Tabbed Out

A key has lost its place
November 23, 2010

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, 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.”

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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.

Bernard is particularly offended by what can only be called the “stealth indent,” which makes the old-fashioned print advertorial seem innocent by comparison. “I went to a link and read the first three lines,” he says, “and suddenly it reconfigured itself to wrap around an ad that intrudes after I’ve started. Instead of reading something that’s thirty picas wide, now I’m reading something that’s fifteen picas wide. It may be temporary, but they really do capture you that way: the ad comes in as a delay and intrudes, and reorients your reading. It was clever, but also totally annoying.”

Pauses—the places where writers used to insert a single line space to define a section of a longer piece—are anybody’s guess, design-wise. Now that the line space has replaced Tab, what replaces the line space? Belkin uses a row of asterisks. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll uses boldface to open a new section. Even # and + find that they have more work than they used to. The death of Tab could signal a dingbat renaissance, and certainly an outcry from dingbats, demanding a new, more dignified title.

The end of prose as we know it—indented—turns out to be the work of the banking industry. Forty years ago, banks were early adopters of computerized systems that enabled them to build a big customer database. Back then, basic computer language assigned a box for each character or number in a piece of information, making sure to allocate enough boxes to accommodate long names. When a client like Steve Lee came along, there was lots of wasted space. “If they left fifteen boxes for the first name, there would be ten empty boxes for mine,” says Lee, an associate professor of information technology at Colorado Mountain College. Multiply those blanks by a bank’s total number of customers, and there were “lots and lots of empty spaces in the data, taking up room that computers didn’t have back then.”

They needed what Lee calls a “delimiter,” a keystroke that told the computer to close up a field early and jump to the next one. At first, they used characters like commas and semicolons, but as databases expanded to include memo fields, a new challenge arose: to avoid any keystroke that might appear in the memo field. That eliminated every letter of the alphabet, symbols, punctuation marks, even the space bar, which defines the blank between words. Keys cannot multitask because a computer can’t distinguish between a comma that sets off a phrase and a comma that’s a signal to move on.

The only remaining candidates for the job were the Tab key and the Enter key. Enter already had a job starting new lines in the memo field. So people who cared about data and not about paragraphs gave Tab a new assignment, years before the World Wide Web embraced the idea.

It turned out to be a career-saving move, as the tabbed indent was destined to become a casualty of technology. Computers are control freaks, as anyone who has ever mistyped a web address will attest. They simply refuse to acknowledge a random blob of white space at the start of a paragraph; they require more exacting instructions. “It is better for the computer to be explicitly told, ‘This is the beginning of a paragraph’ and ‘This is the end,’” says Robert Morris, emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “A computer is completely rule-based about format. It can’t tell what that white space is—and if you put in a Tab to indent something like a long quote, you’re only fine until you have to edit, and the indents go all over the place because you’ve added something.

“The computer’s not as smart as someone sitting at a Mergenthaler Linotype was,” Morris says.

There it is: in the hot-type era, Linotype machines didn’t use Tab keys for indents because human intelligence took care of them. Computers don’t use Tab keys for indents, or bother with paragraph indents at all, because artificial intelligence gets flustered by that kind of white space.

While journalists might mourn the demise of a basic element of written thought, computer scientists say we have it all wrong: in the realm of the Internet, the Tab key is king. “From an application standpoint—the Internet, forms, the way data is stored—it’s the most important key,” says Lee. “It used to be a policeman, all about rules. Now it can take you anywhere on the screen and be okay. It’s the tour guide.”

Says Morris: “It’s a promotion, not a demotion.”

Understanding how and why Tab abandoned writers is not quite the same as knowing what to do about it, and all this talk about style hides a darker cascade of concerns about content: the flush-left web design encourages shorter paragraphs because long ones look wrong; short paragraphs lead to shallow writing; shallow writing leads to shallow thinking. Before you can say complexities of the economic crisis, we are suffering from a national attention-deficit disorder. Nobody can think about anything long enough to fix it.

But Jon Carroll, whose 850-word column for The San Francisco Chronicle has appeared five days a week since 1982, is philosophical about the long-term consequences of short-bite style. “I don’t think technology dictates ideas, which is very un-McLuhan of me,” he says. “Maybe people will write in shorter paragraphs, but what the hell—if you made Emerson write in short grafs he’d still be Emerson. Brevity is the soul of everything and the enemy of corporate-speak.”

If that’s not solace enough, there’s always the loyalist reader, who tends to have old-school tastes. M. Scott Havens, the vice-president of digital operations and strategy at The Atlantic, is something of a media diplomat; while he has never worked in traditional print, he proudly subscribes to two newspapers. He expects that people who want long, in-depth coverage will continue to do so, and he finds odd comfort in the fact that there have never been a lot of them. “The influentials—smart, affluent, educated people—are going to carve out time to read the deep think-piece about health-care legislation,” he says. “Curiosity isn’t going to go away.”

Or, as Carroll puts it, “We’ll have as many deep thinkers as we have now. They’re always a tiny minority.”

Gould believes they’re going to want the coverage they’re used to, arranged in the indented paragraphs they’re used to. “The demand’s going to be there, so tech designers with the most foresight are going to make sure to preserve the Tab key.”

If he has any spare time after his day job ends, that is.

Karen Stabiner is the author of eight books and the editor of an essay anthology. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.