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Use The Simplest Tools

Google Docs are stupidly simple. That's what makes them so smart.

Use The Simplest Tools

[Images: Varijanta/iStock, Google]

Over the past two weeks, as Americans grappled with the reality of a new president whose platform would rescind the rights of many Americans, maybe you saw one of these widely circulated Google Docs. One listed legal advice and links for groups threatened by the incoming administration. Another collected scripts for calling your representatives and senators. Yet another billed itself as a guide to life under Trump in general: Oh Shit! What Should I Do Before January?

"I thought, ‘What the hell? Maybe someone will find this useful,’" says Kara Waite, the writer and activist behind the calling script document (entitled We're His Problem Now). She created the Google Doc after a friend asked for a script to use while making calls to local representatives. "I thought maybe two people would look at it, but it’s been shared more than 10,000 times from my post and more from other friends’ posts."

Multiple people shared We're His Problem Now with me, just a day after I had wondered why there wasn’t a good web application or well-designed site to help people call their representatives. It turned out, no one needed a fancy tool: They just needed a damn spreadsheet. "I didn’t anticipate the demand for a simple tool like this," Waite tells Co.Design over Twitter. Soon, demand was crashing it.

Waite's is a ruthlessly efficient Google Doc, and it demonstrates the appeal of such a crude tool from a user experience standpoint. It can be shared from person to person, or via social media, with a simple URL. It leads to a public spreadsheet, accessible via web browser, which Waite has organized into several tabs, from issue-focused scripts to strategies and tips. It is nimble and contains almost no formatting. It can be edited at any time by Waite, who chose to make the spreadsheet read-only, meaning it can't be altered by anyone who doesn't have permission.

This is hardly the first time Google Docs have been used to organize collective action or share resources focused around social justice. Over the summer, the ethnographer and organizer Christina Xu invited Asian-Americans to collaborate on a letter to family members about supporting Black Lives Matter. Hundreds of people were involved with editing and writing the letter in Google Docs, which included long, detailed comment threads and a complex change log. "When people were unsure about what to do or uncomfortable with assuming authority, they started a comment thread that invited other people to give feedback," Xu told the Washington Post at the time. "It was kind of the internet at its best."

The collective, simultaneous functionality of Google Docs lends itself to the push to share resources and links for groups under threat in the new administration. Another popular Google Doc, created by an attorney in Boston, organizes information based on demographic silos, from transgender issues to disability issues. The creator made the original document read-only because of demand, but keeps a second URL accessible to anyone who wants to comment with additions or suggestions.

Another Google Doc that gained quick traction after the election Oh Shit! What Should I Do Before January?, was made by the performer and activist Ariel Federow. Federow also created the doc and shared it with friends "on a whim" the Thursday after election day. Designed as a catch-all resource for life in the age of Trump, its contents range from information about the HPV vaccine and birth control to self-defense classes and local health clinics. "It became encyclopedic only because other people came in," Federow tells Co.Design. "It kind of blew up without my planning." The amount of interest it generated ultimately led to Federow moving its contents onto a WordPress site for safekeeping, which has seen upwards of 40,000 views in the four days since.

The crude simplicity of an online spreadsheet is uniquely suited to this particular moment. We live in a world of complex, socially driven platforms, from team chat apps and cloud-based project platforms to Facebook itself. Collaborating and sharing information on a mass scale is impossible across any one single social platform, which is why Google Docs feels so powerful.

Its drawbacks are plentiful, of course. The creator can determine privacy settings, but keeping these docs open to edits means risking trolls, too, though neither Federow or Waite have experienced any negative feedback. There is no fact-checking; these are citizen-made resource sharing initiatives. They are not replacements for the advice of experts—nor are they designed to be.

"It’s this imperfect tool—Google controls it, and for that reason it’s not always secure, it’s not always the best," Federow says. "But it’s a tool that everybody knows how to use. It doesn’t require people to learn things they don’t know." Waite echoes the sentiment: "I’m a college instructor and instructional designer so I know that if things are too complex, people won’t use them," she says. "My life philosophy is pretty much: The simpler the system, the more likely it is to be useful."

The underlying value proposition of the contemporary internet has been that it makes our world more equal. More connected. More informed. But in the aftermath of the election, the democratic ethos of social media feels increasingly hollow, as users grapple with the reality that Facebook and other platforms deeply influence our political discourse—both by serving up content based on users’ views, and failing to stop the spread of hoax news stories.

Spreadsheets aren't in danger of taking over the internet anytime soon. But they are a symbol of the enduring power of low technology, of the simple value of person-to-person resource sharing and collective organizing in moments of outrage, fear, and helplessness. They are a reminder that no tool should be too complex—or secretive—to allow its users to understand how it shapes and distributes their content.

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