The Unexpected Power of Google-Doc Activism

By
Photo: Getty Images

Earlier this month, after major news outlets published detailed allegations of abuse and harassment by Harvey Weinstein, an anonymous woman created a public Google spreadsheet titled Shitty Media Men. It was a space for other anonymous women to name men in media who had exhibited bad behavior ranging from sleazy DMs to rape. There were just a few rules: “Please never name an accuser,” it said at the top. “Please never share this spreadsheet with a man.” The document was live for less than 48 hours, in which time it was shared with dozens of women — and almost certainly a few men.

The goal of the document was not public accountability, according to its creator. It was to privately warn other women, especially those who are not well connected in the industry, about which men in their profession to avoid. This is information women have always shared among themselves, at after-work drinks and in surreptitious chat messages, but the Google Doc sought to collect it in a way that transcended any one woman’s immediate social network. And because the goal was to occupy a kind of middle ground — not public, not quite private either — with little oversight, it made perfect sense that the information appeared as a Google Doc.

Especially in the year since the election, the shared Google Doc has become a familiar way station on the road to collective political action. Shared documents are ideal for collecting resources in one place quickly and easily, without gatekeepers, because they’re free and easy to use. They have been used to crowdsource tweets and hashtags for pushing back against Trump’s first State of the Union address, to spread information on local town-hall events with members of Congress, and to collect vital donation and evacuee info for people affected by the fires in Northern California. A shared Google Doc allows collaborators to work together across time zones and is easy to update as circumstances change.

But perhaps most notably, a Google Doc can be technically public while functionally quite private, allowing members of a like-minded community to reach beyond their immediate friends and collaborators while avoiding the abuse and trolling that comes with publishing on other platforms. Which makes shared documents an appealing way to pass along information that you want to be more open about but don’t necessarily want to blast across the internet. They tend to pop up when established organizations and institutions are slow to address a pressing problem that affects a specific community of people. Only 100 people may edit a Google Doc at a given time, and if the limit is hit, everyone else is locked out — including the owner, if they’re not already in the document. If a shared document goes viral, it quickly becomes useless.

That’s what happened to the OH CRAP! WHAT NOW? SURVIVAL GUIDE, which began when Ariel Federow woke up two days after the 2016 election and thought, “We have to prepare.” Because the election results were a surprise to many organizations, they didn’t have resources ready for immigrants, women, and communities of color who were worried about surviving the new regime. Federow created a public, editable Google Doc on “Planning for a Trump Administration When You’re Not A Straight Rich White Dude” and invited people to add to it. The document made the rounds on social media and soon contained everything from medical information to digital-security tips.

“I picked Google Docs because to me it’s an easy collaborative platform,” Federow says. She thought a wiki might prove too technically challenging, and didn’t want to be a gatekeeper handling submissions to a blog. Yet she wanted to expand her reach beyond her immediate world of mostly queer, mostly white New Yorkers. She thought, “I’m just gonna put this out there, and people will just add what they want. I didn’t think it was going to blow up in the way it did.” The guide, which was featured on CNN’s home page, quickly hit the 100-user limit. Federow found herself briefly locked out.

Other limitations of crowdsourcing sensitive, political material quickly became apparent. The first sign of trouble was a “war in the IUD section,” Federow says. People had conflicting information about whether it was advisable to get an IUD put in. “It got really heated,” she says, and there wasn’t an easy way to referee the debate. Someone also posted misinformation about hormone therapy, which Federow didn’t realize was incorrect until she was tipped off by a nurse with experience in trans health care.

Just three days after she created the Google Doc, Federow moved all of the resources to a Wordpress site, where more people could access it. In February, she stopped updating it. By then, other organizations had stepped into the breach with official guides and resources, and she didn’t see a need to crowdsource information anymore.

Shitty Media Men wasn’t long for this world, either. But there are other shared documents that have served as semi-private resources for smaller communities. And when they don’t go viral, they tend to live longer. One such Google Doc is full of screenshots collected by a woman in the world of role-playing games to warn other young women about an older gamer with a tendency to send unwelcome, NSFW messages. (I won’t link to it here.) Its creator wrote in a Tumblr post, “This is something I, normally do not do. But with the things that are happening I think it is best to share this with others so they can be wary of the guy.” Her goal is familiar: She wants to warn other young women about a man’s bad behavior.

Shared documents like Shitty Media Men and the OH CRAP! guide might work in the longer term if they grow slowly and if people actually follow the sparse community guidelines. That means everyone involved preserves the implicit trust of the group by protecting its privacy, rather than blowing it up into a public spectacle. It seems simple, but in practice is often an impossibly tall order.

The Shitty Media Men spreadsheet “was crowdsourced and open access; anyone who had the link could read or add to it,” wrote Katie McDonough at Splinter, “which was both its foundational flaw and the only way it stood any chance of working as intended.” I’m not so sure that’s the only way it could have worked, though. Yes, it needed to be crowdsourced and broadly accessible, but it could have used a moderator to field the information and add it to the document. There have been experiments with sharing information about abusive people in a more mediated way. The Industry Ain’t Safe, an almost two-year-old Tumblr blog where people can anonymously submit allegations against men in the music industry, is lightly moderated. The anonymous creator writes, “I will not edit out details like names or roles if they are shared.” The Silent Choir is a closed, private network for survivors of assault and abuse to talk among themselves.

If a Google Doc goes viral and disappears soon after it springs up as a collaborative tool, its brief existence usually points to a deep, systemic need. The people who are clamoring to access and add to the document often wish they didn’t have to: They want organizations and institutions to step up to meet that need. They wish a shared Google Document wasn’t necessary at all. The upside of a shared document that gets too big too fast and is gone too soon is that, usually, those organizations and institutions have taken notice. And they’re scrambling to figure out how they can step up.

The Unexpected Power of Google-Doc Activism