In his heyday, he was the zelig of late-twentieth-century journalism, present for every watershed event that appeared in print: Watergate, Baryshnikov’s defection, the discovery of brca-1 and -2, the premiere of Hair, and the less successful roll-out of New Coke. And then, like so many who failed to see the web juggernaut coming, he found himself quite literally at the margins of his profession. His services were no longer required.
Before the web, the Tab key defined information the way a recipe gives meaning to a bag of groceries: he imposed shape and structure on masses of notes; he turned raw ingredients into a compelling narrative and signaled the advent of each new idea or quote. (Yes, “He” is anthropomorphic. “It” doesn’t elicit much empathy.)
But the philosopher-king of the QWERTY keyboard has no role in the online paragraph, which aligns flush left, with a line space before and after. He has become, instead, a navigator—a traffic cop, jumping from field to field when we buy a plane ticket or deeply discounted argyle socks online.
For journalists old enough to understand that the IBM Selectric ball was not a gala social event, or to recall the emphatic shudder of a returning typewriter carriage, Tab has transitioned from friend to potential foe: hit him by mistake for a paragraph indent in an e-mail, and he might bop right down to the character-setting field, swapping Western iso-8859-1, which is what you want, for Vietnamese, which is not. Use him in the text of a blog post and you may have to re-format the entire thing.
Like many of us, Tab has a new gig, no nostalgia for the past, and no compassion for those of us who are mired in it. His repurposed life provides a nice focus for the defining question of transition journalism: What does it all mean?
Depending on whom you ask, the Tab-less web paragraph is either an icon of a brave new world or a symbol of the media apocalypse. John Gould, deputy editor at Theatlantic.com, considers the new order to be nothing more than a practical response to reader behavior. “What I think this is really about is speed,” he says, citing user-experience studies that show online readers moving at a faster clip than print readers. “The ‘single return, tabbed new graph’ format is a design that emerged over time in relation to the flow of immersed, non-distracted reading. The ‘double return, no-Tab new graf’ is more friendly to rapid reading, or even reading that shifts between rapid and outright scanning.”
In other words, the disappearance of the tabbed indent is merely an evolutionary step, like the disappearance of gills. Lisa Belkin, a writer for The New York Times, agrees. Belkin first found herself shortening her paragraphs for the Times Sunday Magazine; now she shortens them further for the flush-left landscape of her blog, Motherlode. “Long paragraphs look endlessly long and snakelike on a magazine page,” she says, even with the traditional indent to define them, “as opposed to stories in the regular paper, which don’t run full page, but tend to be broken up by a jump.” And “blog style is snappier,” which she admits is a euphemism for shorter, so she’s adapted yet again.
When she hits the Tab key, it’s by mistake. “It’s a vestigial tic, I guess,” she says.
But graphic designer Walter Bernard, who for over twenty-five years has thought about how type sits on the page, including during stints as the art director for Time and New York, is troubled by the post-Tab universe. It’s not that he cares so much about how a paragraph begins—it’s that the end of the indented paragraph seems to him to be part of a larger design free-for-all.