Every time I've presented a workshop around social media best practice one of the key points is always: "Be Visual". Images, videos, GIFs - they're all fantastic forms of communication that have become more of a focus in the industry with each passing day.
But for the two million people in the UK, and 285 million worldwide, who suffer with sight loss this is a huge problem. As more content contains text within images, and more posts consist of visuals, these people are finding themselves further isolated.
Most platforms have contained certain accessibility features for a while, but in some senses they've not evolved with the technology that they have created. Text to speech recognition just doesn't cut it any more when there is some much being communicated via photo or video.
A recent Mashable article summed this up beautifully:
Halfway through Matt King’s presentation, the screen goes dark.
It’s the kind of glitch that might make a man sweat in front of the audience. But this is no glitch. King has done it deliberately to bring us into his world, however disorienting it might be for the rest of the room.
“I’m going to put it into a state that’s more like how I operate,” King says with just a hint of mischief. He looks less like a computer engineer than an ex-marine, but with the surprisingly cheerful and calm speech of someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.
Before we can fully internalize his words, King is drowned out by a mechanical voice. “Screen curtain on.”
King begins tapping the arrow keys to scroll through a Facebook timeline, with the voice leading the way. “Heading Level 5. Link. February 26, at 3:53 pm." Next, it recites the contents of the friend’s post. “What a view, I really like my new camera.” Then nothing. The voice is quiet. King is quiet. There is no photo to enjoy. The screen is still dark.
Finally, Facebook and Twitter are starting to think from a different perspective. Matt King joined Facebook in June of 2015, being their first blind engineer. He was clearly the perfect person for the role - someone who has never settled for what's accepted, and pushed the boundaries - both for humans and technology.
For example, King has set racing records as a bicyclist. He can play the pipe organ. He designed and built a house for his family. He is someone who has refused to let his blindness control his life.
What Matt King has introduced is an impressive step for accessibility. Facebook has long been focusing on AI, but so far this has been for more mainstream means.
Now visually impaired users can switch on a feature that uses Facebook's AI to try and identify the image. For example, it will say something like: "Image may contain: pizza, two people, smiling, sky". True, it may not be hugely specific, but it's a whole lot better than nothing.
King has released this application already and Paul Schroeder, VP of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, described this as a "tipping point with accessibility.”
And momentum seems to continue to be building. Twitter last week released a change to how images work on its platform. You can now add descriptive "alt" text to an image.
Alt text has been around for years on websites, allowing blind users to understand what an image is of. Social media hasn't adopted this as most users prefer to upload and forget. It may not be as refined as Facebook's solution, but provided it's used properly it's still a huge movement for the visually impaired.
Microsoft has also been making large steps in this area with CaptionBot.
This all adds up to something quite exciting - the idea that with just a small shift in focus social media can create huge social changes for those who need it most.