Edit for Twitter’s clarification about their experiment, see the follow-up post to this one.
The Internet has helped us all to think more expansively about the meaning of the word “community”. Prior to the mass-adoption of the Net, most of us thought of the community in which we live, the community where we worship if we practice a religion, perhaps a community that brings people of a racial minority together to keep a distant culture and traditions alive in a foreign land.
But the Internet has allowed us to think of communities differently. In the case of blind people, while blindness isn’t the characteristic that defines us, it is a characteristic which can cause a group of people to share similar experiences, interests and challenges.
In recent years, Twitter has been at the heart of bringing blind people from many countries and all walks of life together. It’s fundamental textual nature, and robust API supporting an ecosystem of innovative accessible apps, has struck just the right cord.
While communication has gone on between blind people, bringing us closer together and letting us discuss issues of significance to us, Twitter also represents one of the most empowering aspects of the Net for disabled people. It’s an equaliser. Behind the keyboard, no one need know you’re blind or have any other disability, unless you choose to communicate the fact.
I use Twitter in both ways, as I think do most blind people who frequent the service. I enjoy discussing issues that affect me as a blind person, and receiving information about blindness-related products and services, but I also use it to keep in touch with issues happening in my city, my country, and global issues that I like to follow.
Sadly, if a new feature being tested by Twitter is rolled out to the masses, Twitter may be much less attractive for blind people.
Mashable reports that Twitter is testing a feature on a select group of users, designed to provide more room for a user to comment when retweeting. Most of us have been there. There’s an interesting tweet we want to share with our followers, but we’d like to add a bit of editorial commentary. The trouble is, when you add your commentary to the text of the tweet, you exceed 140 characters.
What’s Twitter’s experimental new solution? It’s to turn the original tweet into an image, leaving almost the entire 140 characters free for your comment. The problem with this is that an image, not being textual, won’t be read by screen reading software that makes computers accessible to blind people.
It’s possible that if you were viewing such a tweet on Twitter’s website, the original tweet may be able to appear as ALT text. But I know of few blind people who interact with Twitter on a regular basis via its website, or for that matter via Twitter’s own official smartphone apps.
I’m not one to claim the sky is falling on a regular basis, but if thought hasn’t been given to how these images of retweets will be represented textually in popular third-party apps, rolling out this feature will cause Twitter’s accessibility and value to blind people to decline significantly.
It’s possible this feature will go nowhere. Features come and go as Twitter tries and abandons things. It’s also possible that the impact on blind people using third-party clients has been well-considered. But I think it’s better to raise these issues now, and seek clarification, than to play ostrich and then complain about the degraded accessibility when it’s too late.
Already, I see an increasing number of journalists tweeting pictures of documents instead of linking to the text. If retweets also become graphical, then frankly, given how much more accessible Facebook has become in recent times, Facebook may just become my primary social network.
This may not be a bad thing. If more of the discussions that rage on Twitter raged on Facebook instead, perhaps the lack of 140-character confinement might help us understand each other a little better when the difficult discussions get going. Then again, I’ve been on too many email lists to really believe that utopian idea.
I have a real fondness for Twitter, and my fervent hope is that it remains true to its core mission of providing a fundamentally textual means of interaction, and thus an accessible medium that brings us all together.