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 time,” says Edward Saperia, who initially used Google Docs to build Coronavirus Tech Handbook, a crowdsourced directory of tools, services, and resources for Covid-19 response.

The proliferation of viral Google Sheets and Google Docs that break is a sign that collaboration has outgrown the collaboration tools at our immediate disposal. As the demographic of organizers and contributors has broadened and the scale of these projects has exploded, tools everyday citizens can use to spearhead these efforts have yet to catch up.

Google Docs and Google Sheets were first built more than a decade ago to allow individuals to “get feedback and contributions from others […] without having to email around copies of files.” They were designed to facilitate the kind of collaboration we might reasonably attempt via email — not widespread resources and movements. A Google support page states that “up to 100 people with view, edit, or comment permissions can work on a Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides file at the same time” and has a section devoted to troubleshooting files that become unresponsive after being shared with many people, recognizing the common pitfall.

Google is not alone in this regard; Dropbox Paper, a competing collaborative editing tool, also imposes a limit on the number of concurrent collaborators.

In an email to OneZero, Jonathan Rochelle, the lead product manager for Google’s suite of collaborative tools from 2005 to 2013, said that he and his team found that having more than 25 to 50 editors on a single document made it hard for people to collaborate effectively. Before joining Google, Rochelle founded 2Web Technologies, a company Google acquired whose web-based spreadsheet products for large enterprises later grew into Google Sheets. Having spent years building collaborative tools, Rochelle says the problem with scaling them isn’t necessarily about the technology itself. When large groups attempt to mobilize around common goals in real life, structure and organization are necessary, and this holds true even when the interactions are conducted online. Collaborative tools that can accommodate large numbers of contributors will need to be designed in a way that offers enough guidance that people can easily understand how to contribute, but not too much that they feel restricted. In Rochelle’s experience, “social norms take over” when many people attempt to edit the same document. “People try to get out of each other’s way — the same way people avoid talking over each other in meetings.” At the same time, when dozens of people try to edit the same document, they may also simultaneously try to edit the same cell or line of text. Google’s limits on the number of concurrent contributors can help reduce the likelihood of users encountering these sorts of usability challenges.

“Whenever you loaded the page, it would just fail half the time.”

Considering the limitations of today’s most widely known tools for collaboration, a future where Kaluvai is able to quickly and easily create her class exchange system and Saperia his crowdsourced handbook will require more sophisticated tools.

There are two different paths to this future: One focuses on perfecting tooling for collaboration itself while the other strives to grant individuals the autonomy to build custom solutions for their causes.

The first way these tools could evolve is by offering features designed specifically to foster mass collaboration and information gathering. After building the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, Saperia, who is dean of the London hub for civic technology Newspeak House, began working with his colleagues on a tool designed for collaboration at scale. They created Docs Plus, a project funded by Nesta and Grant for the Web that augments the document format with features that support better organization, community building, and more, drawing inspiration from other productivity tools, such as Zoom, Slack, and MediaWiki. “Google Docs has shown us that things that look like documents are compelling,” Saperia said when describing the advantages of Google Docs. “People understand them and can edit them without too many problems.”

Another approach to overcoming the limits of Google Sheets is not to build a better platform, but to imagine a future with technology that better supports citizens in bringing their ideas to life, one in which Kaluvai herself is able to build a custom application to facilitate class swapping as easily as she can create a Google Sheet. This reality — one where someone can build software without special skills — is what the no-code movement is chasing.

Over the last decade, companies such as Webflow and Bubble have formed with aspirations to create visual tools that allow anyone — including and especially those without programming backgrounds — to create powerful websites and applications. Building software today, Webflow’s co-founder Vlad Magdalin says, is “a specialized craft and trade that is unnecessarily complex and unnecessarily exclusionary.” No-code tools allow people to build websites and applications using visual drag-and-drop interfaces instead of code. In the same way platforms such as Squarespace and Wix enable people to launch websites without understanding HTML and CSS, platforms such as Webflow and Bubble allow people to create interactive and dynamic websites without having to understand the mechanics of making network requests or interacting with databases.

G Suite has steadily added features somewhat designed in the spirit of no-code. By pairing a Google Form with a publicly viewable Google Sheet containing the form’s responses, for instance, you’ve tossed together a basic website that allows you to collect and display information without writing a single line of code. In fact, Kaluvai may have been able to avoid some of the difficulties she faced had she implemented the class exchange using a Google Form and view-only Google Sheet in the first place. However, to fully embrace the spirit of no-code, Google’s tools would have to be designed, trusted, and understood by their users to be for the creation and deployment of powerful custom solutions to the causes they care about. In their current state, they are not; documents become unresponsive with high levels of traffic, privacy concerns with Google and its products continue to grow, and the Google Form plus Google Sheet solution is not obvious, even for someone who is comfortable using technology.

If anyone who uses the web could also create for it, we might begin eroding the exclusionary forces that help perpetuate the economic disparity that exists in part because a limited segment of the population understands how to build solutions and create value using software.

When Stella Nguyen, a UCLA student from Vietnam, came across Kaluvai’s spreadsheet, she “found it comforting that many students — international or not — were coming together.” Google Docs has helped get us here, to an era where anyone who can create and edit a document can feel empowered to help others and foster hope and connection. Now, we just need tools that are as ambitious as we are.

I like thinking about culture and technology. I used to write code at DoorDash and Stripe.

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