Email Threading is Disorganized

thread I’ve noticed that I lose track of a lot of messages people send me, and the problem is getting worse.  Over the last few weeks I’ve realized part of what is going on.  The problem is GMail’s threaded message views.

Before I prove that, let me say that this is somewhat un-intuitive to me.  I’ve always used products that allowed me to thread my messages.  And I complained when I didn’t have these tools at my disposal.  The basic argument in favor of threading is that when you look at a large number of messages, if half of them are related to one topic, they shouldn’t dominate your message list.  This seems logical, and is also usually right.  With products before GMail, the products were primarily message based, and I used threading to keep my inbox small.  With GMail, you can’t avoid the threading; its there and you can’t even turn it off.

The problem, however, is that people write emails, and people do not abide by the strict topic of an email discussion.  A discussion with Joe may be titled “I will be out on Thursday”, and then digress into Joe’s work and whether it will be done before he leaves.  It then may digress into a technical thread about that work.  You’d think that search would save you – just search for the topic of Joe’s work.  But, if you get enough email from Joe which is all about Joe’s work, this fails.  The search result which reads, “I will be out on Thursday” will be the last result you click on.

So, the problem is that computers are too good at threading.  You tell them that this message is about “I will be out on Thursday”, and they diligently file it away as such.  Unfortunately, humans are not good at keeping on topic, and it makes threading fall apart.  The inability to break apart the thread manually and file two messages into different places is the final straw which makes keeping organized in a threaded and search only interface difficult.

I think I still like threading better than non-threading.  But, when I have action items or take-aways from email, I need to be able to extract those action items from the thread and store them elsewhere.  This is a time consuming task I don’t do well.  Maybe I’m being stubborn.

Anyway, if you are sending me email, try to stay on topic.  It helps me :-)

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