As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of e-mail users in the world: Those for whom bundling up a thread of messages into a “conversation” makes perfect sense, and those who would much rather have an inbox sorted in strictly reverse-chronological order. The Business Insider’s Henry Blodget among the latter type: Yesterday, he posted a testy item (one of several he’s lobbed) begging Google to let Gmail users opt out of conversation view. Then he followed up with good news: Two Google executives, who he refused to name, had written him to say that Gmail will get a “normal” view in the next few months.
I’m with Blodget on this one: The moment that Gmail gets a normal option, I’ll be there. For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing much of my e-mail in Threadsy, and returning to, um, an unconversational inbox has been a delight.
I once asked some members of Google’s Gmail team if the company would ever make conversations an option rather than the only available view. They didn’t rule it out. But they said it would be a major technical challenge. I got the sense that making the change looked like a challenge in part because Google is so confident that conversations are an improvement over old-fashioned e-mail. Undoing them feels like a pointless sop to newbies who would love conversations if they just gave them a chance.
Little by little, though, Gmail has gotten more normal over the years. Labels, for instance, started out as a feature that was “better than folders.” But so many people are so accustomed to sorting e-mail into folders that Google gradually tweaked Labels into compliance with users’ expectations.
Whether or not Google lets Gmailers opt for a normal view, here’s a change it could make to conversation mode that would make it a lot more palatable, at least to me: Give us the option of the conversations being sorted in reverse-chronological mode. Right now, when you click on a conversation to view it, the old messages are at the top and the latest one is at the bottom. The more I think about it, the less I understand the rational for doing this: It requires you to skim past old messages to read one that arrived more recently, and flips the reverse-chronological organization of the inbox itself.
So how about it, Google: Give people the choice of opting out of conversations…but also make conversations better and more flexible, so that even more folks will come to adore them?