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This Tabular Life

November 18, 2009

Lately I’ve become preoccupied with browser tabs. Yes, those boring little gray bars with an “x”on them. That’s because tabs, inefficient as they can be, provide us with an interesting real-world metaphor. Your family is a tab. Work is a tab. Your friends are a tab. Your significant other is a tab. We address the people and information in each tab, trying to respect the sanctity of each. Sometimes we fail, which unfortunately leads to divorces, drinking problems or lost jobs.

But the Real-Time Web Masters of the Universe are trying to reform our tabular nature. First, it occurred with widgets, information boxes and customized homepages. Suddenly, we could create nice window panes with helpful information that kept you in one place longer. If you found something interesting or urgent enough, you could click on it to launch a tangential tab and address it.

Then, Facebook and Twitter did something crazy: It combined disparate people and information — things that typically demanded their own tabs — and poured it all over us in one fluid current. It cut down the number of tabs because you can consume, publish and “like” information all in one area. Those companies’ ecosystems have flourished to customize the experience with filters, allowing people to cut huge steaks of information into manageable bites. Other start-ups, like Threadsy, are following suit.

The Web’s new aversion to tabs — coupled with a general lack of bandwidth to handle our real-time activities — has been so severe that it’s migrated us from the cloudy browser back down to the dusty desktop. The prevalence of Adobe AIR apps, which now many can’t imagine living without, signal an ironic twist for an industry once obsessed with the idea that everything should be in a browser.

But as we combine all the capabilities these tools provide us, we must do so carefully; we must be mindful of our innately tabular nature and past mistakes driven by tech companies’ insatiable thirst to be the all-in-one gatekeeper. As people, the idea of having information flow to us in one spot sounds appealing. But sometimes, we might just prefer to separate it, even as we’re consciously aware that it takes more time. Finding the golden mean between flow and tabs will be essential for the future of the Web, to keep it a place that complements, rather than disrupts, our lives.

The Difference Between Tabs, Networks and Flows

Tabs are not networks; they are a thing that walls off action. It’s easy to confuse tabs with networks because certain actions frequently get executed between you and the same set of people. Flows, on the other hand, radically combine the actions of your tabs and your networks (people) that operate within them.

Contrary to what some believe, the emergence of flow-based information streams wasn’t enabled by a social revolution to undermine hierarchy. It was an evolution based on the untenable nature of our tabular lives. Toggling has become too difficult. At 11 a.m., I have a meeting with my boss. At noon, I have to drive my friend to the airport. At 1 p.m., I have a meeting with a customer. Addressing this back-and-forth isn’t just a matter of calendaring; it should be a matter of managing flow. Unfortunately, most people still tab-toggle between phone lines, e-mail accounts, social networks, or calendars to interact with the people and information they need to achieve each of these tasks. Each toggle doesn’t seem like a lot of time or effort on its own, but taken in total, it adds up.

The results from this approach are plain to see: You’re late for the meeting, you miss the plane, or you’re not home in time for dinner.

Flow can address this problem by helping you pull the people and information you need to address each of those actions to the best of your ability, as quickly and efficiently as possible. That said, we shouldn’t overlook how challenging this will be for most people who live tabular lives. As much as I respect Clay Shirky’s notion that filter failures are a bigger problem than information overload itself, I don’t buy it entirely.

Even in an ideal world where we enjoy better filters, we will still suffer from both information overload and (due to the prevalence of social networks) people overload. At a certain point, people might prefer a full-blown visual or physical separation — much like they were accustomed to with tabs — instead of a filter.

Why Tabs Are Still Valuable

Despite the time sink they can create, tabs and tabular actions encourage innovation. We would be wrong to replace tabs with flow entirely. If success is only measured by how something fits into a massive flow aggregation, we could miss out on some great ideas. And open standards and APIs can only help so much to prevent this problem, too. In fact, the idea that open standards might save us is a pipe dream. As Tim O’Reilly pointed out this week, the Web’s power players will hinder such an effort for competitive reasons. Consequently, the decision to keep some aspects of our tabular life might be a commercial reality as much as it is a remnant of the way in which we compartmentalize people and information in the real-world.

Flows represent a tremendous opportunity for us to respond faster to change and better understand the world around us, but we should always make time to go into a tab every once and awhile to try something new.

One Comment leave one →
  1. piora permalink
    February 7, 2012 9:35 pm


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