Cognitive Daily

Last week’s Casual Fridays study was inspired by my (incorrect) observation that the latest beta version of Firefox always displays tabs. (Actually, while it defaults to that setting, it’s possible to disable it.)

When I pointed this out on Twitter, the reaction was one of astonished disbelief that I might ever not want to be viewing multiple tabs. Am I the only person left who doesn’t always use tabs? And who uses the most tabs? We asked readers how many tabs they currently had open, as well as several other questions about their internet habits and opinions.

As it turns out, I’m in a substantial minority: Nearly all of over 1,300 study respondents had more than one tab open when they answered the survey. Just 9.2 percent said they had one or no tabs open. But our readers don’t use tabs willy-nilly. Only 16.7 percent of respondents said they had more than 10 tabs open. Three-quarters of readers had from 2 to 10 tabs, and most of those had from 2 to 4 tabs open.

We actually asked two different questions about tabs: How many do you have open now, and How many do you typically have open? The responses showed two distinct patterns:


As you can see, the actual tab use formed a very nice bell curve, skewed to the lower numbers of tabs. But reported tab use had peaks at 5, 8, and 10. People tend to pick nice round numbers when estimating their use of tabs.

So what kind of a person uses more tabs? This graph shows some interesting correlations.


The blue bars show number of hours spent online per week. The more hours you spend online, the more tabs you’re likely to have open. The red bars show age: The older you are, the fewer tabs you use.

We also asked a question designed to assess what type of celebrities our readers knew of. We named three Internet celebs: Leo LaPorte, Esther Dyson, and Jonathan Ive, and three mainstream celebs picked at random from People Magazine’s top 25 celebrities: John Mayer, Kate Walsh, and Julianne Hough. Readers were asked to indicate which names they recognized. I recognized all three Internet celebs, but only Julianne Hough from the People list (apparently this makes me a complete dweeb — nearly everyone who responded knew who John Mayer was). How did our readers do, and was there any connection to tab usage? This graph shows the results:


People who recognize more Internet celebrities were more likely to have more tabs open. But there was no significant correlation between recognizing mainstream celebrities and tab usage (I thought the two might be negatively correlated, but as you can see, the relationship is completely flat).

So young people who spend lots of time online and recognize Internet celebrities are most likely to have more tabs open, while older people who spend less time online and don’t recognize Internet celebrities are less likely to have more tabs open.

There are some other interesting tidbits from this study, but it’s getting late on a Friday, so I’m not going to report them now. If I get a chance, I might post a little more of the data over the weekend.


  1. #1 PJM
    December 19, 2008

    I am interested to see how the questions about “other” sorts of multitasking panned out among your readers. Based on the way you asked the multitasking questions, it seemed to me that you thought having lots of tabs open was a kind of multitasking. For me, it is very much the opposite. I always right-click and open things in a new tab, because I am saving it for later. The number of tabs I have open does not indicate how many things I am doing at once, but how many things I am going to read later. I wonder how common this is.

    And FWIW, I am 36 and didn’t recognize a single celebrity name in the survey. I assumed they were cognitive scientists and you were trying to find out how knowledgeable I was about cog sci. (If you were trying to find out, the answer is “not very”!)

  2. #2 Cecil
    December 19, 2008

    PJM: I do the same thing, but.. middle-clicking on the link does the same thing and is faster. 🙂

    Also there’s a setting, if you aren’t aware, “When I open a new tab switch to it immediately.” That’s good to have off.

  3. #3 Ahcuah
    December 19, 2008

    Here is the way I mainly use tabs: for reading blogs.

    Blogs are always in reverse chronological order, so when I go to a blog, I scan down deciding whether I want to read that entry. If so, I open it in a tab (I also have the option set so that focus remains on the original tab). By the time I’ve made it to the bottom of the blog (or the spot that I’ve read before), I have tabs open for all the entries I want to read.

    I then go to the rightmost tab, read the entry, and then delete that tab. The next tab to show is then next chronologically, etc..

    That also means that sciblogs usually has the most tabs open when I’m starting to read it. I open the 24-hours page, do my tab-opening, and then read. That will sometimes give me about 30 open tabs.

    For most other blogs, it’s usually only about 3 open tabs, depending.

    Just sayin’ . . .

  4. #4 shwu
    December 19, 2008

    Interesting. I only recognized John Mayer out of any of those people but that’s because I used to follow his music. I’m 26 and tend to have around 6 tabs open (6 right now and that seems about right) – 4 of them are by default GMail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, and Friendfeed, and then others are usually links from Reader or Friendfeed, or the odd train schedule or weather update. If I’m doing actual research though, then I might have multiple windows with multiple tabs – 1 window for PubMed browsing, 1 window for PDB and protein database browsing, 1 window for code hacks, 1 window for random google searches on statistics terms or algorithms, etc.

    So it would seem that I have two modes of browsing – 6 tabs in background casual mode and more like 15-20 tabs in research mode. It might be interesting to see if people tend to exhibit this kind of situational behavior or if they just operate one way for the most part.

  5. #5 lylebot
    December 19, 2008

    When I took the survey, I had 7 tabs open, and I reported that I usually have 5. In the week following, I occasionally counted the number of tabs I had open on whatever computer I was using—it was 7 every time!

    For me, tabs are very much about multitasking. I’ll often be doing two or three things at the same time, with 2-3 tabs allocated to each task. (That includes 2-3 tabs for the “procrastination by blog” task.)

  6. #6 TJ
    December 19, 2008

    My tab use is also of the “save for later” variety.

  7. #7 Coturnix
    December 19, 2008

    I am online a gazillion hours a day. But I got so used to having many windows open that, when they invented tabs in FF, I never switched to tabs, never even experimented with them. I still open many windows instead (often making some of them smaller, moving them around the screen, having two side-by-side, etc. It works for me, and I don’t think I need what tabs offer form what I hear others say about them. But I am just an inertia-bound old-timer.

  8. #8 Wintersweet
    December 19, 2008

    I suspect there’s a correlation to OS, OS version, and RAM, also. No snark intended, but I wouldn’t dare have this many tabs open on my mom’s Windows machine.

  9. #9 Dr. Kate
    December 20, 2008

    It’s IE that always has one tab open. One of the reasons I use only FF. (What is it about Microsoft products these days that assume that you don’t value your screen real estate??)

    I typically use tabs when I’m doing web searches or research–I’ll have one tab for the main search results page, and I’ll open the various hits in separate tabs. That prevents me from having to figure out how far back to go to get back to the search results once I’m done exploring a page. And, like others who have posted, I also use it when I need to be referring to multiple sites at the same time. I’m generally writing or editing when I have the multiple tabs open, so I prefer not to have them in multiple windows so I don’t have to alt-tab scroll through ten things to get to where I want to be.

  10. #10 clouston
    December 20, 2008

    I have a tab backlog of over 1100 items of general interest, over a hundred arat-related sights I want to look at, and about 150 articles from the NY Times. Those are all in 13 bookmarks. I also have tabs bookmarked to photoshop, illustrator, and painter, though not as many.

    I use tabs to avoid multi-tasking and to avoid screwing around with too many windows, even though I have a 30″ monitor, it’s not big enough. (You should see my RSS backlog.) My interests are much bigger than the day is long. I never would have gotten in this position if it weren’t for tabs. I love ’em. I’m over 50, BTW, and tend to blow up images and type because my vision isn’t that good any more.

  11. #11 Lord
    December 20, 2008

    I use multiple browsers for different mail accounts. In the dialup days before tabs I would have multiple windows downloading while I read one that was done and still use this technique for tabs. My personal homepage has four columns of links so one tab per column is a convenient way surfing my regular sites.

  12. #12 Nimit
    December 22, 2008

    Would like to know results about all other stuff you asked in queries, make it a big post, seems interesting…!! Also, pl put all data online available, may other people play statistic in different way to come up with more amazement!!

  13. #13 Joomlatka
    December 24, 2008

    Very interesting.

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