If you use the internet with any regularity, or, bless your soul, use it for a living, you’re familiar with the initial stages of this disease. Open browser of your choice and pop open a tab. Navigate to some good Content. Click hyperlink from there and watch as new tab opens. Hit an unfamiliar reference in that page and pop open a search in new tab. Iterate this process in tab after tab. For a while you might feel bloated with excess, but as you complete tasks, you expel. By day’s end you’ve exhausted all the professional and procrastination material at hand, and you lay waste to tabs, to entire windows of clustered tabs. You end your day feeling nourished by Content but also clean and renewed, like an e-Marie Kondo uncluttering the browser, which is the mind. Maybe you have an herbal tea.
If that’s where you end things, you’re one of the lucky ones, and you may be aware of how bad other people can get. (My editor Barry was not, and was repulsed to learn. He likened this habit to leaving the toilet unflushed because you suspect you might have to use it later, and he’s not totally wrong.) Consider this a look at the grimmer late stages.
Every time you come to your computer there are tabs, dozens and dozens of them. These tabs no longer pop out, friendly pages full of interesting and actionable information. They metastasize. They sprout out of one another in quick, perverse succession. They emerge sui generis. They come from all possible angles, and they keep coming until the headers are no longer legible beyond the first letter. A tab is Twitter or Gmail, of course. A tab is If You Read One Thing All Week, Make It This that you clicked three months ago, after timeline supersaturation. It is long and a little dull and so it stays in a tab for while. But a tab is also I wonder how my Tae Kwon Do Instructor from 2002 is doing these days? A tab is a friend’s article you’ve left open out of obligation. A tab is why Wario and Waluigi don’t have girlfriends. A tab is technical exposition on a topic you looked into two weeks ago because you convinced yourself you were interested. A tab is a list of albums that you dipped into and forgot about but man did those first two bang. A tab is a recipe too involved to knock out this weekend or last weekend. A tab is almost certainly a decade-old New Yorker profile. A tab is a decent-looking apartment you still need to schedule a visit for. Generally tabs are all the passing curiosities of your life, never prosecuted to completion, just dangling there, interesting enough to keep around but not interesting enough to follow through. (Reader: I followed through on Waluigi.)
A tab can be new or old. A tab can be an inquiry into into the pointlessly arcane or a pressing logistical concern. All these kinds of tabs are equal before the unblinking internet idiot, and both will totally eat up your RAM and turn your browser to a sewer.
When you have a lot of tabs open, browsing turns viscous. There’s a lot of clicking and waiting. This would be a signal for most sane people to do some trimming. But if your brain is really broken, even at this point, you can’t bear to lose any tabs, or relegate them to bookmarks—they’d just gather dust there!—because you entertain the fantasy that one of these days you’ll have a vacant afternoon, and you’ll surf right through them, wearing sunglasses, smiling and x-ing off as you go, and you’ll feel so good that you finally got around to reading all those cool things. This stubborn delusion has consequences. When you maintain a lot of windows, each dense with tabs, and some of these windows minimized—stowed away out of sight—eventually everything slows to a treacly halt. Somewhere around this point you will have to force quit out of necessity. And if you are the stupidest kind of completist, your browser is set to pick up exactly where you left off, sparing no tab but gaining a few more days of usability.
Do you even want to know about the direst stage? Sometimes, your browser just crashes under the weight of the tabs; and you avoid that browser entirely because you know that re-opening it entails confronting all those tabs; you avoid that Pandora’s box altogether and switch to a new (worse) browser, until the same fate inevitably takes hold. You boot up Firefox for the first time in a decade, until it fails you, too. You settle into Safari like a seedy armchair. I am not proud. I am just writing true things.
Something good happened to me in the last month, a lucky synchrony. Within a week-long span, Chrome on both my work and personal computer both crashed in a dramatic way that did not preserve the prior tabs. For a moment I was crestfallen: I felt like so many of my babies, all the little darlings I’d birthed in the small dumb womb of my mind, had all been wiped out before I’d even had the chance to goodbye. But then, a beat later: I was finally free. Tabula rasa. Good.
Now I’m never going back. It turns out there’s experimental treatment for people like us, but there are also simple principles to follow. Do not let yourself be overcome by all the things that are out there to know, a very modern, crushing feeling now that all the things there are to know are just one tab away. Do not feel guilt for saying no. Do not mistake your vanilla indecision for passion split just too many ways. Do not let your hobbies hobble you. Do confront new things, but do not saddle yourself with the aspiration to be a different kind of person interested in totally different things. But mostly just open and then read the things and remember the good parts and then x them out of existence, you schmuck.