How Google docs became an unexpected tool for political dissent

Kira Bindrim: Every week, I prepare for a new episode of this podcast by writing out all my questions in a Google doc. Then I invite our executive producer and producer into the file, where they add comments and questions. While we’re recording the episode, like right now, any one of us can update the doc in real time, usually with a note telling me to slow down.

This kind of seamless collaboration is exactly what Google was envisioning back in 2006, when it introduced what would later become Google docs. The company basically wanted to make Microsoft Word in the cloud, meaning you could share files easily, and access them from any device. Today, you’ll find Google docs used by companies and schools all over the world.

But people are also using Google docs in ways the company didn’t anticipate: as a form of social media, for crowdsourcing, for political organizing, and for union organizing. Some professors have found that students are so used to searching for their Google docs, they don’t know how to save files in folders.

It’s safe to say that since its launch, Google docs has changed the way we write, work, and learn. That’s what the company intended. But it’s also safe to say that Google docs has made us really comfortable in the cloud — maybe too comfortable.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: Google docs, the unexpected tool of the resistance.

I’m joined now by Scott Nover, who is a reporter with Quartz covering emerging industries. Scott is based in Michigan. Now, Scott, I want you to tell me: What is the weirdest thing you have written in a Google doc right now?

Scott Nover: I write everything in Google docs. I mean — grocery lists, my aspirations, the first half a page of 20 different novels that I’ve never actually continued writing. Yeah, I don’t know, I’m sure there’s something absolutely wild in there.

Kira Bindrim: I wonder what percentage of our staff has 10-plus Google docs that are the beginnings of novels. I know I do.

Scott Nover: Together, they could make one really great avant-garde book.

Google vs. Microsoft

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, of 100 pages total. I want to start by sort of taking ourselves back in time. So the year is 2006, which means Disney just bought Pixar. Twitter just launched. The Nintendo Wii just came out. And Google as a search engine is actually only 10 years old at this point. Now, if I’m understanding  the history of personal computing correctly, at this point, we tend to be working with software that is either pre-installed on our computers — that was already there when we got the computer — or we are physically going out and buying software and installing it on our computers. And when it comes to productivity in particular, like word processing, that usually means Microsoft Office. Almost everyone is using Microsoft Office. Then Google comes out with docs, which is part of what’s known as a software as a service, or SaaS, which I’ve always loved. So I’m hoping you can start by sort of explaining that shift to me.

Scott Nover: Sure. So if I bought a computer in 2006, maybe I bought a MacBook, I would also buy a big copy of Microsoft Office, which probably would cost me about $100, $150 for a CD that would go into my CD drive, and I would install it. And that was the model for the consumer-facing Microsoft Office. And workplaces would get a company subscription to that. What Google did in 2006 was buy a small company called Writely and make their own version of that. Google docs is essentially a carbon copy of Microsoft Word, and Google spreadsheets or Google sheets is basically a carbon copy of Microsoft Excel, slides and PowerPoint. They put that on the web for free. And then they also let multiple people edit it at the same time.

Kira Bindrim: So Google is really, like, taking Microsoft Office’s one-stop-shop approach to productivity, pressing copy-paste, and putting it online so that it is free for individuals easily accessible all over the web and easier to share and collaborate.

Scott Nover: Exactly. And then they’re charging businesses and schools and other organizations a little bit of money to get support for that and get some more storage capacity and better control over Gmail, which their email product that was pretty young at the time. And, yeah, consumers would get it for free, and businesses would have to pay a little bit of money.

Kira Bindrim: What differentiates Google docs from Word as it was at that point, you know, 10, 15 years ago?

Scott Nover: Yeah, I think the interactivity is behind all of it. Before Google docs, you couldn’t really collaborate in a meaningful way on a word processing document or spreadsheet. You would write your file, and you would save it, and you would hope that it actually saved, and you would send it over to the next person, maybe they would send it back with some changes. And then you would go like that. And Google docs really streamlined that process. So it’s hard to exactly know what Google’s intention was, you know, other than really keeping everyone using Google products and building a new line of revenue. But they effectively changed how we work and collaborate in real time.

Kira Bindrim: I want to actually go a little bit even further back in time before we go forward, which is, we are talking about a world in which people are using word processors on computers, whether it’s Google docs or Microsoft Word to do their writing. What predated that? What was sort of the lead up to the Microsoft Word world?

Scott Nover: So word processing actually predates computers. It is a term that was used starting in the 1950s by IBM who coined it, but it applied to the ways that typewriters would kind of outfit themselves to let users change the margins, and the way that they typed, and the introduction of the shift key, and capitalization, and things like that. There were actually a few big word processors before Word. There was a service called electric pencil, which dominated the market in the 70s. There was WordStar in the 80s, there was WordPerfect in the late 80s and early 90s. But when Microsoft Word was added to Windows in the early 90s, they completely took over the market and have been dominant until, you know, forever, but really weren’t even challenged until the introduction of Google docs in the 2000s.

How Google docs help political organizers

Kira Bindrim: There’s a real logic to the shift to software as a service. Like, if you’re a company, it scales really easily; it’s software, you don’t have to mail physical things out to Best Buy; it’s profitable, because, again, tons of people using it, but it’s just software; it brings a lot of people into your ecosystem. So that sort of trajectory for Google makes sense. I want to dig into some of the use cases that are less expected that I was talking about in the very beginning. What I’m hearing is that docs is more transparent, it’s more collaborative, it’s more accessible, and it’s largely free for casual users. So when you think about it like that, you can start to imagine some of the things that people could get up to there. But talk me through a few of the examples of how Google docs is being used today, not for work and writing amateur novels.

Scott Nover: Sure. I think there’s a few really interesting use cases. First, it’s kind of a social media for these kids that are going to school using these products. There was a fascinating piece in The Atlantic a few years ago about how kids in schools are using the chat functions on Google docs to kind of essentially pass notes without, you know, folding up a Post-It and throwing it across the room. Or if they’re being watched, they would write in the Google doc and then delete it in real time, and just use it as kind of like a shared notepad. So that’s, I think, fascinating. There’s also a lot of like, mass broadcasting that happens on Google docs for political purposes or other sort of organizing purposes. You can make a Google doc that is updated in real time and share it with the world. I saw a lot of that after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer in response to the killing of George Floyd. There were a lot of resource documents and kind of calls to action and some other kind of — I just saw Google docs being used in innovative ways to get the word out in a kind of a time of crisis, when information was changing, where the owners could send out this document and update it in real time, educate people based on, you know, new cases that they were looking at and things to be aware of. It was a really powerful tool at the time. And then I’ve also seen it as a really interesting union organizing space for workers who are trying to collaborate on what they want and what they want from their company. The only thing I would say is, if you are trying to do that, make sure you’re not logged into your workplace’s account when you’re doing that, because that could spell trouble if they have access to that.

Kira Bindrim: It reminds me a little bit of Twitter, which, as we’re talking about, launched in 2006. And this idea that sort of this text-based tool for social movements could be really powerful because you have scale, and you have the ability to be anonymous, which we’ll talk a little bit more about, and you have pretty much easy access if you have an internet connection. And that can be this real force for good, as we saw in like the Arab Spring for Twitter, but also you hand over a lot of privacy and security, and it can also be a force for bad, as we saw with everything on Twitter since then.

Scott Nover: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s so much good on the internet and there’s so much good that free tools have given us. There’s a lot of problems with ad-supported media and social media — you know, name a social network, and they have tons of issues. But the net effect of having a Twitter or a Google doc be free is invaluable and I think really democratizing in a way that we don’t, that we used to talk a lot about last decade, and not so much anymore.

Kira Bindrim: After the break, is the productivity tool of the resistance actually secure?

ad break

Kira Bindrim: One of the things that we keep touching on, both in our positive examples here, and in some of you know, the negative ones, or the ones that expose security issues, is that there are unintended consequences to new technology. So, yes, it’s amazing that you can access your docs from anywhere, and it’s free. But there are also all of these other considerations about who else might have access, or how your documents could come back to haunt you, or literally, who will have them after you die. So I’m curious for you, as a user of Google docs, and also someone who has been thinking and doing research on this, what do you see as some of those big picture questions or consequences that come up as a result of this shift?

Scott Nover: I think the most consequential thing that Google docs did — and when I say Google docs, I mean Gmail, and Google docs, and sheets, and this entire suite — it really rapidly accelerated our path to browser-based, always-online, cloud-based life and computing. So everything has gone from being, you know, there’s a joke in Zoolander about the files are in the computer, and they’re shaking the computer to find it — to, you know, it existing in the cloud, which is, sounds mysterious, but what you need to know about that is, it’s not just on your computer, it’s on your computer no matter where you access it. And it’s in a data storage center somewhere in the world. That is a good thing, and it’s a bad thing, depending on security, and who has access to it, and privacy, and maybe advertising. There is just more data that is everywhere and accessible everywhere, as opposed to files lost in your old iMac or something. Or Dell.

Privacy and security in the Google universe

Kira Bindrim: More likely to be lost on your old Dell. I want to talk more about the security of what people put into Google docs — both the security from outsiders or hacker, and then also the security from from Google itself, which of course has access to all of these docs. And it is really a question of like, how secure is the cloud? But even just saying that question out loud puts me to sleep. So instead, we’re going to play a game, are you ready?

Scott Nover: Sure.

Kira Bindrim: The game is called ‘Rank My Anxiety.’ I’m going to give you a scenario, a Google doc scenario. And you are going to tell me if it is unlikely, possible, or very likely. Scenario one: A hacker gets into my Google docs and finds all of my diary entries, which are full of mean comments about my coworkers,. The hacker emails, those files to everyone in my contact list.

Scott Nover: It’s totally possible. It mostly depends on your level of personal security. I would say it’s most possible through kind of run-of-the-mill means — phishing scams and other ways that people can get your password and ‘hack into it’ that way. So that’s probably your biggest liability. And the best way you can kind of protect yourself is also simple: enabling two-factor authentication. So I would say, yes, if someone gets access to your account, they could leak whatever. But take some basic steps and lock your stuff down.

Kira Bindrim: That’s incorrect, Scott, it is unlikely because I would never, ever write mean things about my coworkers in my diary.

Scott Nover: I meant you broadly.

Kira Bindrim: Okay. Okay, scenario two: I keep my grocery lists in Google docs, as we do. And I have decided I want to get really into making pies. So I copy down 15 different pie recipes. And soon enough, I start seeing ads all over the internet, all over Chrome, for pie crusts and pie filling.

Scott Nover: I love the conspiracy behind it. This is complicated. I would say it’s pretty unlikely at this point that, if the only place in the world that you’ve put that information is Google docs, that it shows up in your ads. But let’s dig into this for a second. So it used to be, if there’s anything in your email in your Gmail account, Google was using that for advertising. They’ve said that they stopped that practice in 2017. I’m not sure if they were ever digging into Google docs to do that and to sell information. Now, I would say if you are writing a list about pies, you’ve probably also Googled pies at some point, or recipes. And that is how you’re seeing those ads, because Google owns the entire ecosystem — they own the search, they own the advertising network. They don’t need to look at your recipe in Google docs, they have other means.

Kira Bindrim: So only if I’m copying pie recipes out of a pie recipe book into Google docs, am I…

Scott Nover: If you’ve never thought about pies before, and that’s the first time, then I think you’re probably good.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, scenario three: I am a middle school student who received a free Chromebook from my school during the pandemic. And if you’re not familiar, a Chromebook is a laptop that runs basically the Google suite and just that, so you can just use all the Google stuff through the internet. Even though school is back in person, and I’m not happy about it, I get to keep my Chromebook, which is exciting. And in my Google docs, my friends and I have a file where we write about all of the teachers we hate. The school finds the document, and we all get detention.

Scott Nover: That’s very likely, depending on how sophisticated your school administrator is. Just as a general rule, the administrator of a company or school’s Google account that they’re paying for, I would assume that they have access to anything in there. That includes your emails and your documents and things like that. That’s why I said before, with union organizing, you know, be careful.

Kira Bindrim: Kids, I hope you’re listening, don’t write your burn books in school-sponsored Google docs.

Scott Nover: All of our high school listeners.

Sharing sensitive and confidential information

Kira Bindrim: Alright, scenario four: A spreadsheet circulates inviting people in the media to anonymously submit stories of workplace sexual harassment, including accusing other people in the media by name. In this scenario, I add my own story to the spreadsheet, and I named the person who harassed me. Now, years later, there is a defamation lawsuit, and I am liable for what I wrote anonymously in this document.

Scott Nover: This is complicated. So, you’re probably okay. US citizens have protected speech rights even when they’re anonymous. But there are certain circumstances in which Google could be subpoenaed to ‘unmask’ the person who is speaking anonymously. So it’s not completely guaranteed under every judicial interpretation that, you know, you will stay anonymous forever. So there is some risk. And then your liability for defamation really depends on a couple of things. Is what you said true or false? It’s not defamation if it’s true. And then it then it also kind of depends on how famous the person is that you are, ‘defaming.’ So I don’t want to get too into media law here, but you’re probably okay. But know that nothing is always guaranteed to be anonymous forever. And there are lots of people, you know, powerful people who would love to kind of unmask their critics in a court of law. And that has happened before.

Kira Bindrim: I was gonna say, this one is actually pretty close to a real-world example. Do you want to tell us a little more about that?

Scott Nover: I think what happened with the Shitty Media Men list is that the creator of the document was sued, Moira Donegan who kind of revealed herself, I think that’s what happened. So I think it’s slightly different. So the anonymous part of it is not here, because she identified herself publicly. But yeah, the Shitty Media Men list was a really innovative kind of way to organize and to kind of tell people who the quote ‘bad actors’ were in the media industry that were abusing people.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, to go back to some of our political organizing examples, we’ve also written about how Google docs has been used in Hong Kong to help people organize resistance movements. And we’re certainly seeing now that, if you were a person who ran a Google doc that was a tool for the resistance that from the Chinese government’s perspective, you could be getting in trouble for that. But also that it’s used as a tool for resistance.

Scott Nover: I will say, lawyers do not like Google docs because it is auto saving a million different copies of something. So they much prefer Word documents where you can have something and then save and then have another copy if you need it.

Kira Bimdrim: Redline it.

Scott Nover: Redline it.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, last scenario: I am 100 years old and I have been keeping a series of letters to my descendants in Google docs. One night, at 100 years old, I passed away peacefully in my sleep. And the next day, my great-grandchildren are able to show everyone how to read my memoirs, which I have titled Revision History in a little nod to Google docs. And they’re all amazed by how insightful I am. And they miss me so much. Likely? Unlikely? What do you think?

Scott Nover: First of all, rest in peace.

Kira Bindrim: Thank you so much.

Scott Nover: Congrats on 100 though. It’s very likely, but you need to have been savvy enough to think of that ahead of time. I think this is so fascinating. There’s tons of tools right now to kind of make sure that your ‘digital legacy’ lives on. People think a lot about wills, and about what they’re passing on and their you know, their furniture and their jewelry and their car and other kind of real-life things, but not so much about their online life. And so a lot of people pass away and don’t think about what happens to something that might be in their email if their loved one can’t access it. Luckily, there’s a way to set this up. And I just did it yesterday, actually. So you can go into your settings in Google, and, you know, click on something that says ‘Make a plan for your digital legacy.’And then you can select a person, I put in my fiancee’s email address and her phone number, and God forbid I die, she will have access to my Gmail account, and my documents, and all of that good stuff. It’s incredibly morbid, but it’s actually really important to think about these things, Facebook has a tool to do something similar. A lot of social media companies, a lot of internet companies, have tools to kind of plan for the worst-case scenario, or the inevitable, you know, however morbid you want to get. But it’s super important.

Kira Bindrim: That it’s so interesting, I did not…who in my life will I bestow this honor on?

Scott Nover: Or burden.

Kira Bindrim: …Honor on to read all of my diary entries, and half-started novels?

Scott Nover: I mean, maybe you don’t think highly of your internet life, and you really don’t want your loved ones to see. And you can also set your Gmail to self-destruct.

Kira Bindrim: I was going to ask that, I would like that option.

Scott Nover: You can do that. You can say ‘I don’t want anyone in there. And I want this to poof, go away.’ And you should do that in advance because, fun fact, the dead have no privacy rights.

Kira Bindrim: I also think it would be fun to write a will in Google docs, where you just list out all of your belongings and then have people come in and like comment on what they want, or you know, have some back and forth.

Scott Nover: That could be nefarious, though, with people deleting things. And then…

Kira Bindrim: It’s true. Well, revision history, Scott, it’s all transparent. I would know.

Scott Nover: I think you’re onto something.

Staying in the Google ecosystem

Kira Bindrim: Thank you for playing ‘Rank My Anxiety.’ Do you think there are any ramifications of how dependent we are on Google for these services? I mean, on the one hand, we were just as dependent on Microsoft Office, and certainly they went to court over our dependence on them as a singular company. But now that’s true for Google. And we see that elsewhere  in the tech world. There was an Amazon Web Services outage that took down massive parts of the internet, including our, Quartz’s, ability to send email. And it just reminded all of us that we are so dependent on these companies to run our lives and our work.

Scott Nover: I was thinking about this today. I was wondering if you could be on the internet and avoid Microsoft. And the answer, I think is probably. And that’s incredible, because Microsoft is one of the biggest companies in the world still. But Google is almost unavoidable. And that is really part of the net effect of Google docs and moving all of this word processing on to the browser is you can live entirely in Google’s ecosystem. You can boot up Chrome, which is now the number one web browser by market share. You can use Google search, you can get ads that are powered by Google, you can be on websites that are hosted on Google’s cloud services, you can use Google docs, you can use Google sheets — you know, it is pretty unavoidable. And I think that that has huge ramifications in terms of who controls the internet and who controls your experience. And just the number of different monopolies that they have in the internet space is something that I don’t think that we as a society, or the United States as a regulatory power really have the tools to grapple with.

Kira Bindrim: What do you think could kill Google docs?

Scott Nover: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I think that the market is dominated by these two products, Microsoft Word and Google docs, that are identical. I mean, there’s very little difference. I think PowerPoint is just a better product than slides. But the other two are basically the same thing. So I don’t know, I think if anything could ‘kill’ them, it’d be something that looks very different and is not a carbon copy of the same exact software. But we haven’t really seen that.

Kira Bindrim: I have one last question for you, Scott. What is your favorite fun fact about Google docs, or just something really interesting that we didn’t have time to get to today?

Scott Nover: All right, this is super practical and it always blows people’s minds when they don’t know it. If you’re on Chrome, you can start a new document just by typing If you go to your Chrome browser and type, it will open a new document. You can open sheets the same way — will open a new Google sheet.

Kira Bindrim: That’s crazy.

Scott Nover: Yeah, that always blows people’s minds.

Kira Bindrim: I think the older you get, it’s hard to adopt shortcuts. You’re just like, well, this is how I’ve done it. I open the tab, start a new document. But no, I will do it now.

Scott Nover: When you have the the neural chip from Black Mirror you’ll be able to rewind your memories and remember better.

Kira Bindrim: Thanks for joining me, Scott. This was a great convo.

Scott Nover: Thanks for having me.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Scott Nover in Michigan.

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