Captions and Accessibility: Facebook’s photo catastrophe,and what you need to know about alt-text

So the universe has a funny way of providing. I was sitting here this week, kinda stuck, having zero ideas about what my next blog post should talk about. ‘What do I even have to write about?’, I lamented to my cat. ‘All I have is complaints about strangers calling me inspirational, and long expositions about how I’m introverted and anxious. People aren’t going to keep reading about that!’. The cat was unmoved, and unhelpful. And then, bam, Facebook totally screwed the pooch and broke everything, in what I’m sure shall be known as the greatest photo catastrophe of this or any age. And thus was born, a blog post!

For those who live under a rock, or who actually spent their time outside yesterday, Facebook and Instagram users lost access to their photographs and videos for several hours. Where once timelines streamed with images of pets and food and new trendy vitamins,, there was only “one person, beard, indoor,” or “cat,” or “Jane Smith, cloud, outdoor.” Yes… they were left with nothing but THE ALT TEXT, the automatically generated terrible descriptions Facebook puts on photos to ‘help’ blind and visually impaired people! The horror! The weeping! The refreshing of tabs and the mashing of buttons! Civilizations came close to crumbling, I’m sure.

But guess what? This world-ending thing that happened to you? This is the daily reality of Facebook, for millions of users with visual impairments. The literally hundreds of millions of photos, gifs, memes, and other visual media that fly around Facebook and these other platforms on a daily basis are not accessible. And given the current high value status of visual media, this is a real problem. This is often how people share information, images of friends and family, memes, PSA’s for inclusion and equality… And all of it’s totally important, and, without intervention,  totally inaccessible.

Okay, you say, that sucks. How about you just ask your friends and family, who know and love you, to put in picture captions? Facebook makes it super easy.

First, Facebook actually publicizes the feature that lets you do this incredibly poorly. And second… I do ask. We all do. Over, and over again. Sometimes people listen, more often they don’t. Or they listen for a feel-good day and then stop. And I’ve got news for you; it’s exhausting! Imagine the amount of ‘important’, or amusing, or enlightening, things you scroll past every day. Now, imagine having to stop to ask Every. Single. Poster. to describe their image for you. You feel annoying, you feel irritated, and you get tired. We all realize that half the time people are sharing without even really thinking. It’s quick, and often hardly seems important enough to post, much less describe. There’s no personal slight intended. I know this, most of us know this. And yet… it starts to feel like a slight. It feels like we don’t matter enough for someone to take the time to include us in the joke, or the moment, or the activism. Maybe it’s fine the first time, or the tenth time, even the fiftieth time, we keep trying to be understanding. But by the thousandth time… well, the understanding runs thin. We spend so much of our lives understanding, giving people passes because they didn’t know. And often they don’t know, and we should be patient. But you know, it would be nice for someone to return the favor, to do the thing, so that I have to do a little less being patient, and a little more sharing important life moments with you.

Some attempts have been made to help with this problem from on high. Back in 2016, Facebook had a cool idea to start adding image captions, to help out the folks that couldn’t see. It was neat; it’s always nice to be considered. Only one problem, as people finally witnessed, the captions are next to useless. If you post a picture of your cat laying on its back in a box with its paws adorably up in the air, I don’t think “cat” was the most important thing I was supposed to take from that. If you post a picture of your kid holding up his diploma in a field outside of school, “one person, outdoor,” is not really that relevant or distinguishing. I don’t want to demean the effort, because I always want to give credit to companies for trying. But really, with the state of image recognition these days, and with the bankroll of Facebook, I believe it’s not unfair to expect better. But often, when other folks drop the ball, that’s what we’re left with. “No image description available.”

Which brings us to yesterday. Guys, I have to admit it, me, on my high horse, I’m enjoying myself a little. Scratch that, a lot. I have literally said to other friends, in the past, “Wow, I wish someday I could convince everyone to just post crappy alt-text tags instead of real photos, to give people a taste of what I experience.” And it happened! Facebook gave me a pony! I feel like I’ve been given a good karmic joke, but, more importantly, I’ve been given an opportunity. Because for a little bit, people are looking up from their recently-restored images and paying attention. Writing this post is actually really nerve-wracking; I feel like I have one shot to get people to listen to me, and I don’t want to blow it. I so badly want you to listen to me, to all of us, who have been quietly, or loudly, pleading with you to let us be a part of your lives, your jokes, for years, and who have been ignored time and time again.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made a public plea like this, and I would love it if it’d be the last. I’m much more realistic than that. But if I could see some improvement… if a few more people would understand and follow through, that would be spectacular. I’ll take being ignored by like 20 fewer people… in the accessibility world, sadly, that’s a pretty good increase.

Now, I could go on about this for a really long time. Short-winded I am not. But I don’t want you all to wander away from me and my soap box before I finish talking. So rather than beat the dead horse of my point, I will leave you with the important highlights.

1. I understand that many of you never even realized this was a problem. You weren’t ignoring it, you were just unaware and didn’t know. That’s fine; I understand. Now, you know. So moving forward, you can be awesome, and the past will not be held against you at all. Just do the thing.

2. I know a lot of you who have heard this before and have forgotten feel bad. Every time I start shouting about this, I get many kind apologies. Again, it’s fine. Sometimes we don’t know things. Sometimes we forget things. Stuff happens. When it becomes not fine is if you apologize here and still keep doing what you were doing before. That’s when I get frustrated and want to cry or throw things. I’m not asking for an apology; I’m asking for action.

3. Facebook does a crap job of advertising how to add alt-text to your pictures. To be fair, I didn’t know how to do this either. So I provide for you, the results of my google:

Instructions for Facebook: https://www.lireo.com/how-to-add-alternative-text-to-facebook-photos/

Instructions for Instagram: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/how-to-add-alt-text-instagram-posts/

Instructions for other sites like twitter: https://accessibility.umn.edu/tutorials/accessible-social-media

(I will caveat this one, I think they maybe go a little over the top with some of their suggestions. And they really seem to think blind people hate acronyms. I personally don’t mind them, so acronym away, as far as I’m concerned. Unless someone requests that you help them out by not. But at least this post has instructions on all the different platforms that let you add alt text in one place. Use your discretion for its other suggestions. I’m happy to take baby steps).

4. If, for whatever reason, you can’t add alt text to the picture, then just…type it in the normal text of your post. TBH, it’s probably faster, it’s usually just as informative, it doesn’t have a character limit, and you can do it in realtime instead of having to go back and edit. I don’t really care whether the description shows up on the photo, or if it shows up in the post. I just want the description.

That being said, and this is *important*, if you share a picture from someone else, this includes memes, pictures of text, comics, anything that’s not a picture you physically uploaded to Facebook,you *cannot* add alt-text to that. If you are going to provide a description, you *must* type it up as regular text. Alt-text only shows up for the photos *you* post. But if you add it to the things you upload, and someone shares it, then the alt-text will still be there, and the next blind person will be very grateful.

5. If you’re wondering what all needs a description/alt-text, the short answer: Everything. If it’s an image, whether that be a photo, a gif, a meme, a picture of text… if it’s not straight text, that has been typed in a Facebook post,it needs it. If someone didn’t type it, I get nothing about it. Facebook will tell me “this is text”. That is… decidedly unhelpful. People seem to be consistently confused about which things are inaccessible… it’s all of them. Just assume it’s all of them.

6. Finally, if you’re wondering how much detail to include in your descriptions, I can only give you my personal feelings. But generally, think about what makes the image worth sharing. I don’t necessarily need to know people’s clothes colors or that they’re standing next to a tree, unless those things are important to the point of the image. So think about what about it is funny, or interesting, or important, and describe that. And if there’s any text, just always assume you should write that up.

So, there’s the rant, and the instructions. I hope this was informative, and helpful. My intention here is not to guilt anyone; my intention is to tell you what’s up, in hopes that you’ll help the disability community going forward. Facebook and Instagram worked hard to fix your photo problems yesterday. No one on high is fixing them for us. We’re asking *you*. So don’t feel guilty and wallow, just caption your pictures. If you feel bad, captioning is the *best* apology you can give me. I, and so many others, want to be a part of your lives, and right now, we’re not. I’ve never even tried to use Instagram because I just assume no one is captioning and I am entirely unwelcome there. Whether your friends and family who are blind or visually impaired are part of your life on social media is your choice. You have a lot of power here, in either direction. So I’m just here to ask you to use it. Tell me, and your friends, and other people around you, that they matter to you.

Does it take more work? Yes. Do you maybe have to think about what you’re posting, and why? Yes. Is it more time consuming? Yes. You have to decide if we’re worth that trouble to you. I hope we are. And in exchange, I will be patient, when you forget, or don’t have time, or have to post the description later in the comments because days get hard. It will be mutual, and it will be better.

And if all that’s not enough to convince you, consider this…. If you guys caption better, if Facebook and Instagram break their pictures again, the awesome captions and alt-text you’ve gotten into the habit of leaving on everything you post will mean that you still get to enjoy some of the content while you wait. And wouldn’t that have been nice yesterday?

If you have questions about this, or other things related, please feel free to leave them in the comments. And please share this post around. I think this is a topic most people don’t know about, and I’d like to spread this information.

Alright, that’s really it, I promise. Thank you, truly, for sticking with me to the end of this post. For all those celebrating the fourth, enjoy yourselves happily and safely, and I’ll see y’all next time.

Be well!

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