In the Internet age, crises have a way of turning completely ordinary, unremarkable tools into tremendously powerful instruments for organizing. Think of the way Hong Kong's democracy protesters used FireChat to message one another in spite of the area's overloaded cellular networks, or how Syrian rebels turned to Skype as a way to plan their opposition.
To that list of technologies we can now add Google Docs, the simple word-processing app that on Thursday became a destination for hundreds of Americans as they tried to assemble an open letter addressing the twin shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The authors were largely anonymous to one another. But together, and with remarkable coordination, they took advantage of Google Docs' killer feature: the ability to edit a document, in unison, in real time — something that could not have been achieved a decade ago.
The letter was addressed to the writers' own families, many of whom are Asian American.
"We need to talk," the open letter begins. "You may not have grown up around people who are black, but I have. Black people are a fundamental part of my life."
It was a letter explaining why black lives mattered, too — drawing Asians to the side of another racial group whose decades-long struggle for rights and recognition has directly benefited people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese descent, along with many other ethnicities.
"Black activists fought to open up immigration for Asians in the 1960s," the letter continues. "Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return."
The letter began as a series of tweets from the New York-based ethnographer Christina Xu, who'd seen how Asian Americans had reacted negatively to previous police shootings of black Americans and wanted to start changing their perspectives. That meant, in part, addressing generational differences between first-generation immigrants who lacked exposure to black Americans and Asian Americans who'd grown up in the presence of black people. And it meant knocking down prejudices that can exist even within other racial minorities.
In fact, let’s draft letters in our native languages to our parents and our communities. Get it passed around WhatsApp, WeChat, LINE, etc.
— Christina Xu (@xuhulk) July 7, 2016
Xu created the Google Doc at 11 a.m. on Thursday. By 4 p.m., so many people were contributing to the letter — making suggestions, offering comments, tweaking word choice — that Xu had to create a coordination committee in a private Twitter group to help manage the ebb and flow.
"There were lots of moments of 'wow, I can't believe it's this big now!' from when there were five people all the way to when the Google Doc started crashing for people this morning," Xu said in an interview.
At around 9 p.m., Xu got a direct message on Twitter from a kindred spirit: Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder of #EmergingUS, a journalism start-up focusing on race and immigration. Vargas — a former Washington Post reporter who was part of a Pulitzer prize-winning team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 — offered to help edit the piece by giving it a final once-over. Xu and the other editors agreed.
As the night went on, the work evolved from crowdsourcing the writing to crowdsourcing the translation. The letter will be available in at least 11 Asian languages, from Japanese to Vietnamese, and as of Friday afternoon, the work was still ongoing.
"You're reading it," Vargas said in an interview, "and people are throwing in comments like, 'How is my Chinese?' 'How do you say 'grandmother?' ' 'Is there a word for this in Korean?' 'Is there a word for that in Chinese?' … 'How do you talk about white supremacy? Is that too much for now? Is that for another letter?' "
Collaboration on group documents is nothing new in today's hyperconnected age, where documents are instantaneously accessible in the cloud and files zip back and forth through the Internet with the click of a button. But it's hard to recall a time when so many people crafted a single open letter so seamlessly with digital tools and with as much determination. The Google Doc sprouted a table of contents whose entries were hyperlinked so that viewers could click to jump to the appropriate section. A whole chapter emerged called "Strawmen," which sought to anticipate counterarguments to the open letter that might come from skeptical family members. A detailed changelog tracked which ideas had been deleted from the document, and why.
"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," said Xu, who came to the United States when she was 7. "It was kind of the Internet at its best."
The Internet may have enabled and facilitated this process. But, said Vargas, the spontaneity and innovation that produced the letter underscore something much more important.
"You see the nuances of culture and of language," Vargas said. He added: "That they actually agreed on a letter that is now being translated in Vietnamese, in Japanese and Chinese — if that doesn't say 'American' to you, I don't know what does."