By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 9:00 am
It’s been one of Gmail’s defining features since day one. Many people swear by it, and competitors have copied it. But for some of us, it creates more problems than it solves–and now, at long last, we can turn it off.
I speak of Conversation View, which clusters together all the e-mails in a thread, so they occupy only one line in your inbox and you can see the entirety of a discussion in one place. Google is confirming a rumor from June by announcing today that it’s possible to disable conversations, so that messages are displayed discretely in the way that was the norm in the pre-Gmail era. (It sounds like it may take a few days until the option shows up for everybody, and individuals in companies that use the Google Apps version of Gmail will only see the option if their administrators choose to allow the use of pre-release features.)
Here’s a comparative image from the company showing Conversation View on and off:
This is fabulous news. I’m going to shut off Conversation View the millisecond the option appears in my Gmail account, and probably end my periodic flirtations with abandoning Gmail for alternatives like Threadsy.
For years, I assumed my dislike of Conversation View was an intellectual defect on my own part–or maybe an odd affectation, like insisting on using a manual typewriter in the PC era. I just didn’t get it, I told myself. Even after six years of trying my best to enter the modern world.
Lately, though. I’ve decided that the problem is at least partially Google’s, not mine. Conversation View is a good idea, but the implementation could be a whole lot better.
I don’t understand why conversations are displayed in chronological order, with the oldest messages at the top–it requires pointless scrolling to get to the most recent stuff, and violates the reverse-chronological philosophy that rules everywhere else in Gmail and in e-mail in general.
Gmail’s cluttered design, which makes it tough to see at a glance where one e-mail ends and the next starts, doesn’t help. Nor does the fact that it can be difficult to tell when a new e-mail in a conversation arrives if Gmail thinks you didn’t read the one that preceded it. (I ended up shutting off the option that lets you see a snippet of an e-mail in the inbox–I wasn’t opening very short messages, which confused Gmail. Which ended up confusing me.)
Bottom line: I’m switching off conversations for now, but I’m not a hopeless Luddite. Google clearly thinks that Conversation View is the smartest, most efficient form of inbox yet invented–wouldn’t we all be happier if it gave us a Conversation View so highly evolved that nobody wanted to shut it off?