Gmail Priority Inbox Freakout: Calm Down, Guys, Opting Out Is Easy

One day life is normal. The next—why is my email being sorted into tabs?! Winston Ross on the hysteria.

While far too many of you spent Tuesday laying odds on the name, gender, and birth weight of a tot you’ll never meet and who could turn out to be a royal pain in the arse, some of us had work to do. So the phased-in arrival of Gmail’s new “Priority Inbox” flew in like the stork, delivering a gurgling little bundle of cuteness and joy.

Or unabated wailing.

That’s the thing about these rollouts of massive changes to the way we buy Groupons and unleash ill-conceived emotional torrents and plan happy hours. They drop like earthquakes, shaking up our e-lives like e-snow globes and then leaving bewildered masses across the Internet to reassemble the shattered remnants.

Or they’re just some nifty new features that can all be reversed with about four clicks of a button, and people should just calm down. It’s all about perspective.

You may or may not believe it, but we talked with a real live person from Google—or at least a very convincing-sounding robot—to help us understand the changes.

Drum roll:

Those wacky new tabs are super awesome, right? Instead of all your spammy LivingSocial emails snuggling up to your important updates from your mom complete with pictures of your grandma who just broke her nose after falling down at the group home (true story), these topics are auto-sorted into an initial offering of “primary” and “social” and “promotions,” to which you can add two more epic categories: “updates” and “forums.” So if you’re one of those noobs who hasn’t turned off the email notifications from Twitter and Facebook (“@wethotlover retweeted one of your tweets!!”) you can find all that useless junk in one place and either ignore it forever or binge on it, like you did House of Cards. Same for all those other categories. Isn’t that fantastic?

No it isn’t, it’s horrible, you say. Or as one troll put it, “Those tabs are stupid and clumsy to use. Why won't Google just put on a sort option? I just don't get their psychotic aversion to giving gmail users what they keep asking for.” OK, OK, we understand. To some of the more butt-clenched users of Gmail, having things all compartmentalized like this is a pure, unmitigated disaster. What if you want to read all your emails—every single one of them—every time they pop into your inbox? What if you always keep your inbox open in a tab in your Web browser so you can neurotically glance over at it every five seconds to see if Tom Hanks (or Meg Ryan) finally wrote you back? What if you feel like Google is spying on you and trying to sell you things based on what it’s reading in your messages, and then also handing over all kinds of metadata to the federal government with complete disregard for the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure?

If you’re mad about that last thing, go read this Pulitzer-worthy piece. But the first two things are totally solvable problems, people. Simmer way, way down.

If you want to read all your emails together, or if you want to be notified anytime a new one comes in, no problem. Just disable the whole tabs thing—assuming you can spare the five seconds it would take to do that—by motoring over to the “settings tab.” It looks like a little gear over on the top right side of the page, right beneath that sexy little profile picture of yourself. Click it, click settings, click “configure inbox” and unclick all those tabs that Google enabled for you. It’s explained with a few more words here.

But grumble grumble the symbols are too wacky, you say. Wait, what? No, really, somebody actually wrote that. Somebody who writes for The Washington Post. She said she couldn’t interpret these new symbols to “save her life” and that she clicked a “very excited octagon and it turns out I was marking all work e-mails as spam.”

For this, we are very sorry, there is no solution. Your life is now just irreversibly horrible.

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But grumble grumble sometimes my messages get sorted into the wrong folders. Fine, yes, this happens. As Jeff Bercovici at Forbes pointed out in a column, messages he gets from people he knows who work at social media companies like Facebook sometimes are sorted into the “social” tab because Google thinks that’s one of those email notifications telling you your creepy uncle added you as a friend. But here’s the thing about malevolent dictators: sometimes they listen to the hordes of protesters gathered in the square. Alerted of this particular glitch, for example, the company’s programming robots quickly tweaked the code over the weekend and now promise that all emails will be impeccably sorted into exactly the right place forever and ever.

OK, that last part isn’t true. But Google did fix the thing about emails from people who work at social media companies, and it promises to fix other glitches like that as they arise.

But Google grumble grumble makes me compose new messages in a tiny window, you say. Or, as another troll wrote: “I can't think of a dumber design move. Eye scans from top left to lower right in most cultures so why are you putting the action people want to do where they would look last?” OK, that’s true; instead of starting a message by monopolizing your whole screen like it did before, now new compositions pop up in a teensy little corner on the bottom right side of your screen, only twice as big or so as a new chat message. But here’s the thing: that’s not part of this recent rollout of Priority Inbox, and to be fair to the company and avoid hurting its feelings, Google started letting people “opt in” to this way of composing messages back in October. The company did start switching everyone over to the new style a couple months ago, but again, people, you can switch it right back in all of 10 seconds.

But grumble grumble Google just forced this upon me without asking, you say. Or, as one “senior writer” on a bona fide marketing blog put it, “It's like waking up in the morning, blundering into your kitchen and finding that a burglar had come in during the middle of the night and taken nothing, but rearranged your appliances.”

Yes, Google did that to you, and it was really mean. What the company did was let you “opt out” versus asking you to “opt in,” which is in general the kind of boneheaded, tone-deaf move that Facebook does to its users every five minutes, changing so many settings so subversively that you basically have to start each day figuring out what the company tweaked and how to undo it. But in this case, it’s really just the one thing, you guys. The tabs. Go unclick them if you don’t like them.

Now can the rest of us please get back to guessing royal baby names?