Party in a Shared Google Doc

Images courtesy of the author

It is 9 p.m.

I’m sitting on my bed unable to decide which picture of a front door I should paste into a Google spreadsheet. I change it yet again, this time to a pristine pink front door surrounded by a balloon arch in a complimentary colour palette.

It’s 9:15 p.m.

I am stressed… what if no one comes?

What is worse than being alone on a Saturday night? Being alone in a spreadsheet, that is what. Being alone in a spreadsheet that you’ve half-decorated for a party, and sent invites out for, one in which you made a special “coat room” tab and drew a dance floor.

It’s your party and no one came, and it was in a spreadsheet so now you’re not just alone. You’re alone in a spreadsheet.

Dumbass.

“If I organized a party in a shared Google doc who would come?” I asked the Twitter DM group.

“I queued for hours once to try and get into a Jira, but my mate was too mullered so they didn’t let us in,” they replied.

It’s 9:20 p.m.

I hunt around on Google Images and change the front door again. I settle on number 29. It looks like it belongs in a rainy British cul-de-sac. It has two sad balloons pinned outside. This is more my party speed.

I don’t know what the etiquette is for how much decoration or setup you should do for a party in a spreadsheet.

Social video calls exhaust me. Face to face, voice to voice, with nothing in between. Communication so literally and abstractly boiled down to staring at and talking at each other’s faces. The only other times I think I interact with people this way in “the real world” are in job interviews or meetings.

Where is the space for the mundane, the idle, and the liminal… those subtle and nuanced moments that also come with being together?

How does it feel to be with someone and to know their presence not through their face, or voice, or a humanoid avatar, but just silently knowing which cell of a spreadsheet they just clicked on?

It’s 9:30 p.m.

First an anonymous otter arrives, then a moose… three animals… then four… then so many that they can no longer all be listed. I tab away to share the party link over Twitter DMs, emails, and Discords. By the time I tab back, a hallway and a kitchen have appeared.

The hallway is chaos. A flurry of coloured cursors dart from cell to cell announcing names, and guests attempt to decipher their anonymous animal alter egos.

In the hallway.

“I’m V”

“pip here but what animal?”

“What animal am I?”

“You’re a shrew, if you just hovered over that box”

“Nico!” (A moose)

I am a giraffe.

Coats are cut and pasted into the coatroom tab. In the kitchen, people loiter as floor tiles are painted. A cheese and pineapple hedgehog appears, a bucket of beer, some Veggie Percy Pigs™, and a bowl of mysterious punch. I drop some clean ASCII mugs in nearby cells for folk to use.

The kitchen.

My real-world social contexts have shrunk. I navigate living in a shared flat, I walk or run around the local park, I go to the supermarket. That’s about it. The social behaviours, rules, and rituals of other shared public spaces are on pause. In their absence I find myself role-playing them virtually in slight and silly ways. It’s like gently exercising something that for now lies dormant.

The other day a friend and I took a Street View city break to Athens. Starting at the airport train station, we pretended to set our bags down in front of a Greek WHSmiths while we checked our guidebooks to plan a route into the city. Reenacting these intermediary moments, the ones that are slight and easily forgotten sometimes feel the most evocative.

It is past 10 p.m.

The party has grown and evolved. A Peep is microwaved in the kitchen. Someone has animated the dance floor. An elaborate backyard has appeared with a perfect lawn, flowers, and a hedge maze. A new sheet is made, it briefly has no purpose. Someone paints every cell blue, and it becomes “the blue room.” The band Blue appears.

The early commotion of the hallway has calmed down, and anonymous animals spread out across a growing number of sheets and rows. Some people make bonfires in the garden and start toasting s’mores. Others race each other to the bottom of “Sheet 14.” The cops have appeared on “the front drive”. I briefly stand alone on the dance floor tab. I change the queued-up karaoke song to Ginuwine’s “Pony” and dance my cursor solo around the floor.

I feel a creeping FOMO, wondering if something more fun is happening on another sheet. I click from tab to tab chasing the echoes of conversations.

The party has no communal chat log. While I can enable edit permissions for those with the party link, shared Google docs don’t allow for chat between anonymous animals. Instead conversations are typed in cells. There are too many animals to keep track of who is who. I stop and type to someone in a nearby cell. My cursor is blue, theirs is orange. I have no idea whether they are a close friend or a total stranger. How do you hold yourself, and what do you say to someone when personal context is totally stripped away?

Sheets grow down and across. Conversations linger in their air. Over the evening they are edited and built upon. Only in the fleeting moments when something is typed does it belong to any one person; as soon as someone clicks away it all morphs into the same voice. There is no knowing who said what to whom or when.

Sometime after 11 p.m.

The number of anonymous animals present slowly begins to dwindle. Conversations go quieter as people find space on different sheets to focus on making more elaborate creations.

Toward the end of the night, most party stragglers congregate in a conditional formatting “paint by numbers” sheet. Cursors quietly and politely dot around parts of the screen, colouring cells into a house, a snail, a banana, a snake.

It’s getting late. Most remaining animals have gone idle, like party guests you thought had left, but instead, find drunk and asleep in the spare room.

I’m tired and wonder what on earth the correct etiquette is for closing down a spreadsheet party.

I head to the sunrise tab. As I scroll down, the sheet numbers increase from zero to nine, and the colour changes from dark blue to a warm orange. Watching the spreadsheet sun come up feels like a poetic way to end.

I fall off the end of the sunrise. In the blank cells beneath I serendipitously stumble upon two friends who had each sought space away from the hubbub. They are quietly chatting.

I’ve been here before, but just not in a spreadsheet. The feeling and memory the scene evokes are so familiar. The quiet end of a party where two stragglers, friends who didn’t know each other before the night began, sit chatting with a sentimental familiarity that comes from being tired and/or tipsy. I sit with them briefly before they say their goodnights.

It’s 11:53 p.m.

I head to share permissions and change them from edit to view only. I scrawl a goodnight and thank you message on the front door.

After hours

I am a playful curator. I work with game designers and artists to create installations and exhibitions in real-world, shared public spaces. That is not possible at the moment. I don’t know when it will be possible again.

In response, or out of necessity, my work has shifted to the virtual.

Over the past weeks, I’ve helped bring together a virtual field trip through Black Mesa, a landscape photography workshop for spacemen in No Man’s Sky, and relocated a keynote talk from Somerset House to an Animal Crossing island. Now I have hosted a party in a shared Google Doc.

In the absence of the cultural spaces my work usually occupies, I’ve found myself chasing the social rituals they evoke and the reverence they embody through abstract digital recreations and pastiche. In these spaces, familiar feelings and experiences reverberate and mix with new ones.

They are events that all at once feel both practical and absurd.

In a time of such flux and uncertainty, maybe that is as good a place as any to be.

Archive Party Visits
If you’re interested in surveying the debris of conversations and creations from that night then you can still visit the party. Please tread carefully, and whatever you do, do not eat the food. It is very out of date.

A playful curator

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