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Why We Need to Make Memes More Accessible

As graphical languages evolve, we need to do better with using alt-text and descriptive text

A meme with a gradient that reveals its descriptive text: The descriptive text from the Facebook group Memes and Jokes for Blind Folks reads: 4 panel comic Panel 1 : An anthropomorphized pepperoni pizza with big round eyes and eyebrows is looking back over its shoulder at the floor of the desert below as it grasps onto a cliff face. It looks worried with a little sweat over one eye. There are 3 lines indicating alarm on — Apologies, Medium has an alt-text character limit of 500 characters.
A meme and its descriptive text from the Facebook Group “Memes and Jokes for Blind Folks”

Medium readers come from a variety of backgrounds and abilities and everyday creators could make their pieces more accessible by using alt-text more intentionally. This piece continues a discussion about how we may improve our work with alt-text and descriptive images.

A few months ago I was a guest on CBC’s Spark with Nora Young to discuss how memes and social media are reshaping our language. The conversation was centered around the shift in online languages as a result of “algospeak” — the way we adapt our words on social media so they don’t get banned by automated content management. As a digital and internet literacies educator, I couldn’t help but wonder how algospeak would change access to online content and meaning. Soon after, I received an email from a listener who is visually impaired who inquired about how this access would affect people like her.

It’s one thing to consider those who have low information literacies, but another for people with visual or auditory impairments. When languages shift, we inadvertently leave some people out. In general, the web and social media platforms don’t seem to prioritize people with impairments. As a result, the more we convert our language — both in graphical communication (that is, memes and screengrabs) and memetic language like algospeak — we are leaving literal gaps in context for readers.

At minimum, an image posted on social media is just a file that contains only the information necessary for it to hold its space within an article, social media feed, or website. Fortunately, the web has always had the option to add alt-text to any image in the lines of code. Alt-text is a description of the image that would be displayed if the image could not be accessed (due to bandwidth, device, or browser limitations) or because some visually impaired people use screen readers to read the web through an audio interface.

Adding alt-text is our own responsibility, though some sites like Facebook use A.I. to add additional information. But what happens when memes get weird or nuanced? Or what about the growing trend of screen-captured tweets as viral media spread across social media? The web is becoming increasingly inaccessible.

Social media sites don’t mandate users provide alt-text for images. On the other hand, Twitter introduced a feature earlier this year that shows when alt-text is available on an image. As you can imagine, it hasn’t gone all that well. The Wall Street Journal’s Katie Deighton recently examined how this new feature is being misused:

Blind and visually impaired social-media users have long had to deal with the sometimes inaccurate, frequently sparse, automatically generated alt text offered by platforms such as Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook and Instagram, as well as web images that don’t include any alt text at all.

Now they’ve been dealt a new issue: Rather than describing images, some individuals and corporate Twitter accounts have used the alt text field to add hyperlinks, caption credits and source citations, without any information that would help a blind or low-vision person understand the image.

Screengrab from Twitter: “Add descriptions —  You can add a description, sometimes called alt-text, to your photos so they’re accessible to even more people, including people who are blind or have low vision. Good descriptions are concise, but present what’s in your photos accurately enough to understand their context.” The prompt in the image ends with two buttons, Sure or No, Thanks
A screengrab of Twitter’s “Add descriptions” prompt

After reading Deighton’s article, I wanted to learn more and reached out to my former student Arianna who is visually impaired. Arianna was born with aniridia, a rare condition where someone is born without an iris. She told me she doesn’t use a screen reader often but says alt-text is incredibly important for her use of the web and social media.

Arianna tells me that alt-text “allows those with visual impairments to have access to the world of images through imagination. We’re able to hear what someone tells us and if it’s descriptive enough we can try and see it.” The downside, she admits, is that if someone was born completely blind, “alt-text can’t describe something they’ve never seen before and expect the person to grasp that image.”

When it comes to memes, Arianna believes that visually impaired people should have as much access as possible to the digital content because the visually impaired should be able to “engage in the conversations that memes stimulate.” Without access to memes, “the visually impaired would miss out on a big part of what’s happening within society. This is why alt-text should be included in memes, but it should be as descriptive as possible. Besides, having an extra tool in the toolbox never hurt.”

Arianna’s thoughts made me glad the listener reached out to me to ask this question because even though I use alt-text on my images, I rarely consider how descriptive the image should be. The listener pointed me to a Facebook group called “Memes and Jokes for Blind Folks” which showed me how beneficial descriptive text may be. A good description explains the context and content before even describing the constitutive elements and jokes embedded in the meme. But therein lies the limitation: length of caption.

In Deighton’s article, one interviewee expressed concern that Twitter’s 1,000-character limit is problematic for very descriptive text. Medium restricts alt-text to 500 characters. On very intricate memes, the descriptive text is even more important. [The meme on the header of this article is only half described due to the limitation.]

Screengrab of a post from the Memes and Jokes for Blind Folks Facebook page with a post that reads: “Facebook post by The Men’s Room reads “When your posting mad memes, getting tons of haha reacts and living your best life but deep down inside you know a 30 day ban coming your way.” Image below of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants sitting at a booth in a diner with a steaming cup of coffee. His fingers are laced in front of him on the table as he stares downward, introspectively”
A screengrab of a meme and its description from the “Memes and Jokes for Blind Folks” Facebook Group

Memes change our language and memes are constantly evolving. Today, many of the most popular memes are screengrabs of viral posts that contain only text. If there is no alt-text added, it’s just an empty post to those who are visually impaired.

Arianna suggests “education (for both the able bodied and disabled) and monitoring is key.” She believes that the people who abuse alt-text are harmful because anyone, not just the visually impaired, may click on a link inside of alt-text because they are too trusting of the person who wrote the text.

We need to be considerate and intentional when we use the web as a tool for everyone. “Alt-text can be an amazing tool,” Arianna says, “we simply need to integrate it with care and consideration so that the visually impaired can also laugh at Michael Scott and Pepe the frog.”

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Jamie Cohen

Jamie Cohen

37K Followers

Digital culture expert and meme scholar. Cultural and Media Studies PhD. Internet studies educator: social good, civic engagement and digital literacies