Social Movements Are Pushing Google Sheets to the Breaking Point
A sea of viral Google Sheets and Docs that break attests to the need for scalable collaboration tools
For a brief period, panicking international students across the nation found hope in a Google Sheet.
When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced on July 6 that international students who weren’t enrolled in courses meeting in-person could face deportation in the fall, Sumana Kaluvai — the creator of H-4 Hope, a Facebook group that supports students of varying immigration backgrounds — built a system for connecting international students with peers who were willing to surrender their seats in courses that could grant their classmates the right to stay in the country. She used the closest tool in her reach, Google Sheets, to facilitate these class exchanges and began circulating the resource on social media.
Her spreadsheet quickly went viral, attracting levels of traffic that rendered it unresponsive. McClain Thiel, a data science student at the University of California, Berkeley, eventually reached out and offered to build a website to replace the Google Sheet, and on July 9, they launched Support Our International Students. Though ICE would rescind the policy days later, their new website managed to mitigate the problems the original Google Sheet encountered.
Kaluvai’s experiences and challenges with using Google Sheets to organize are not unique. In the past decade, Google’s suite of collaborative tools has steadily gained prominence in social movements and other forms of widespread collaboration. It was used to organize Occupy Wall Street movements in 2011, disseminate resources for protesting after the U.S. election in 2016, and assemble response to the California wildfires in 2017. During 2020, these tools have earned a reputation as “the social media of the resistance;” they have played a key role in the formation of pandemic mutual aid groups, the organization of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the aggregation of allegations in the gaming industry’s #MeToo reckoning.
But when these resources go viral, they often encounter limitations of G Suite. “Whenever you loaded the page, it would just fail half the…