On Threading

Luis Villa, in a post to FoRK:

I have found that [mail] threading is overrated, in part because I’ve realized that any conversation so baroque as to actually require threading probably isn’t worth following.

Even though I wrote a threader for MH, I have to admit by now that he has a point ;)

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9 Comments

  1. Posted August 10, 2008 at 15:05 | Permalink

    There is some deep irony (or something) that I end up reading this in a feed reader instead of in a response to FoRK.

  2. Posted August 10, 2008 at 22:18 | Permalink

    Disagree completely. Even if any particular conversation is very easy to follow, once you have five of them going on at once, it will be a hassle to read any one of those five.

    Grouping mails by subject would deal with most of that problem, but that solution is only as good as the subjects people write, and I prefer for occasional missing threading headers to break the conversation vs. occasional duplicate subjects grouping together unrelated threads. It would also unnecessarily break threading when people change the subject in their reply without a big change in subject matter. Conversely, people aren’t good at changing the subjects of their replies when they do change subject matter substantially, in which case you might get several different conversations, each itself mostly linear, grouped together.

    You can see that each of those issues is ultimately a consequence of the fact that without threading, all conversations look alike: an unstructured stream of postings. So in an ironic reversal of Luis’ statement, the absence of threading makes it impossible to see which conversations have turned baroque!

    Brilliant.

  3. Posted August 11, 2008 at 05:17 | Permalink

    Grouping != threading; agree completely that grouping is mandatory. Highly recommend using gmail’s conversation view or sup to see how it should be done for the common case, and how it only breaks down for discussions that are totally fucked in the head.

  4. Posted August 11, 2008 at 05:26 | Permalink

    I see no functional difference between threading and grouping-by-threading-headers, at least in an interface like mutt’s. In both cases I skim conversations, one message at a time, by hitting the j key.

  5. Posted August 11, 2008 at 09:52 | Permalink

    @Aristotle:

    ‘I see no functional difference between threading and grouping-by-threading-headers, at least in an interface like mutt’s.’

    If by “grouping-by-threading-headers” you mean grouping by Subject and Date, I think you’re now agreeing vociferously. ;)

    @Luis:

    doesn’t sup thread? (aside: thanks for the pointer, I hadn’t seen it before. bad choice of name though considering it collides with the venerable BSD distribution tool.)

  6. Posted August 11, 2008 at 10:56 | Permalink

    No, I mean using In-Reply-To for grouping threads but showing them only as a flat list. I use threading in mutt and wouldn’t give it up – but since I effectively end up reading any thread as a flat list, that threading merely sorts the messages into a sensible order, and as a side-effect, exposes the structure of a thread, which I may thereby choose to skip entirely. (I do in fact do this; there are several conversational anti-patterns you can detect just by looking at the structure of the thread tree and the author of each message.)

  7. Posted August 11, 2008 at 14:10 | Permalink

    Justin: hrm, you’re right- I’d thought it was more conversation-view-like than thread-view-like. It does appear that it treats the conversation as the level of manipulation (i.e., you tag or delete a conversation, not an individual email, which is correct) but then fails by showing you a tree view of the conversation (FAIL.)

    Aristotle: I think we’re mostly agreeing. When I say ‘threading’ I mean ‘a tree-like view’. Emails should absolutely be grouped by topic, but within that grouping by topic a tree-like structure is unnecessary- flat navigation with good inline-quoting is perfectly sufficient.

    I think a change of Subj.: does actually, you know, mean a change of Subj., and hence it should be grouped differently, but I suppose that is a matter for discussion.

  8. Posted August 11, 2008 at 14:21 | Permalink

    ‘I think a change of Subj.: does actually, you know, mean a change of Subj., and hence it should be grouped differently, but I suppose that is a matter for discussion.’

    I agree on this point, fwiw. The intention is clearly to diverge from the original thread.

  9. Posted August 11, 2008 at 22:13 | Permalink

    But if you start reading the subthread entirely outside the context of the parent thread, then generally you miss some context at least for the initial posting. If you want to show the subthread as a separate conversation, there needs to be a way to trace back from it into the parent thread so you can pick up that context, should you need to.

    Anyway, the bottom line is I remain unconvinced that mutt could provide me any view that would work better than the threaded tree it already gives me. :-)

    (Which, btw, I use even in my Inbox – I have no Sent Messages folder, my replies go into my Inbox and get threaded. That’s an enormously better workflow than having separate Inbox and Sent Messages folders… and I cottoned on to it long before GMail demonstrated to everyone else that this is how things should work. :-) )