ACB’s absence from mastodon, my message to ACB
On Tuesday, the American Council of the Blind’s Board of Publications convened for a regular meeting. At that meeting, members raised ACB’s absence from mastodon.
Some members were concerned about what was said at that meeting, and alerted me to it. I subsequently heard the recording.
The following is the text of a response I posted to the ACB Conversation list. Since not all with an interest in this subject are subscribed to that list, I am posting it on my blog for others to read.
Text of my response
Hi everyone, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on an ACB discussion list but it is good to be here.
For those who don’t know of my contribution to ACB, towards the end of 1998, I began live Internet broadcasting, and in mid-1999 I started the first global call-in show for blind people. Because of that work, I was hired by ACB to establish ACB Radio.
In a little under four years, thanks to a dedicated and talented team of volunteers, we were able to grow the service into a trusted international brand offering four concurrent streams, an on-demand archive, and listeners in over 70 countries. I am honoured to be a Vernon Henley Media Award recipient.
I tell you this because my experience with ACB Radio is relevant to this discussion for several reasons.
First, ACB was proudly on the cutting edge at the time that ACB Radio was founded. We didn’t have smartphones then, let alone smartphones connected to networks powerful enough to support streaming. If you wanted to listen to Internet radio, you had to download software, install it, and sometimes give your computer a good kick in the ribs to make it all work. There wasn’t even Wi-Fi, so many of us would listen to ACB Radio around the house by connecting an FM transmitter to the computer and tuning in via the radio. There were some complexities, but guess how we overcame them? We all got together, even before technology as easy to use as Zoom, and those who found these things easier were generous with their time helping those who struggled. So, ACB has a proud heritage of technological innovation that I hope very much will continue.
Now to the topic under discussion. 10 months ago, Twitter’s entire accessibility team was fired by its new owner, Elon Musk. Shortly after, the third-party apps on which many blind people rely were no longer permitted to access the platform. The accessibility team weren’t the only ones to go. Twitter’s safety team has been decimated. It is now a much more unsafe place for disabled people, and the publication of profoundly objectionable and illegal material has increased without subsequent remedial action.
Recently, Twitter has been rebranded and is now simply called X, so I will refer to X in my remaining references to the platform.
X has an official app for smartphones. At least on iOS, it has significant disadvantages over deprecated third-party solutions even when the app works correctly. Right now, it does not work correctly and there’s no one assigned to fixing it.
Not everyone has a smartphone and the accessible apps for Windows developed by us, for us, have been forced off the platform. While some will choose to use the web interface, many find it clunky, particularly compared with the tools that no longer work.
So there are two categories of issue. The moral issue around whether an advocacy organisation should be on X at all given their contempt for disabled people and decreased capacity to deal with safety issues, and the undeniable fact that X is now more difficult to access for many ACB members and those ACB would like to have involved in the future. There are still some blind people using X via the web interface and their apps, plus outreach to sighted people can be important too. Of course a good number of sighted people have left the platform, but they are not impacted by the accessibility issues and are untroubled by other changes.
Now, here’s the kicker. We knew all this 10 months ago. Having heard the recording of the BOP meeting, I understand there are staff pressures, but that’s why I started this message by chronicling my ACB Radio experience. I know there are people only too happy to volunteer their time, even if that’s only a temporary solution until staffing is more stable. We know this works. Volunteers were ACB Radio’s lifeblood. Eventually, we provided live entertainment on ACB Radio Interactive 24/7. People taught themselves how to produce recorded audio so they could be on ACB Radio Mainstream. By comparison, volunteers doing a bit of mastodon maintenance is trivial and could be spun up quickly.
Indeed, Michael Babcock has sought to be proactive and been rebuffed. Jeff Bishop proposed some totally workable solutions. Both of them are highly competent, technically skilled people.
Some people seek to kick the can down the road by claiming that mastodon might be a fad, and that it’s complex. I’d like to address both these issues.
The fad argument. It troubles me greatly to hear this coming from ACB in particular, which was once so conversant with technology. It suggests that at least some in the organisation with leadership responsibility have failed members in their need to do due diligence. Mastodon is a social network based on a protocol called ActivityPub. ActivityPub is based on open standards that we as blind people should celebrate, embrace and encourage. And actually, outside the ACB leadership, many have already. It is an official Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) recommended standard published by the W3C Social Web Working Group. We as blind people know about W3C, because they develop standards to seek to promote web accessibility.
ActivityPub has important benefits for blind people, because it creates ways for different social media platforms to talk to each other. Why is that important? Well for many of us, reducing our use of X, or eliminating use of it entirely, was a big deal. We had built up a community there, then one billionaire wrecked the place. We couldn’t simply take our followers somewhere else. ActivityPub solves that problem. You own your data, including what you post and the list of who you follow and who follows you. If you want to take it somewhere else, you can.
Mastodon is the most well-known network using this protocol, although interestingly, Threads, the X competitor owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, is also promising to adopt this protocol.
The Mastodon server software is free for anyone to download and set up. No one person controls it. No one can do to us what Elon Musk has done to us. It is a huge win for blind people.
But even if development of Mastodon somehow stopped, or fell out of favour, the open protocol remains. We could take our followers somewhere else and keep going. If one app became inaccessible because of a change to the code, it’s an open protocol, so there are many to choose from or people can create something new. Indeed, the blindness-based Twitter apps have switched to mastodon and are thriving with great new features.
In addition to Mastodon, there are many excellent platforms using this open protocol.
In short, there is no fad here, there is a better decentralised future for social media which offers considerable benefits for a population like ours which is vulnerable to sudden accessibility regressions.
And if you want to see an example of the dangers of centralised closed platforms, you need look no further than Clubhouse, which was yet another closed platform without an official way for third-party apps to connect to it. Just this week, they have changed direction and released a far less accessible app for iOS. Clubhouse’s usage has dramatically declined. Now it is less accessible. That is certainly an example of a fad, and of the dangers of centralised social media platforms.
I’d like now to address the complexity argument. It’s different. Everything new can be a bit daunting at first, but just as ACB did during the early days of ACB Radio, mentoring will overcome those onboarding issues some will have. It’s really no different from email. Just as you can choose to be on Gmail, or Outlook, or even set up your own email server if you have the geek creds, you can choose your Mastodon instance but you can communicate with people on different ones. Not that difficult to understand at all. Best of all, no wealthy person can bring it down.
There is an increasing recognition of the benefits of open social media, and 10 months since the great X implosion, ACB is suffering brand damage by not being present on the platform where a good number of its well-connected members have gone. Not only is it about members and potential members, as someone from New Zealand, ACB’s notable absence affects me as well. Because so many large companies are based in the United States, the work ACB does benefits me here. In my role as a Chief Executive in the disability sector, and as the host of one of the most listened to podcasts in our community, I really want to know about the issues ACB considers important. Mastodon has become a key way for me and many others to keep current, and ACB’s perspective is not there.
People who care both about ACB’s relevance and the new, user-centric paradigm Mastodon represents, were first feeling despondent. That despondency is increasingly turning to anger, particularly after this week’s BOP meeting.
At that meeting, the President began her remarks on this subject with the following comment. “I’m not here for a debate, frankly, this is ridiculous”.
As a former consumer organisation President myself, I found that a puzzling and disrespectful approach to mounting concerns from an increasing number of members who pay their dues and volunteer their time.
She then made what I and others believe to be a reference to my podcast, Living Blindfully, obliquely and in the form an inuendo which I think is unbecoming of a President of ACB. She said:
“I know there is some pressure from podcasters outside the organisation and that sort of thing that ACB doesn’t care and ACB this and ACB that, but it’d be great if they actually asked us about that, but it’s more fun to do what they do so I think that’ll continue”.
It is this comment that drew my attention to the BOP meeting after being approached by ACB members concerned by what they perceived to be the impugning and misrepresenting of me and the podcast, because they know what the President said is factually inaccurate. Either she made the comment without actually hearing the episode in question, which I think is irresponsible for someone in a national leadership role to do, or she is deliberately misrepresenting what was said, which is even worse. Those who listened to episode 244 know that I mentioned the contact I made, not with the President, but with others in the appropriate area of ACB, to get an update on a Mastodon presence after some of my listeners asked me to do so. This was prior to the convention. I communicate contact information for the podcast several times in each episode. Anyone referenced in the podcast is welcome to be in touch.
Sure, I am outside the organisation these days, but many of my listeners are not. Living Blindfully is one of the most popular podcasts around the world for discussion about issues of concern to the blind community, and this issue is of concern to many people.
Now I want to address the President’s “we’ll get to it, wait patiently” argument. I ask ACB members, and particularly its leaders, this. Is it morally right and appropriate for ACB to deny some members, potential members and friends who want information about the organisation, access to it via their preferred medium, Mastodon? That’s the sort of thing ACB fights against and would seek mediation to try to resolve. It cannot ask the world to do what it is not prepared to do itself, and the ongoing failure to act in a timely manner diminishes the organisation’s moral authority.
Next, jurisdiction. The President asserts that the BOP has no jurisdiction over the Mastodon issue, because it pertains to IT infrastructure. While this is a valid argument, there is also an alternative one. The technology we use today was not thought of when the Board of Publications was created by ACB’s founders to ensure ACB’s media was not captured by the leadership. Since ACB has made a decision to publish social media posts, it could be argued that the BOP should ensure these are published in members’ preferred formats. In 2023, Mastodon is a preferred format for an increasing number of people. For ACB to continue to publish on less accessible platforms while ignoring the preferences of those who have abandoned that platform is in my view a format issue and therefore a BOP issue. Whoever is ultimately responsible, it’s undoubtedly an issue that goes to the heart of this organisation’s integrity and character, and whether it walks its own talk.
What’s so sad about all this talk and the growing sense that leadership is disconnected on this issue, is that this could be fixed very quickly. It is profoundly regrettable that the President, rather than spending time enabling a group of volunteers who could spin up a Mastodon presence in a matter of a few minutes, chooses instead not just to spread misinformation about Living Blindfully, but then to publicly castigate Jeff Bishop for an email to this list. Shooting the messenger is the sign of a weak argument, and when members’ concerns are being downplayed, it’s demotivating. Demotivation is poison to a consumer organisation.
Because of this misinformation, I am taking the unusual step of releasing to the group an MP3 file of the section of the next episode of Living Blindfully that addresses the topic of ACB on Mastodon. Natural justice dictates that I am entitled to correct the record, and I am choosing to do so here at the earliest opportunity on an official ACB list. I would have done so earlier, but my subscription took almost 24 hours to be approved.
You can download the extract here.
I share the wish of many to be able to keep up once again with ACB via my social network of choice very soon. After all, I can follow Freedom Scientific, NV Access, Aira, Top Tech Tidbits, Pneuma Solutions, AppleVis, Accessible Android, several Internet radio stations serving the blind community and even the National Federation of the Blind, while ACB is nowhere to be found. It’s extraordinary. I have fond memories of my work with ACB and of the pioneering spirit of the time I was involved. Social media based on open standards that no one person can control, no matter how much money they have, is the next big thing, and I feel so sad that ACB is looking asleep at the switch. I do hope the membership will insist that this issue be addressed within days. At least among a portion of the well-connected blind community, this is doing real reputational damage. I suggest advocates who feel strongly about this issue set a goal. ACB on Mastodon by October 1. It can happen. I know you can make it happen.
Best of luck.