Sometime in the last few months it occurred to me that I no longer “surf” the internet. I read, to be sure, and every once in a long while I even go on a spree where I follow links from one site to another (or just in a long trail on Wikipedia). In general, however, I no longer surf. I suspect I am not alone in this: if we took a straw poll I would venture that most of my friends offline and acquaintances online alike spend rather less time in “browsing” mode than they do reading Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Motion from link to link has been replaced by individual hops out onto Buzzfeed or a viral cat picture website.1
The obvious explanation for all of this is already there in what I’ve written: Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of the social media web. To be sure, the advent of social media and the increasing degree to which social media have captured user attention on the web are a significant factor in the end of the old surfing/browsing behavior. This is a dream come true for those social media giants which have found ways to deliver ads to their many millions of users and thereby turn enormous profits.
At the same time, I think there is an oft-overlooked factor in the shifting nature of the web over the last decade: the browser. In fact, if there is any single cause behind the death of old-fashioned surfing, I would point to Firefox 1.0: the browser which popularized tabbed browsing to increasingly large sections of the internet-using public.2 The open-source browser steadily ate away at Internet Explorer’s then absurd levels of dominance, until Internet Explorer 8 included of tabs itself. By the time that Chrome came on the scene, tabbed browsing had long since become a given.
So why do I think that tabbed browsing of all things contributed to the end of “browsing” and “surfing” as our dominant mode of reading the internet? Simply put: it broke linearity. Previously,3 one’s experience of the web was single- stranded, leaping from one point to another in a line that however contorted was always connected by the forward and backward buttons on the browser. The moment tabbed browsing came on the scene, that line was broken. Following a link might mean it opened in a new tab instead of moving the whole view forward to it.
Surfing as I remember it in the late ’90s and early ’00s was inherently the experience of getting lost along that timeline, finding myself dozens of links along the chain and wondering how I had ended up there, and then being able to trace my way back. With tabs, that traceability was gone. With it went the inherent tension that we faced with every link: to follow, or not? To get sucked down into this vortex or that? Because in all likelihood, we knew, we were not going to be coming back to this page. With tabs, though, I could open both of those pages without ever leaving this one. I could start new journeys without ending the old. But there was a hidden cost: that newly opened tab had no history. It was a clean slate; before that newly opened link there was only a blank page. If I closed the original from which I had opened it, there was no going back.4 If I closed this new tabs, there was no going forward to them. The line was broken.
From there it was only a short step to the idea of a single site being the center from which one ventured out to other points on the web before returning: the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. In some sense, Facebook’s entire model is predicated on the idea that it is natural to open a new tab with that juicy Buzzfeed content while keeping Facebook itself open in a background tab. Would it work in that old linear model? Sort of. Would it feel natural? Never.
All of this because of tabs. Invention’s most significant results are rarely those the minds behind it expect. When we are designing things—whether a piece of furniture or a piece of the web—we have to remember that design decisions all have repercussions that we may not see. Technology is never neutral. Particular innovations may or may not be morally significant, but they always produce changes in people’s behavior. Design has consequences.
For the record, lots of that hopping from link to link was on Buzzfeed- like and viral-cat-picture-like sites, too. I am not concerned with the kind of content being read here, so much as the way it is being read.↩
Note that I am not crediting Firefox 1.0 with creating the tabbed browser—only with popularizing it. That distinction matters.↩
Excepting having multiple browser windows open, which I am sure people did—but to a much lesser extent.↩
Yes, yes, browser history and re-open closed tab commands. But the experience of those is different, and that’s what we’re talking about here.↩