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July 2, 2010

Disabling Gmail Conversations

Grouping messages in conversations is one of the most useful Gmail features. It's also one of the few features that made Gmail unique and innovative back in 2004, when it was released.



(the "about Gmail" page from April 2004)


"Gmail groups all replies with their original message, creating a single conversation or thread. In other email systems, responses appear as separate messages in your inbox, forcing you to wade through all your mail to follow the conversation. In Gmail, replies to replies (and replies to those replies) are displayed in one place, in order, making it easier to understand the context of a message -- or to follow the conversation," explains Gmail's help center.

Some people suggested that Gmail should make threading optional. They assumed that it's pretty easy to disable a feature that's usually offered as a presentation enhancement in email clients. In Gmail, conversations are a core feature and it would be very difficult to disable it without breaking other features.

Last month, Henry Blodget reported that Google intends to make Gmail's conversations optional. "Some Gmail users loathe the Conversations format -- complaining that is confusing and causes them to miss important messages. Google recently handed control over Gmail to a VP named Vic Gundotra. Vic regards Google's prior attitude toward issue as 'tone deafness' and plans to offer another option soon, sources say."

While Gmail's threading doesn't always work properly and it's not always useful, grouping messages and replies in conversations makes it easier to find messages, to read messages and to reply to other messages. Most Gmail features are designed to work with conversations and not with individual messages. For example, you can't label a single message, you can't archive a single message and you can't mark a message as read or unread and you can't detach messages from conversations without deleting them.

If Gmail offers an option to disable conversations, it's likely that Gmail will act like an IMAP client. "IMAP treats messages individually and not as a threaded conversation. If you move a message to an IMAP folder in your mail client, only that message in the conversation will move to that folder. However, in the web interface, the whole conversation will be given the corresponding label. The same rules will apply to labels applied through filters."

If you label a message, Gmail will also label the messages from the conversation even if it will no longer display conversations. I don't think that's a great user experience.

Now that even iPhone's mail client and Hotmail added threading, it's surprising to see that Google decided to make conversations optional and to offer a suboptimal interface that makes Gmail more confusing and difficult to use.

Update: Paul Buchheit, who created Gmail, says that it's not surprised.
It's my opinion that when designing products, especially new products, it's better to have some people [that] will love it than have everyone tolerate it. This generally means aiming for simplicity and philosophical consistency. If you're aiming for "everyone tolerates it", then the approach switches more towards creating a "giant pile of features". I suspect that this change is driven by their desire for greater enterprise adoption (Google apps), where the "more features and checkboxes" approach very often wins out, even if it's ultimately a worse product.

70 comments:

  1. Finally! The new option will be arrive!
    But I'm still prefer to use conversational thread messages for real people.

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  2. What they really should do is make it work properly.
    It doesn't always catch the rights spot where a reply starts etc...

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  3. I like the threaded conversation look of Gmail, but sometimes when opening an email (conversation) with 20+ replies ALL opening at once can kind of slow down things.

    What I would like is an option to not always expand conversations, that way only the most recent one is displayed.

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  4. I'm constantly dismayed by people not getting conversations and/or labels.
    You really want a world of
    Re:
    Re: Re:
    Re: Re: Re:
    up?
    bottom
    the
    from
    reading
    and

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  5. Threaded conversations is what makes GMail "different" and "unique". It's THE best feature of GMail, no two ways about that.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love threaded conversations! I would love a feature to combine threads on the occasions gmail splits a thread. This mainly happens when I get mail from Yahoo groups.

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  7. Completely disagree with most of the commenters so far. While I've gotten used to and have even embraced conversations over the past 3+ years that I've been a Gmail-only user, there are times when I would love the ability to switch to non-conversation (individual message) view. I think this will bring many more people to Gmail that don't currently use it, and I for one, eagerly await this new feature.

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  8. I can see this being added without making Gmail more confusing. But it will clutter the interface with more options (e.g. separate options for labeling/moving individuals messages vs threads). I hope the threaded mode keeps a simple interface. They can separate their underlying design into orthogonal systems (e.g. base + threading vs base + non-threading). I use labels and filters extensively and prefer managing threads over individual messages, though, as others have said, I'd like to see the conversation interface improved and more dynamic/ajaxy.

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  9. About time too.

    Whilst personally I prefer the conversation model, I suspect that's coloured in part by the fact that I exclusively use the web interface. For users who primarily access GMail via IMAP (and remember GMail also covers corporate GAFYD users), and only occasionally dip into the web interface, I strongly suspect a per-message interface will appear both more familiar and more consistent with their IMAP client than the existing GMail view.

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  10. Ok, I may be looking at it from a single perspective.
    It would be great if people who are suggesting the non-conv view give their perspectives. I (and am sure others too) would love to hear the rationale.

    Varun

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  11. Conversation is very creative feature of gmail. It is like an organised filling system.

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  12. >> For example, you can't label a single message, you can't archive a single message and you can't mark a message as read or unread and you can't detach messages from conversations without deleting them.

    You can mark a single message as unread with the "Mark unread from here" lab:

    http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/new-in-labs-mark-unread-from-here.html

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  13. we should be able to choose for some labels which view to have

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  14. One reason I'd like to have some flexibility from the conversation view on the web is to be able to delete individual messages from a conversation (or rather more to the point, to save the one or two emails that have ongoing value and delete the rest).

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  15. Half of these comments miss the point. The problem isn't conversation grouping, it's the inability to control it! Sometimes I NEED to take a message out of a conversation, or add a message to it, or combine or split conversations. Provide those abilities and most complaints will disappear. But don't give us an all-or-nothing solution.

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  16. @Kenneth you can do that in the conversation view as well. From a threaded conversation, if you want to delete a particular message, click on the " down arrow" in right top corner of that message frame, and select "Delete this message"

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  17. I love the conversations, but I have heard a different perspective.

    I have abuddy that works at motorola, and since they switched to google apps, everyone is complaining about this new style, it is mostly because they have been using the microsoft outlook way for so long, but their complaint is that they miss messages. I think an option is fine, as long as the default is still conversations, because for almost any user that is the optimal way, but when you have hundreds of emails, maybe it is different.

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  18. "Most Gmail features are designed to work with conversations and not with individual messages. [...] If you label a message, Gmail will also label the messages from the conversation even if it will no longer display conversations."

    This is only partly true. Labels work at the message level, not conversations. This explains the counter-intuitive sort order and the inability to effectively search through labeled conversations.

    See forum thread: http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/gmail/thread?tid=0d681186880e9313&hl=en (Labeled messages: wrong sort order and incorrect search results)

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  19. While this view may be great for personal Gmail accounts, as a Google Apps reseller, in bigger deployemts this can cause SEVERE issues. Many companies have applications that email confirmations or some other automated process. Usually in these cases the email comes from the same email address and contains the same subject line. This causes all of this to become rolled into ONE conversation. When in fact these might each be a confirmation of purchase from many different customers.

    This can kill a work flow.

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  20. Great - take the developer time away from other useful stuff.
    Also - now all new features will have to support this new variant as well.
    EEEK. Don't slow down innovation!

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  21. The ONLY thing I wish for Google to do to Gmail conversations is to allow me to remove messages from one conversation and start a new one with them! Sometimes they get grouped wrongly, and being able to separate them (even if it works by letting me change the subject line slightly)

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  22. Without reading most of the comments here, let me say that Gmail conversation view could be its best feature. I use GroupWise at work and it drives me bonkers who the emails are disassociated, especially when I want to add something on to an email I've already sent - I have to "resend" it.

    Conversation view - Gmail's welcome to the 21st century (and coherent email interaction).

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  23. Threaded view is one of the best feature Gmail has. I only miss a function to sort all emails after date/sender/attachement/subject etc.

    Much easier then search or filter. You don't always remember the whole name of a person, sometimes only the first letter. If you can sort all email it's much easier to find the answer.

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  24. While the idea of grouping conversation is brilliant, I'd more flexibility. For example, sometimes I'm conversing with a customer and I'd like to take one of his messages and start a new conversation with my supplier who doesn't need to see the 20 messages before this one.

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  25. Re Vic Gundotra & tone deafness: This sounds personal; a pointy haired boss feeling their needs weren’t addressed the way they expected.

    A split operation might be workable though. My contacts aren’t the threadjacking kind, but that could happen on some lists.

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  26. Sigh! GMail wasn't at all unique in 2004. I was using email before the WWW even existed and *proper* threading *by reference* was standard. Threading 'by subject', as GMail does, was often an option but, in my mind, is pointless.

    Never mind turning it on and off, how about they implement TRUE THREADING (by reference) and then people are far less likely to miss those emails.

    Come on Google, it was in the original RFC for crying out loud!

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  27. they're in their own world. people don't feel 'bound' by a subject line such that it stop them from writing on another topic entirely after a few exchanges. a subject line doesn't determine a 'conversation', in the real world people are messy.

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  28. I'd rather they worked on allowing more than 100 messages in a conversation...

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  29. Looking at all the points above objectively, it's clear that there are pros and cons to both conversation and message view. Perhaps if Google makes a simple, accessible option to switch between the two modes instantaneously almost everybody will be happy. Those with a strong preference for one mode can keep it and never have to use the other one; those who might sometimes need to switch between conversation and message view (see all the reasons for doing so in the preceding comments) will be able to do so with ease. Everyone wins.

    However, if Google are planning on dropping conversation view entirely in favour of the more ubiquitous message view it will obviously annoy a lot of folks -- the hardcore email 'purists' and Gmail users who have finally got used to Google's way of doing things -- although undoubtedly please the majority of people who are used to the more 'normal' way. One camp here loses.

    Let's hope it's not the latter implementation eh! :-)

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  30. Seriously? Conversations is my favourite feature in Gmail by far, and it's the reason that I switched over back in 2004. It has always worked seamlessly for me and it makes it a lot easier for me to use email.

    Oh, and it's completely possible to remove one message from a convesation thread. You just press the little arrow in the top right corner of the message and click "delete message". Pretty straightforward, really.

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  31. Thank goodness and about time.
    I don't use the web client partly due to the converstation "feature".
    Just need to have proper folders, not labels and fix the stupid "Sent On Behalf Of" feature and I will be ready to move fully over to Google rather then having to use several diffferent email clients.

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  32. Actually "conversation" has always been a "dumbed down" version of what decent mail clients have offered for decades, i.e. threads.

    I would really really like to see the option to show a conversation as a tree, just like it should be ;-)

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  33. It does seem odd to be moving away from conversations now, when smart phones have started presenting text messages in a conversation view. I'd imagine people would be getting used to it.

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  34. Someone asked for a non-conversation viewpoint. Here it is: In my work, I frequently get emails which have identical subject lines; e.g.; "Stuff," or "Other Stuff." But that's just a category to let me know what type of email it is. Each one is an entirely separate piece of work - they have nothing to do with each other. The forced bunching of these unconnected emails is maddening, time-wasting, confusing, etc. Only the prospect of a change/choice allows me to hang in there with gmail.

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  35. One more thing: stop telling us to 'search not sort'. There are times I really need to sort.

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  36. it really is very helpful to chat right from your inbox window in gmail but google still needs to improve it a bit.

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  37. If conversation view feature worked properly and were shown in a different way on the page, it would be very nice. But, as it is, it sucks! For instance, sometimes I forward a message that has nothing to do with the conversation, but it continues stuck there. This is ridiculous. An e-mail client called PocoMail has this message threading feature and, in my opinion, it's much more intelligent than Gmail's. Paul Buchheit, you're absolutely right when you say we should love it, not tolerate it. If you're willing to keep Gmail users satisfied, make it as much flexible as it can be when it comes to features. It doesn't matter whether or not there are plenty of options to choose. What matters is we can choose what we want. If you don't provide us with such things, we stop using it and start using another which suits us better. And, one more thing, stop telling us to use e-mail clients. We don't want to download messages to our computers. What rules is "on the clouds", baby! "On the clouds."

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  38. While I strongly agree that it's better to have a feature a decent percentage of people love than a feature everyone just thinks is ok, the inability to split a conversation in Gmail after six years is sort of ridiculous.

    The simple fact is that, since conversations are determined automatically by the system, the computer sometimes makes mistakes and groups things that are, in fact, NOT a conversation. The user, in Gmail, is left with no way whatsoever to fix this--you're stuck working around the computer's mistake.

    I don't want another buried checkbox in the preferences--preference bloat is almost as bad as feature creep--I just want one of those options in the per-message drop down to be "split conversation" or something like that.

    Again, conversations are great--the issue is that conversations are identified by an automatic system, which is never foolproof.

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  39. Just for the record, I mentioned above:

    "... sometimes I forward a message that has nothing to do with the conversation, but it continues stuck there..."

    When I forward a message, it's because I want to resend that same message to another email adress, for example. It would be sooo simple to have an option for RESENDING messages, so that we wouldn't have to use the forwarding feature.

    Anyway, why don't you take advantage of the situation and, together with this new feature for disabling conversations, create a RESEND feature? Come on! It's such a so simple thing for you, guys. I'm telling you, many people would love it, for I'm not the only one with such wishes.

    Regars. :)

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  40. This conversation view drives me up the wall. My mailbox is full of 'conversations' made up of emails that have nothing to do with each other. At present, after Google has decided that a bunch of emails belong together, you're stuck with them like that for eternity - this is ridiculous.

    I'm not suggesting for one moment that Google should drop this view. What I want is the ability to move messages in and out of 'conversations' - some way to correct Googles mistakes.

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  41. I just hate it... I have a gmail account that I never use becasue of that, but now my university has migrated all accounts to gmail and I have to deal with conversation threading every single day, is annnoying how much time I have to waste every day reading through old emails before getting to the important ones!!

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  42. As at least one other person has mentioned, Google's conversation threading is a SERIOUS problem in enterprises when software automatically sends out email notifications that use an identical subject line. All of these messages end up being grouped into one conversation, which is a very real issue.

    I also work with an online merchant who receives emailed notifications for each credit card transaction. Every single one of these notifications uses the same subject line. We can't control or change the subject text.

    So guess what? These messages all end up in one long conversation -- THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of messages all linked together. It's a massive pain in the butt for us, and frequently causes us to overlook credit card transactions.

    If you like the conversation feature -- good for you; I'm glad you find it effective for the way you work. Keep using it.

    For those of us who experience serious work issues because of it, it's way past time for Google to offer the option of disabling it, and let us choose what is best for our workflow.

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  43. All I do is have my Outlook get my Gmail messages and they come in as I wish....separately.

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  44. I've been using Gmail since 2005 but I still hate the conversation mode! I've missed extremely important emails from customers, partners, investors, etc. -- this typically happens when 2 replies from the same person come back to back and if I'm not looking out for those, then I miss one reply. It also seems to occur when I read an email, mark it unread to go back to it later (instead of starring it) and another reply comes in and I'm not aware that I have another reply in conversation.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that I'd like to have the option to disable conversations. Or, at least have Google implement threaded discussions the way Apple does it on iOS 4/iPhone where you enter a threaded conversation then you can see the individual emails listed separately.

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  45. Threading and total reliance on searching is a pain in the neck. I tolerate the Gmail web interface because nobody has a client that works really well with it and integrates syncing calendars, contacts and tasks.

    Search everywhere (no sorting), a page based layout, ugly design, and a really bad contact manager interface (even after the most recent redesign)are also things than suck about Gmail.

    Conversations are not the killer feature of Gmail, email everywhere, on my iphone, on the desktop, on somebody elses computer, along with all my contacts and calendar data. That's why I use Gmail and tolerate conversations and the other crap.

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  46. Can't cope with threading conversations anymore-- or the cunning way it sidebars the subject you are discussing, either from the sender, subject line or the narrative content. Therefore tomorrow "Expelliarmus" to Gmail Google voodoo. Chz

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  47. Conversation feature is the most ridiculous idea I have heard of, with it not being optional. ANY email you send goes to ANYONE you have previously sent emails to under that subject line, whether you want them to see it or not. This should be illegal for Google to send my email to someone to whom I did not address it, and I can only wonder at what point you are going to get into hot water for it. It is not true that it cannot work properly if it is optional because I just signed up for Frontier (Verizon) FiOS and it is indeed optional. I am deleting all my gmail emails and cancelling my account. Oh and emails also get "buried" in the string and you completely miss them, never knowing they came in. This is the most horrid idea ever.

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  48. @anonymous:

    You obviously don't understand this feature, so you shouldn't write about it.

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  49. Another thing to be aware of. If someone in one of those conversations sends an email it can look as if it came from a different person. One of the people in my four-way conversation responded to my gmail message and coded in my new email address. The message came to me as if it was written by ME at gmail when in fact it was written by a friend. The same thing happened to one of the other people in the group. A message said it came from me when it came from someone else.

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  50. And Alex you can like this feature all you want... but I know my emails have gone out to people to whom I did not send them and have also appeared as if they came from me rather than the person who actually sent them. I have been sending email since the day it was invented and I have no intention of needing a college degree to "understand" a system which sends my emails out to people I did not send them to.. and it DOES do that because it bundles the conversation and sends it to everyone you have ever sent that subject line to. This has happened at least twice for me but it won't happen again. And since this site is moderated my posts cannot appear unless they are approved by the moderators, who are the only people who have the right to tell anyone what they can and cannot write about. :)

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  51. No, you can write about anything, but conversations only group messages. They don't have magical powers to send messages to random people. You can reply to a message from a conversation, reply to the original message or use "reply to all" to add all the recipients.

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  52. The problem for me with the conversation model is the fact that it groups together messages from the same email address and possibly the same subject even though they are not related

    ie. I run a forum and have to monitor new topics and replies - because they all come fromt the same source etc they are grouped together making it virtually impossible to use.

    The same thing applies to breaking news alerts which I receive in email which mainly for the forum the breaking news items are not related in anyway but this ill thought out system lumps them all together.

    Ond of the most frustrating things with google is that peole having been calling for the ability to turn of the conversation module since the launch yet rather than deal with that they introduce new features such as priority inbox which in fact clutters the interface even more

    Time for MASS Google resignations I feel

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  53. I know Google is extremely proud of gmail's conversation feature, but isn't it clear by now that multitudes of users hate it? Give us the option to turn it off. I'm on the verge of going through the agony of changing email providers just because this conversation thing causes me to miss messages and spend way too much time trying to figure out the sequence of messages.

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  54. All we want is a choice to turn it off. I don't understand the way people defend this feature. "Since I like it... everybody else should like it. Otherwise they are stupid". If you like it keep it on, but I would like the choice to turn it off. I hate it.

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  55. Please have choice to turn off this feature.
    For some old school people, that they alway ask me when move to Gmail.

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  56. Can't stand this feature! I miss important emails too! Please disable or give us the option of disabling this function.

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  57. Yes.Please give a choice to select it ON or OFF.

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  58. I use gmail for business and get many emails per day. I sometimes need to be able to reference emails based on when they were sent and this becomes very difficult when grouped in a conversation.

    I also miss emails because the most recent email is always at the bottom and sometimes I forget to scroll down to see if there are any more messages. If there is a new message and I fail to scroll down and look at it then I will generally miss that message because it will have been marked as 'read' when I opened the conversation.

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  59. Hallelujah!

    Good point on smart phones. They need to stop that as well.

    And, um, isn't google search technology? Why are labels (metadata) needed in the first place? Shouldn't we be able to do intelligent search without tagging/labeling or moving our emails to folders?

    Dumb

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  60. Looking forward to toggling conversations on/off.

    Certainly if you are using Gmail for business it is important at least every now and then, to be able to look at, print, forward and resend individual messages.

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  61. When conversations are threaded, can all of the email recipients (even when sent separately from me) see all of the emails? I disabled threading conversation after I saw two separate emails to two separate people with no common topic threaded. It was very disconcerting as they were private emails.

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  62. Despite the fact that they supposedly installed the Disable option, I've yet to locate it. I don't really care about the ignorant numbskulls who insist that "conversations" are the next best thing to sliced bread. If GMail's core operating strategy is based on Conversations, and it is "difficult to disable it", then I suggest it was poorly designed. Applications are supposed to make user's lives easier, NOT force-feed them an ideology until they gag on it. Paul Buchheit is an arrogant idiot, if he thinks that he knows what is best for me or any of the thousands of other individuals who find Conversations incredibly frustrating. REDESIGN your damn app and let users decide what features are best for their unique needs! Sheesh, the very idea that hundreds of blog entries are required to get such a simple point across is prehistoric.

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  63. You could use a different mail client to access gmail. For instance there is the HTC Mail on Android. Having gmail accessed through there, or any other client, doesn't create a conversation because that is only in gmail.

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  64. Thanks a ton for giving such a great option of switching off converstation mode . I really dont want to switch from gmail. Threading is giving threat. Thank alot

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  65. "Despite the fact that they supposedly installed the Disable option, I've yet to locate it. I don't really care about the ignorant numbskulls who insist that "conversations" are the next best thing to sliced bread. If GMail's core operating strategy is based on Conversations, and it is "difficult to disable it", then I suggest it was poorly designed. Applications are supposed to make user's lives easier, NOT force-feed them an ideology until they gag on it. Paul Buchheit is an arrogant idiot, if he thinks that he knows what is best for me or any of the thousands of other individuals who find Conversations incredibly frustrating. REDESIGN your damn app and let users decide what features are best for their unique needs! Sheesh, the very idea that hundreds of blog entries are required to get such a simple point across is prehistoric."

    --- Spot On!

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  66. HOW TO ELIMINATE CONVERSATION VIEW -

    While in mail, click on the "gear" in upper RT hand corner.
    Select mail settings
    About half way down the page select "Conversation View Off"
    Save settings

    Voila

    Hope this works for you too!

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  67. To Anonymous: THANK YOU!!!! I was just checking out other email alternatives to move because this was DRIVING ME NUTS!!! Let's hope it holds.

    When I clear my cache/cookies every day on Google I have to go to the gear and redo the "don't use Google instant" and "Open in a new window" and save prefs. Every time I clear that pref reverts to the default, and now they are changing the look of Google again. So now I'm trying to find a clean, no gimmicks Search engine. I don't do Social Media --- none, and don't chat, or play games. The computer is a tool for me as a writer. Hard to overcome the young geeks who do 25 things at once.

    Anyway, I've been researching this conversation/threading problem for weeks.

    Again THANKS!

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  68. I know this thread is old but I want to weigh in...after the fact. I've finally had enough of Gmail's conversation thread. Let's be clear here. This isn't a debate over conversation vs single threads...this is a debate about Gmail's horrible implementation of a conversation thread. Google is so fantastic at so much and yet this is the worse implementation of a great feature. So much so that nobody I know likes it. Some tolerate it, others have chosen to only use gmail on smartphones or fat clients, while others have cancelled gmail. GOOGLE - What were you smoking when you designed this absolutely useless, hard to use, cluster of a feature? The original approver of the design should be let go to go work for AOL! It isn't that Conversation Threads are bad, it is YOUR conversation thread that is bad. Many others have successfully done it in a way that is actually useful. Here is a CrAzY idea...how about focusing the conversation thread part in the email column (inbox or whatever) rather than in the email side (sorry if I don't know what you call your sections). This way, no matter what part of the thread you click on, you only see that email in the display column. Honestly, Why am I having to give you basic design suggestions in 2012?

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  69. yes a conversation thread can be useful but you should be able to switch it off.
    you can't find sent emails or received emails from a specific date if they're all grouped into one conversation thread.
    A sent email from 26 Dec is embedded in a received email in January.
    Gmail search engine won't find it - i just to have open all the emails from the person concerned to see where it's hidden. Who has the time for this?
    How do you print just an individual email? and not the whole conversation - copy and paste?

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  70. Ok I've disabled 'conversations'now (hope ti works) but that's the other thing it's only with this blog that I learned that this grouping ofemails was called 'conversation' .
    When i saw this in the settings i had no idea this referred to this grouping. Why would I? I thought it might have something to do with Messenger and i didn't want to disable the chat feauture
    Gmail is complicated - a tutorial option would be good - other email services are simple and self-evident like yahoo, hotmail etc and don't require it

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