This post explores some of the issues that I plan to discuss with attendees at tomorrow’s ScotWeb2 event in Edinburgh, regarding the current state of accessibility on Social Media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. I hope to have some interesting feedback to post here after tomorrow, so for now here’s an overview of the subject. I’ve also thrown in a few open questions to kick-start the discussion.
[Edit: see a summary of the event on the excellent LGEO Research website, courtesy of Liz Azyan]
What do I mean by Social Media accessibility?
Social Media has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in the past few years, making it easy for individuals to quickly and easily publish their own content and share it with the world, without needing technical skills in web publishing.
As with all such revolutions, though, some people have been left behind. Individuals at most risk of exclusion are those who require websites to be fully accessible in order to access the content. There are many barriers which can impact on the accessibility of a webpage, affecting people with many differing conditions. A blind user, for example, will probably use screen reader software to have the content read out to them. The content needs to be fully available to the screen reader for this to work correctly.
There are three distinct issues to consider when talking about the accessibility of Social Media platforms:
- Can everyone publish their own content without barriers?
- Does the publishing platform support the creation of accessible content?
- Is that content then presented to the end-user in an accessible way?
Why is it an issue?
There are obvious moral arguments why such systems should be accessible, as well as some important legal imperatives too (e.g. the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK). Essentially, if these systems are inaccessible to certain users, then those users are missing out on the opportunities and benefits of using that platform. Is it our responsibility, as adopters of the service, or the service providers themselves?
Sites such as Facebook have revolutionised how we build and maintain our social networks, on and offline. Sites such as YouTube have given us access to a huge variety of new media content never previously available. And platforms such as blogs and forums have allowed us to communicate with others and have our opinions heard across the globe.
What are the problems?
A State of the eNation Report from January 2008, published by AbilityNet, claimed that Social networking sites were locking out disabled users. In particular, it identified CAPTCHA as a significant and insurmountable barrier for many users, preventing them from even registering for sites. Many sites have since acted to improve this situation (for example, Twitter recently replaced their inaccessible CAPTCHA with reCAPTCHA, a far more accessible product). Yahoo is a surprising example of a high-profile company still getting it wrong.
Dynamic pages and Rich Internet Applications
Many Social Media sites rely heavily on dynamic content and interfaces powered by the likes of AJAX. Some users may not notice when a page updates, changing or adding new content. In some cases, certain functions may be inaccessible because of the scripting techniques used. Even where the elements are adapted to be accessible to modern assistive technologies, it is important to remember that many users will have older versions which are not compatible.
Volume of content
Social Media is a fast moving and high-volume medium. Anyone who uses Twitter, and who has built up a reasonable number of people to follow, will know how quickly the Tweet streams change and how easy it is to miss potentially useful content.
There is also the wider issue of usability and the common requirement to wade through masses of content to find what you want.
User generated content
Perhaps the most serious challenge to Social Media accessibility comes as a consequence of its very nature – the fact that anyone can publish content. Quality control becomes near-impossible, and accessibility is often the first victim. Is there a way of mitigating against this? Is any degree of content moderation realistic?
YouTube is an obvious example. Although YouTube provides the ability to add captions to videos, for the benefit of deaf or hard-of-hearing users, this is an optional extra that few will use. Equally, blind users will have no access to the visual content of the videos without decent video description. Is it realistic to provide this additional content, or could it make the process too time-consuming and expensive? If the latter, should we be providing the content at all?
Even worse, as Nomensa’s article on Social Media and Accessibility points out, the YouTube interface itself is inaccessible:
The (YouTube) website lacks many common accessibility features. The player is not keyboard accessible, nor is it accessible to a screen reader user. Recently, YouTube have introduced the ability to upload captions for people with hearing difficulties, yet the player itself remains an obstacle for many other users. The same problems are apparent when YouTube content is embedded on alternative websites using the standard player.
In one swift backwards step, the greatest social interaction of all time, becomes an obstacle. Perhaps even an impossibility.
Conclusions, and what can we do about it?
Perhaps the most important step is to put pressure on the providers of these services, to make sure that they are offering accessible platforms. How can we do that? And how effective will it be?
Until the platforms are accessible, we need to be aware of the barriers and act accordingly, offering alternatives to ensure that we’re including everyone. We could also direct our users to the accessible versions of key platforms (Accessible Twitter, Easy YouTube etc) until the original sites improve.
The inaccessibility of some of these sites should not prevent us from using them – rather we should just be sure of approaching them knowing the risks. Indeed, there are other risks of exclusion beyond accessibility – cultural, social and economic factors may all affect whether a person engages with these services, so we can never assume that these platforms provide a complete solution. Are there ways of bridging this digital divide?
- OFCOM report on Social Networking attitudes, behaviour and use (PDF)
- Social Networking accessibility paper by Henny Swan (PDF)
- Blind Access Journal reports that Twitter Quietly Fixes Broken Audio CAPTCHA
- Are Social Networking Sites Accessible to People with Vision Loss? The American Foundation for the Blind
- Deafblind Web Users Engage With Social Media