The Accessibility and Ethics of Facebook

A digital product I use way too much (read: every day, multiple times a day) is Facebook. I’m pretty sure that many folks out there would raise their hands and agree. So I decided to take a look at the accessibility and ethics of my digital drug of choice.

I started my research by clicking into the search field and attempting to tab through every link to see what order the links would progress (would it be logical?) and if I would find anything from it. I honestly wasn’t very sure what I should look for next, since I don’t have any kind of accessibility tool or assistant to use and see what issues a user with a disability would encounter. I decided to research and see what others were saying about Facebook’s accessibility. Quite a few people are writing about it. Including Facebook. In fact, Facebook had no less than 2 separate links (and a post written by the President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind) that came up upon quick Google search. Here is a screenshot from the Facebook Help Center:

Facebook’s Accessibility Help Page

It’s incredibly heartening to see the efforts Facebook has gone to in order to make their site as accessible to users with disabilities as possible. In fact, it was at the behest of the President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind that in 2007, Facebook began making design changes with accessibility in mind and created their accessibility help page. Carl Augusto, describes what it’s like to use a site that is not accessible:

The challenge is that not all Web pages are compatible with screen readers and magnifiers. When a website is built without regard to accessible design, screen reading software cannot interpret the information, which prevents the blind person from accessing the site. Social networking sites present some especially difficult challenges. For instance, images are an important part of the site experience, but it is rare that photos get described. Even while in the middle of reading a page, comments or links can change in ways that are undetectable to the screen reader or fall outside the viewing window of screen-magnification.

But while Facebook has done great work designing for accessibility, there is something of a darker side to the site. Often times, the site tricks users into giving more personal information than they may intend in order to use an app within the site, or take a quiz, etc. Now, one could argue that these deceptive practices are not actually Facebook but instead the companies who create these apps or quizzes, however it all takes place within the confines of the site, and Facebook clearly has signed off on this. In fact, there is a name in the field for the confusing interfaces that trick users into giving more personal information than they intended — privacy Zuckering.

So is Facebook good or bad? There are definitely shades of grey to the site. For now I’ll keep using it (begrudgingly and yet willingly) until I stage my own intervention.

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