Let There Be Much Rejoicing: Gmail Now Lets You Disable Conversation View

By  |  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?


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8 Comments For This Post

  1. @JimCanaday Says:

    God God Almighty! Where is the option (to be) located? I can't wait to turn that OFF.

  2. John Baxter Says:

    Conversation view works fine for me but…one of my GMail accounts is a "toy" account–it mostly gets Sightseer and other Google-related stuff. The other receives mailing lists, which work fine (for me).

    So I am not normal.

  3. Fred Says:

    Can you explain in a sentence or two why that second screenshot is preferable to the first? Why would I want fifty lines that all say Re: where do you want to go for lunch?

    I get that conversation view could be improved. What I don't get is the constant demands that Gmail be exactly like Outlook. Why use Gmail in the first place if you want it to look like a mail program from 1992?

  4. Harry McCracken Says:

    As seen in the screenshots, Conversation View is better. But–for me at least–the fact that clicking on a conversation gets you the messages in chronological rather than reverse-chronological order is an issue, especially given the cluttered presentation. And if there are two new, unread conversations in a message, it's not clear enough that the second one has arrived.

    I've never been an Outlook user (except for the purposes of reviews and research). In fact, I spent years intentionally avoiding it. And I was using threaded conversations on online services in 1992 and before. So while I don't contend that people who like Gmail conversations have a problem, I think that folks who dislike them (like me) do so for reasons other than blind Luddism.


  5. Owen Says:

    It takes me longer to find my place in a stupid conversation thread than it takes to open the actual message in the non conversation view.

    There have been better implementations of threaded messages around for literally 20 years(anyone rememer compuserve?) so my opinion of Gmail was seriously damaged by the threading.If the implementation is worse than not doing it at all then it isn't such a great feature after all.

  6. Andrew Says:


    Now when I post an ad on Craigslist, I don't have to worry about having all of the responses from hundreds of different people lumped together as one "conversation."

  7. Puddnhaid Says:

    Fan-damn-tastic!!! FINALLY I can turn off that obnoxious threading in my gmail accounts. I'm so tired of developers dumbing down applications and utilities – in this case an online email service. I was ready to go back to AOL or Yahoo! if I couldn't figure out how to KILL gmail threading. It's about time someone finally heard the throngs of people who have been calling for this change for a very long time.

  8. Macca Says:

    One more who thinks if only they would have reverse chronological order in the threaded email view I would keep. Otherwise it stays banished from my gmail inbox.