In the week after George Floyd’s murder, hundreds of thousands of people joined protests across the US and around the globe, demanding education, attention, and justice. But one of the key tools for organizing these protests is a surprising one: it’s not encrypted, doesn’t rely on signing in to a social network, and wasn’t even designed for this purpose. It’s Google Docs.
In just the last week, Google Docs has emerged as a way to share everything from lists of books on racism to templates for letters to family members and representatives to lists of funds and resources that are accepting donations. Shared Google Docs that anyone can view and anyone can edit, anonymously, have become a valuable tool for grassroots organizing during both the coronavirus pandemic and the police brutality protests sweeping the US. It’s not the first time. In fact, activists and campaigners have been using the word processing software for years as a more efficient and accessible protest tool than either Facebook or Twitter.
Google Docs was launched in October 2012. It quickly became popular, not only because Google email accounts were so widespread already, but also because it allows multiple users to collaborate and edit simultaneously. Microsoft Word, the incumbent, finally had a real rival.
But it has always been used for purposes beyond simple word processing. Teens have long used Google Docs as a way of exchanging notes during dull lectures, for example. More recently, during the pandemic, Google Docs were widely shared to help people deal with the stress of lockdown. Shelter-in-place orders led to a series of feel-good lists on the platform, ranging from the one the New York Times ran of activities and reporters’ thoughts (“Notes from Our Homes to Yours”) to virtual escape rooms, socially distant comedy shows, crowdsourced and collaborative crosswords, and community grocery lists for people in need.
It wasn’t until the 2016 elections, when misinformation campaigns were rampant, that the software came into its own as a political tool. Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, used it to create a 34-page document titled “False, Misleading, Clickbaity-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.’”
Zimdars inspired a slew of political Google Docs, written by academics as ad hoc ways of campaigning for Democrats for the 2018 midterm elections. By the time the election passed, Google Docs were also being used to protest immigration bans and advance the #MeToo movement.
Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day weekend, communities are using the software to organize. One of the most popular Google Docs to emerge in the past week is “Resources for Accountability and Actions for Black Lives,” which features clear steps people can take to support victims of police brutality. It is organized by Carlisa Johnson, a 28-year-old graduate journalism student at Georgia State University.
Johnson created the Google Doc in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, but she had been compiling resources since the death of Ahmaud Arbery, whose murder by a father and son in February didn’t lead to arrests until video of the incident was released in May. “I’ve been doing this [sharing links for direct action] since 2014 with my own network of friends and family,” Johnson says. She’d never created a public Google Doc like this, and chose it over Facebook and Twitter because it is so accessible: “Hyperlinks are the most succinct and quickest way to access things, and you can’t do that on Facebook or Twitter. When you say ‘Contact your representative,’ a lot of people don’t know how to do that.” Direct links in the Google Doc make it much easier for people to get involved, she says.
Another viral Google Doc that emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, listing resources for protestors and organizations accepting donations, was created by an activist known as Indigo, who identifies as nonbinary and uses a pseudonym so as not to be outed to family members. Indigo said accessibility and live editing were the primary advantages of a Google Doc over social media: “It’s important to me that the people on the ground can access these materials, especially those seeking legal counsel, jail support, and bail support. This is a medium that everyone I’ve organized with uses and many others use.”
Like Johnson, Indigo had been collecting resources after Floyd’s murder—“bookmarking and emailing myself tons of links” —and found that “I just couldn’t keep up with it. It seemed like no one else could either.” Indigo was frustrated with Twitter, though: “On the off-chance you find something phenomenal, you have to retweet, like, or share it in that moment or else it’s gone forever.” Google Docs was the answer.