A new data set from Firefox reveals our browsing habits.

Collective wisdom.
Dec. 6 2010 7:13 AM

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A new data set from Firefox reveals our browsing habits.

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User Distribution: Maximum Tabs Open

These overall data give us a sense of how we compare to other Firefox users. But what can they tell us about broad demographic trends? As noted, any comparison of the sexes must be done cautiously given how few women participated in the study. That said, men kept more tabs open than women—an average of 4.45 tabs versus 3.86 tabs. Men also kept more tabs open at the heights of their browsing, maxing out at an average of 11.33 to women's 10.38.

We can also observe how tab usage rises and falls with age:

Average Tabs Open by Age

If you break these averages out by sex, you get this:

Average Tabs Open by Age and Gender

Men's and women's browsing habits appear to follow remarkably different trajectories with age—that is, if (a very big if) the Test Pilot data correspond to browser habits in the general population. In this sample, at least, women younger than 18 used more tabs on average than any other age-gender combination and far more than men of that age. But while men's tabbing habits increased after high school, they decreased among women. The odd, mirror-image movements continue through the 46-to-55-year-old groups. Why? If you have a hypothesis, leave them in the comments below.

I'm hesitant to make conjectures about this early data but, if pressed, will offer a few hypotheses. The general trend in open tabs by age group may reflect a balance between increasing responsibility and decreasing Web-nativeness. Juggling life and work may demand more tabs than juggling life and college, which in turn may require more tabs than juggling life and high school (if such a distinction exists). But after a certain age—one's mid-30s, it seems—the wild Web may be bewildering enough without also having 12 tabs open. The gender split is more perplexing. Perhaps it reflects social and economic structures—like the different career trajectories generally available to men and women. Or, more controversially, perhaps it reflects psychobiological differences between the sexes.

These data alone won't offer us deeper insight into, say, our distractibility in front of a screen. Before that can happen, we'll need more data. Though Mozilla continues to release additional Test Pilot results, more robust analyses beg for data from the other major browsers. (Google and Microsoft have collected similar user information for Chrome and Internet Explorer, but they don't have immediate plans to release the raw data publicly, their press officers tell me.) We'll also need professional statisticians—which I am decidedly not—to crunch the numbers with greater sophistication. And to make the data relevant outside the boundaries of your computer screen, we'll need to link it to research in sociology, psychology, and other disciplines. The Danah Boyds of this world could have a field day.

But that's no reason to wait. The more that academics and laypeople play with these data today, the faster we'll get to the point that they're useful. And the analyses above are just a few of the near-infinite possibilities. If there's an aspect of browsing behavior you'd like Slate to investigate, or if you'd like to share analyses you've already performed, drop us a line in the comments.

(To find what sorts of numbers are available for crunching, see the tables on this page.)

Correction, Dec. 6, 2010: This article originally stated that Firefox was the world's most popular browser. Internet Explorer commands a larger usage share. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Also, originally the article's first graph, labeled "User Distribution: Average Tabs Open," mistakenly showed the data set for a distribution of maximum tabs open.

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