‘May be a picture’: what it’s like to browse Instagram blindly


Using a screen reader to navigate Instagram, as some visually impaired people do, is a strange patchwork of sounds. It can be overwhelming, especially if you’re used to scanning information quickly with your eyes, hearing the synthetic sound blaringly rumbling over usernames, timestamps, and the like, because they’re all as important as the actual content of the message. If someone added listening to the stimulation, if someone added alternative text to the picture, you might hear something like, “John and I are standing on our ankles on the beach. John makes an anxious face as I menacingly hand out a dead crab and laugh. “

Users need to add descriptions used by screen readers, and like many social media accessibility features, these fields are regularly ignored. In these cases, the sound sometimes plays alternate text that is automatically generated by Instagram or the user’s device. The result, Danielle McCann, social media coordinator for the National Association of the Blind, can tell me it can be quite funny. Descriptions that have evolved years of machine learning still often misidentifies what is happening in the images.

He recently browsed Instagram when his screen reader said there was a photo of “two brown cats lying on a textured surface”. Her husband told her it was actually a bridal shop with a woman in a wedding dress. “Thank God I wasn’t [commenting] like “Oh those cats are cute,” you know? “

Such algorithmic misunderstandings are quite common. Here’s an example of the descriptions I heard when I was browsing Instagram on my phone using VoiceOver: “red polo, apple, unicorn” (picture of a t-shirt with a sofa drawing), “can be a picture of the interior” (Photo of a cat next to a houseplant), “can be a picture of food ”(a photo of sea shells),“ can be a cartoon ”(almost every picture or a cartoon panel) and a lot of“ Can be a picture of one person ”(different photos with one or more people).

With devices receiving accessibility settings such as magnification, high contrast, and built-in screen readers, social media has also gradually become more accessible to blind or partially sighted people: many sites and applications respond to users ’device settings, have options to switch between light and dark modes, and allow users to shoot descriptions. But the existence of these characteristics does not guarantee that people with disabilities will not be excluded from the network. Accessibility of social media is a group activity. People need to know about the features, understand what they are, and really remember to use them. There may be hundreds of accessibility options on the platform, but without buy-in from each user, people will still be left out.

Even though people use alternative text, they often don’t fully think about what’s important to convey to someone who can’t see the photos. Some people write too simple descriptions, such as “red flower” or “blond girl looking at the sky,” without actually describing what in the pictures makes them worth sharing. At one end, multiple pieces of text to capture a single image can be annoying to navigate with a screen reader. McCann urges his friends to think of alternative text as a writing exercise: “How do you give as much information as possible in as few words?”

“The general rule is informative, not poetic,” says the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). “But on social media, you’re free to add a personality — you’re probably sharing a picture of your dog because he has a funny funny look, for example, not because he’s a black-and-white pitbull mix.”

While automatic imaging may eventually improve beyond the level that some cats may confuse with a woman’s wedding dress, they cannot replace the human element. Facebook had picture break in 2019, which showed all its users normally hidden photo tags that showed machine-defined graphs such as “Image may contain: people standing.” Are the people included in this picture embracing and making silly faces? Did they stand in front of a breathtaking view? Social media can feel much less social if access to the content it shares is based on conservative interpretations of computers.

Proponents stress that accessibility should always be noteworthy from the start, “not as an addition to an existing platform in a timely manner,” AFB says. But most popular platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, didn’t take this route during the early stages of development, but are constantly playing catch up to improve their accessibility. When these improvements are introduced, there is never a guarantee that people will use them constantly.

One of the biggest hurdles is the assumption that blind people are just not interested in visual media. “Just because they’re visual doesn’t mean they don’t immediately attract blind or low-vision people,” McCann says. “I think this is one big misunderstanding:‘ Oh, they don’t care about the pictures. “But we do.” When culture is shaped on social networks, it’s unfortunate to lose a common social language because you don’t see the images everyone is talking about.

Christy Smith Berman, a visually impaired editor of Can I Play That, responded to a TT Games tweet announcing Star Wars Lego with the text in the picture. When he answered a request for alternative text, Smith Berman received responses from people who expressed suspicion that the blind would even be on Twitter at first, not to mention the transmission of video games.

These false assumptions often mean that people are left out of fun cultural moments on social media. Memes are usually associated with rapidly evolving iterations of indescribable images with small words in strange fonts. Viral videos are republished and shared without any description through audio or text of what is happening on the screen. “Oh, it has to be someone dancing,” McCann thinks as he encounters TikTok, which has no sound besides music. “Well, no, it’s actually someone who makes a cheesecake. But I didn’t know it because there are no beeps. “

“Many of the memes shared by people don’t add alternative text to it,” says legally blind journalist Steven Aquino. Aquino doesn’t use a screen reader, but relies on magnification, but has still sometimes wondered what’s going on in the memes. “It’s really hard because I can’t see so well, and I just feel like,‘ Okay, that should be fun, but I can’t say. “

In addition to neglecting the ease of use features, conveying visual humor through text is not a skill for everyone. The funniest images are based on comic timing through careful visual composition, prior knowledge of a particular meme, or knowledge of several different cultural references. Writing an esoteric memoir may seem to explain Internet culture to your grandparents: you suddenly can’t describe what made you laugh. The complex nature of meme literacy is not something we can blame on platforms – it’s not just something an ordinary person is used to saying.

But there are other less complex factors that can affect the online experiences of blind or partially sighted people. Aquino points out that people use special Unicode characters in their Twitter screen names that are harder to read and are not interpreted as letters by screen reader software. A screen reader isn’t technically wrong if it reads the sign as a “mathematically bold capital letter,” but most sighted people simply read it as a letter with a different design.

“For people who use screen readers, this software is just so smart,” says Aquino. “So if you have a smart name, your voice or whatever you use will fail.” Tweets that contain lines of emojis or lots of special characters to create an image or convey a italic script can be hell to listen to when the screen reader reads them. Sending a screenshot of a tweet with alt text is a workable option, but people rarely know how to do so.

McCann is pleased that many sites have improved their accessibility over the years, but he hoped they would be more widely used, and wonders why they aren’t better advertised. TikTok has text to speech and warn people While flickering effects in their videos can cause scenes, why can’t all social sites have better prompts to encourage users to add captions, visual descriptions, and alternate text?

“Disabled communities have a duty to educate,” he says. “Why not get more training from these mainstream companies?”

McCann hopes it would be easier for him to join the party when things like TikTok videos spread. “Unless I have someone to sit with me and explain to me what’s going on, I feel like I can’t discuss it with someone,” he says. “It’s somewhat exclusionary because I like jokes. I like pasta recipes. I want to know that thing! I am still part of the social fabric. “

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