Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Tabbed Revolution

I distinctly remember the first time I used tabbed browsing. (Which is kind of sad considering that I don't remember my first day of college or my first time to drive a car). Anyway, the first time I used tabbed browsing was before I had thoroughly embraced the Internet lifestyle. I used the Internet, daily even, but it was not yet the central tool and space of my productivity. I certainly didn't, at that point, spend countless hours reading and writing and thinking about the Internet. So all I thought about the tabbing capability of my newly downloaded Firefox was, that's kind of cool. I also learned the Ctrl+T shortcut because that too was kind of cool.

Now, however, I do spend countless hours, and earn my keep, reading and writing and thinking about the Internet. Mainly I try to think about which features and uses are a big deal for society and what they could mean. But I have never run across anything so simple, and yet transformative, as tabbed browsing.

The Web is hyperlinks. What do you do on the Web? You follow hyperlinks. That is browsing. Before tabbed browsing, you started on your homepage, and to follow a link you either left the previous page behind, or opened a whole new window. Since it is clunky to have lots of windows open at once, browsing becomes essentially linear. You go from one site to a next to a next in a linear succession. You can "go back," of course, but doesn't even that phrase indicate an underlying linearity?

The Web is also a web. Its hyperlinks are not linear, and to traverse them that way is to grossly underutilize the Web's potential. With tabbed browsing, we are closer to browsing the webbed Web. You can leave one site open while opening up several of its links, and follow all sorts of paths and shapes and branches in all sorts of orders. (IE8 even color codes groups of tabs.) In the networked information economy, I can't imagine working any other way. With tabs it is so much easier to cross reference, to follow several trains of thought without having to remember to go back, to sample so much more with so much more flexibility. These days I'm hardly working if I don't have three windows, each with six tabs open.

Academic publishing is really a web too, when you think of all the links of people referencing each other. So if you're doing a literature review or reading about some topic in an online journal, tabbed browsing makes it so much more effective. Knowledge itself, even, is a web, and so also, I'm told, are our brains. Tabbed browsing allows us to conceptualize and internalize the Web as a web, rather than just a digital version of the more linear media we used before the Internet.

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