reward circuitry [3]. Just because I received a reward doesn’t blunt the desire to continue seeking.

The desire to seek for goal-oriented information is also linked to these circuits. Goal-oriented behavior is mediated by dopamine, a critical neurotransmitter in these circuits [3]. It’s incredibly easy to find some information on the internet (regardless of quality). Because of this fast feedback loop, looking for information is a quick and easy way to hijack the reward pathway.

[1]: https://www.jimhopper.com/topics/brain-healing-and-happiness/key-brain-circuitries/#seeking-circuitry
[2]: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Valuation-of-knowledge-and-ignorance-in-mesolimbic-Charpentier-Bromberg-Martin/130eeb14b2dc857a0aec8beafb05f6b8a6ebe079
[3]: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/capsules/pdf_articles/dopamine.pdf

This was a quick one but something I’ve been noodling on for a couple weeks. I’d love your thoughts or feedback below or on Twitter. Thank you for giving me your time!