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Ruminations of an e-mail ‘traditionalist’

by Larry Magid
This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I’ve never thought of myself as a “traditionalist.” But after I saw Google’s blog post last week about a recent change to its Gmail service, I found out that I’m kind of an old fogy.

Google announced it is now allowing Gmail users to turn off “Conversation View.” Unlike so-called traditional e-mail programs and Web services — including Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail — Gmail has always grouped together messages into what they call “a single conversation or thread.” So let’s say you sent Joe an e-mail three weeks ago and he responded to you, you responded back to him and then, weeks later, he responded back to you. When you clicked on Joe’s new message in your inbox, you would see the entire conversation in chronological order, with Joe’s newest message at the bottom.

With conversation mode turned off, you see the person’s response immediately, just as you do in most other mail services. And, like most other services, if the person is responding to you, you usually will also see your original message below the response.

I’ve never been a fan of conversation view because, for me, the most important message is the recent one and that’s what I want. I’ve raised this issue with officials at Google over the years and they always looked at me like I’m a bit nuts and unappreciative that they “improved” the e-mail experience by forcing me to use conversation view.

I understand why Googlers and many of its users

prefer conversation view. As with most features, it’s not a black-and-white issue. There are some advantages of being able to quickly review an e-mail exchange, especially when the response to your e-mail comes days or weeks after the conversation was initiated. But it’s also true that there is an advantage to having the most recent message on top, especially if it’s likely to contain important and timely information. I can think of several times I anxiously awaited a message and then had to wade through screens and screens of older messages to find what I’m looking for.

In a blog post, Google admitted it “really hoped everyone would learn to love conversation view, but we came to realize that it’s just not right for some people.” But they couldn’t resist referring to people like me as “e-mail traditionalists like many former Outlook users (who) think conversation view just complicates something that has worked for years.”

Well, I guess I know where I stand. According to Google, I must be an old geezer who likes things the way they were back in the old days. Maybe the next thing Google will do to accommodate us old-timers is to release an Android phone with a rotary dial and a dial tone or force us to use a virtual carriage return between lines when we type in Google Docs. They could offer us a black-and-white-only version of YouTube or maybe even one with captions instead of sound so we can experience video the way it was before talkies were introduced back in 1927.

As long as we’re on the subject of e-mail and “traditionalists,” it’s fair to say that maybe even Google is a bit old-fashioned simply because it’s in the e-mail business.

Speaking at the Nielsen Consumer 360 Conference in June, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said only 11 percent of teenagers use e-mail on a daily basis. Pointing out that teens lead the way in consumer technology, she predicted that “e-mail is probably going away.”

She may be right. I’ve spoken to many young people who regard e-mail as just another 20th-century technology that their parents used back in the day. Just as e-mail — for us — was an amazing replacement for postal mail because it took minutes and sometimes seconds instead of days to arrive, text messaging, instant messaging and chat are replacing e-mail because they arrive in real-time. And not only are texts instantaneous but they also arrive on your mobile phone instead of that old fashioned device called a personal computer.

Based on my observations, it seems as if teens who send text messages expect a response before they would even have time to put their phone back in their pocket. According to a report last month from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 87 percent of teen cell phone users text, and they send and receive an average of 50 messages a day — five times as many as the average adult who sends texts. And, as Sandberg pointed out, adults do seem to be following in our children’s digital footsteps. In the past year the percentage of adults who use texting has grown from 65 percent to 72 percent.

About the only thing faster than texting would be predictive messaging, in which you would get a response to a message even before you sent it. But I better be careful what I wish for. For all I know, Google and Facebook might be already working on that.

Ruminations of an e-mail ‘traditionalist’

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