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activism

How Google Docs Became a Key Tool for Social Justice

Word processors are bland and boring. But lately, Google Docs and Sheets have been transforming the way we organize.

by Tyler Trykowski
Jan 27 2017, 5:00am

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

There's not much about a word processor that's "inspiring" or "motivating," especially a Google Doc. Which makes it strange that something as bland as an online text editor is becoming a key tool for social justice and political activists, and that Google Docs and Sheets have begun going viral in their own right.

Virality was far from the minds of former congressional staffers Ezra Levin and his wife, Leah Greenberg, this past Thanksgiving, as they discussed the election with a mutual friend in a hometown bar. They realized they knew something special—what actually works (and what doesn't) when it comes to getting a representative's attention—and the idea to create a Google Doc demystifying the way congressional offices work was born. They spent the next three weeks inviting some 36 other former congressional staffers and Washingtonians to contribute to and edit a doc, which was then finalized and closed to public edits.

"I don't know if it's a generational thing, but Google Docs seemed like the best place to do this, because it's the best for collaboration," said Sarah Dohl, a co-author and spokesperson for the document and political activism group that resulted, called Indivisible. "I don't think there was much of a question that this is where this thing would start."

On Wednesday, December 14, Levin posted the final Google Doc on Twitter, encouraging others to read it and share. Thousands did; within hours, said Dohl, the group received messages from people unable to download it due to overwhelming demand. They received hundreds and hundreds of emails in the days that followed; George Takei and Miranda July tweeted it; by Monday morning, the group had to create a dedicated website to host the information, because the original Google Doc became unreliable to access. They transferred its advice into a PDF, which Rachel Maddow brandished a printed copy of on her show earlier this month.

Today, the group has tens of thousands of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, and sees 3 million website page views a month. "I go into [the original Google Document,] and people are still reading it," said Dohl, who said they will "always keep it online as a resource for people, and a testament to how this movement started."

The size and scope of that movement belies the fact that it all started on a word processing tool, one lacking the features or flair of other tools that have transformed the face of activism in the digital age. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter spawned one of the biggest demonstrations in American history and became key to the success of Black Lives Matter. But they were built from the ground up for social networking and viral sharing. And while it's the content of Indivisible itself that inspired so much commotion, it's one of dozens of viral Google Docs that have brought people together over the past few years in sometimes powerful ways, reshaping the way some use the platform.

After news that President Trump had nominated Jeff Sessions to be appointed attorney general, 1,424 law school faculty nationwide (and counting) came together to sign a public letter of opposition on Google Sheets. Actress Debra Messing has taken to Twitter to direct attention to viral Google Sheets with representative phone call scripts and Trump cabinet resistance guides. In ways both large and small, politically focused docs and sheets are spreading. Some, like Indivisible, are created and edited by a small group, then locked for further changes before being unleashed on the world; the content of others are similarly written by a select group, but with comments enabled from the anonymous public; some others are simply open, editable documents that exist for anyone to edit as they please.

Docs have also been used to amass information in the wake of tragedies, when those in mourning are often at a loss for how to help. Hundreds contributed to a "Pulse Orlando Syllabus" created by librarians and educators in the days following the tragedy. It quickly spread online, offering a library's worth of suggestions for books, films, TV shows, poetry, plays, articles, and more to help people process what happened. And after December's Ghost Ship warehouse fire, a Google Doc named "Harm Reduction for DIY Venues" began to circulate, in which hundreds offered actionable guidelines to ensure similar venues weren't overlooking safety measures that can save lives.

"A lot of people were asking, 'What can we do, or how do we respond?' following the tragedy," said that document's creator, a Seattle-based curator and architectural designer who goes by the name s.surface. They created it after a reporter asked them for DIY space-safety recommendations; the doc was posted to popular electronic music website Resident Advisor, then mentioned in articles on Billboard, Paper Mag, and more. Hundreds found and edited it, with suggestions both basic (de-clutter your space) and insightful (use easy-to-open "crash bar" handles on exits).

"It was the architects and designers who needed reigning in, because they tended to go into technical minutiae," said s.surface. Still, they contributed the kind of professional advice for which they'd often charge. By channelling the knowledge and motivation of hundreds of anonymous people around the world, they were able to create a widely applicable, easy-to-deploy guide that could end up saving lives.

Google Docs are free to use, and an account isn't required to anonymously comment or edit, explaining much of what's behind the virality of these docs. Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms we traditionally associate with digital activism lack the actionability of a simple Google Doc; Twitter is intimidating for many to use, and while Facebook's user base is gargantuan and motivated, its tools are designed to drive social sharing among closed groups. Sharing nuanced and collaborative information just isn't as profitable as a meme (at least not yet). That said, Google Docs and Sheets weren't necessarily built for massive virality—a Google spokesperson said they can only support up to 50 simultaneous editors, and many docs are taken offline by their creators once they grow too viral.

When you open a viral Google Doc, the blandness of a word processor takes on an entirely different tone. By design, a Google Docs user is prompted with an immediate opportunity to do something—to edit, comment, and share, without accounts to create or user interfaces to learn. And when one sees a slew of other users pouring information and effort into a document about something you care about, it's a powerful feeling.

"One of the great virtues of new media has been to lower coordination costs, and the whole suite of Google tools is a beautiful example," said Danielle Allen, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a scholar of participatory democracy. "You've got your documents right there, your contact lists—Google has already removed a lot of those old-fashioned costs of connection and collaboration. It's a very intelligently designed platform that reduces transactional costs for coordination."

Those costs—the time and money it used to take to organize activists—are slimmer and slimmer today. But as social networking continues to transform political activism, Allen points to a simple reason why something as rudimentary as a Google Doc is becoming an influential part of that process.

"At the end of the day, social work is really basic," said Allen. "This has been true for millennia. At one level, we shouldn't make it too fancy. It's worth reminding people how basic it is and how exciting it is that we have tools that make that kind of fundamental work much easier."

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