I come from a long line of hoarders. When my grandmother died, we found an entire closet full of the nice, string-handled department store shopping bags she could never bear to throw out. Another closet contained piles of sketches belonging to her father, who apparently wasn’t so great at throwing stuff out, either. And in a chest, we found his grandfather’s collection of newspaper clippings. Had it been 150 years since anyone in my family tossed so much as a scrap of paper?
I blame these ancestral packrats for my tendency to hold onto anything that might one day be remotely useful. In my house you can find drawers full of fabric for sewing projects that may never be completed (or started). I have four binders’ worth of theater programs, and a bin full of programs that don’t fit in the binders. The bottles and tubes on my bathroom shelves could convincingly double for the curly hair product aisle at CVS. And somewhere around here is a file box filed with every single paper I wrote in college. (Somewhere being the most accurate location I can offer.)
Digital World Clutter
The digital world was supposed to save us from all that clutter. Instead of a physical pile of diaries and scrapbooks, I have Facebook and Instagram. Instead of stocking up on craft supplies, I can order what I need when I need it—confident of next-day delivery. Actually, scratch that: with 3D printers getting cheaper and cheaper, I’m supposed to print what I need.
It hasn’t worked out that way, however. My office contains a banker’s box full of hard drives that are too old or small to be useful, but which I’m afraid to erase and give away in case I’ve forgotten to back up every single file. A cabinet in my living room contains cases for every model of iPhone that Apple has released in the past decade….in case Apple starts making smaller phones again? Then there’s the cupboard full of meticulously sorted and labeled computer cables, which only rarely yields the specific type of cable I’m looking for in any given situation. Last but not least is my home media server, where I keep all my favorite shows, both watched and unwatched. I justify this compulsion with the possibility that I will one day be forced to eke out a post-apocalyptic survival by trading files for food. Far from liberating us from clutter, the digital world has merely added new categories of detritus.
Nowhere is that peril clearer than in the essential, ubiquitous web browser. Like many computer users, I am in and out of my web browser all day, skipping from site to site and task to task. In one Chrome window, I’ve got tabs open to my three latest Facebook conversations, plus a few open links that Facebook friends recommended. Three other windows hold various shopping carts, with open tabs for each item I’m currently debating. I’ve got windows open for Twitter and Slack, Gmail and iCloud, ShopStyle and Pinterest. Yet another window holds a dozen JSTOR articles I’m working through for this very article. All of that is before I look at Safari, where I’ve been running a few different windows, just to get away from the Chrome clutter.
Sure, all those browser tabs don’t actually require physical storage space. But they intrude on my computer every bit as much as physical clutter intrudes on my home. Every window is another window to flip through as I go looking for the web form I had half-completed before my last phone call. Every tab is a nagging claim on my attention, however minute. I’m often running so many browser tabs that I can’t actually find the tab I’m returning to, and have to open yet another Facebook or Gmail tab. And then I have the audacity to complain because my computer’s too slow.
If I fear that my productivity is being crushed by a sea of browser tabs, it could be worse. Scott Herring opens his history of hoarding with this harrowing tale:
With a front-page headline heralding “Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse, Found Dead at 70,” the New York Times reported on 22 March 1947, that “the circumstances surrounding the death of 70-year-old Homer, blind as the poet he was named for, were as mysterious as the life the two eccentric brothers lived on the unfashionable upper reaches of Fifth Avenue, in the middle of Harlem.” Tipped by an anonymous phone caller the day before, police found ColIyer’s emaciated corpse in his Harlem brownstone located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Days later, officers discovered the rotting body of his brother, Langley, lying several feet from where Homer had died. Buried beneath mountains of material, Langley had been crushed to death by fallen stacks of bundled newspapers, one of the many boobytraps that he had rigged to ward off priers. Their bodies included, over one hundred tons of material ranging from several grand pianos to scads of pinup posters were excavated from the dilapidated mansion. Condemned as unsafe, the house was razed, and the city would later dedicate the lot as Collyer Brothers Park.
Stories like this make me feel like my survival is dumb luck, the simple product of my good fortune in living in an era when I keep my New York Times must-reads as a series of open tabs rather than a stack of newspapers. If you printed all the articles I left open in my browser for more than 24 hours, you’d have enough paper to crush me flat within a matter of weeks.
Nonetheless, my tab addiction apparently fails to rise to the level of a hoarding diagnosis. In her call for closer cooperation between archivists and hoarding psychologists, Leah Broaddus notes that:
A hoarder is primarily called a “hoarder” because of a failure to fit the collected goods in an organized manner into his or her designated living space. The hoarder’s selection decision is only “wrong” insofar as it conflicts with the reality of the hoarder’s ongoing living conditions. If the would-be hoarder is a millionaire who has 40 homes to fill, it is not a clinical disorder for him or her to collect and organize the plenitude of items of whatever odd nature to fill.
There’s nothing to worry about with all the tabs, in other words, as long as my collection of Apple cases and cables isn’t actually crowding out our living space. (Uh…let me get back to you on that.)
Personal Information Management
While it may not take up space or require clinical intervention, my endless collection of browser tabs does impose significant costs on my productivity and well-being. A more useful framework for understanding the problem comes from the world of personal information management (PIM)—specifically, in Cal Lee and Robert Capra’s “And Now the Twain Shall Meet: Exploring the Connections with PIM and Archives,” which appears in the volume “I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era.”
As reviewed by David Kay in the American Archivist, the chapter is credited with pointing out that:
One significant source of confusion in PIM literature and research is that PIM focuses on both personal information management (management of information from or about private individuals) and personal information management) management of information by individuals, whether or not it is personal. Using a three-dimensional, two-by-two-by-two-inch cube, the authors clearly illustrate the three broad categories of integrated PIM activities: finding and re-finding, keeping, and organizing and managing.
This, it would seem, is my browser problem in a nutshell: I’m using my browser for both kinds of PIM. My browser tabs are where I do a lot of my personal information management work: retrieving files from Dropbox, updating financial records in a Google spreadsheet, checking project status in Slack. All too often, however, I also rely on browser tabs for personal information management: if I need to find a colleague’s phone number, the fastest option is to pop open a tab and search for their latest message in Gmail.
As a result, my browser tabs don’t work for any of the three broad categories of PIM. I can’t find or re-find anything, because I have too many tabs open (though my Chrome browser history can sometimes reveal what I’m seeking). I can’t actually keep stuff in my browser, because half the time I quit or crash my browser before bookmarking or saving the articles I want to keep. As for organizing and managing: all too often it seems like my browser tab have become what I’m trying to manage (with an ever-growing series of bookmarking tools and tab managers) rather than the thing that is helping me to organize and manage my life or work.
Yet there is light at the end of the tab. (Am I pushing that idiom too far? Let me open a tab for a search on “mixed metaphors.”) By thinking about what all those open tabs do for me, as well as where they let me down, I can separate my genetic hoarding propensity from the actual day-to-day work requirements that drive my tab-itis. If, hypothetically speaking, I were to have three browser windows and a total of 37 tabs’ worth of tankini swimsuits open on my desktop, that’s not hoarding: it’s my browser’s fault for failing to make all those tankinis re-findable, retainable, and well-organized.
Help Is On The Way
With those three criteria in mind, I’ve set aside most of the twenty-odd Chrome extensions that were mainly successful in crashing my browser. Instead, I’ve got a single extension that tackles the performance issue: The Great Suspender, which un-loads any long inactive browser tab so that it stops taxing my computer’s resources.
Even better, I’ve finally found the extension that solves the finding, keeping and organizing problem. OneTab gives me a browser button that instantly closes all the open tabs in my current Chrome window (wait! don’t panic!) and converts them to a hyperlinked list of all the webpages I had open. To keep that list for as long as I want, I simply lock my new tab group so that OneTab doesn’t delete them unless I specifically tell it to. To make it easy to find or re-find resources, I can give my tab group a name — or reload all the saved tabs in a collection with a single click. And to my great surprise, OneTab has also made it easier for me to manage and organize my work: whenever I need to share a list of web pages (whether in an email or a blog post), the fastest approach is now to save all those pages as a collection in OneTab, and then copy that nicely formatted list of links.
Lee and Capra’s typology makes me see that my obsession with OneTab lies in its near-miraculous ability to span the multiple ways in which I use browsers tabs for both personal information management and personal information management. While that flexibility is what leads us to spend so much of our lives inside our web browsers (OMG! I can find web-based services for everything!), it is also what leads so many of us into the dilemma of browser tab overload (OMG! I have used web-based services for everything, and now I have everything on the entire internet open in my browser!) OneTab makes it possible to be the kind of tab hoarder who opens tabs for everything — while still being able to keep, find, and organize all those tabs.
But what makes me convinced that OneTab is the World’s Greatest Browser Tab Management Extension is the actual result of this balancing act. (I’m assuming that if you’ve stuck with me thus far, you understand that “World’s Greatest Browser Tab Management Extension” is an accomplishment that deserves its own Nobel Prize.)
People, I no longer live with hundreds of open browser tabs! As I finish this article, I’m down to a modest 14 concurrent tabs. What happened to all those Facebook convos? The shopping carts? The JSTOR articles? They’re all tucked away in OneTab, safe and sound.
Now I just need the Chrome extension that will clean up my collection of iPhone cases.