Dear Facebook: We Need To Talk

Facebook, honey, we need to talk. Seriously. This very instant.

I think I’ve been a good and faithful servant—I mean, user. I spend lots of time with you, usually every day, and have done so for several years. I have continued to check in with you daily despite the useless updates, the bewildering user interfaces, the sudden and unsettling amendments to your privacy statements—even your silly app, which enjoys draining my phone’s battery and sucking down data as though it were water in the desert. Through all of your confusing, outrageous shenanigans, I have done my best to navigate your bizarre design and even tolerated your overabundant ads with minimal grumbling. (I really, really enjoy grumbling, so please acknowledge the magnitude of my sacrifice. … Are you acknowledging? … Good, thank you.) In fact, Facebook, I love you so dearly and so faithfully that part of my current career depends rather heavily on interacting with you. I’m a social media specialist, Facebook, which means I have to work with you—and like it!
But, dear Facebook, you’ve shown me time and time again that you never really appreciated me. Yes, yes, you’re “free and always will be,” I know. I get it. I’m the user, not the customer. I’m the product. You sell my oh-so-exciting online life for far more than it ought to be worth, just so I can skip intrusive “suggested” posts to get to the good stuff. It’s business, this is the new normal—blah blah blah.
Still, darling, you’d think I might be worth almost enough to you, as a loyal user and frequent poster, to warrant a reasonably accessible environment. You see, Facebook dear, my eyes don’t work, and as such, you are an unpredictable and cruel companion.
One day, some complicated function works, and the next day you’ve broken it—again. Your much-lauded image description software—you know, that feature that meant we blind people would be able to “see” pictures—thinks dogs are cats and cats are dogs and any woman wearing white is a bride. It invents children that aren’t there and sometimes throws in an extra person, just to keep us all on our toes.
(“You got married? Again?”
“No no, I’m just wearing a white shirt. As you were.”)

I’ve lived in valleys of despair and soared to dizzying peaks of hope, perhaps a little naively. When you kept your mobile site clean and relatively accessible, I rejoiced. Alas, I rejoiced too soon: many of the features I wanted to use simply don’t work. Back to the sluggish, semi-inaccessible and wholly-infuriating desktop site I go, then.
I sang your praises when you introduced artificially intelligent software that would describe images, and the publicity it generated was very exciting indeed! Back to earth I drifted when I realized that not only was it laughably unreliable, but you were actually making sighted people think their days of describing pictures (very short-lived—I’d just gotten people to start doing it) were over. So, thanks and all, but please stop telling sighted people they don’t have to describe their pictures, cuz they do, maybe more than ever unless they want me to congratulate them on the new cat-dog or ask how married life is treating them.
I reveled in the simplicity of your Messenger app, reasoning that if you were going to get us all to use it by brute force if necessary, it may as well work. But, Facebook, you managed to break even that, so that I can’t scroll with any efficiency and am forced to ignore a whole lot of pointless nonsense on my cluttered screen.

This is not healthy, Facebook. At this point, I am staying for the good times, as they say. Each time you break accessibility or introduce a troublesome new feature, I grit my teeth and roll with the punches. When I struggle to perform basic aspects of my job because something on your end is mysteriously broken again, I smile through the pain and soldier on. If time is short and I don’t have an hour to fiddle with two versions of a website and an app, I call a sighted person over to help, silently cursing my dependency.

Meanwhile, you announce your access team with much fanfare and profess your commitment. You whisper (or shout, as the case may be) reassurances into my weary ear, promising that all will be well.

But you know what, Facebook? I don’t believe you.

Do I expect any of this to move you? No, of course not. You have me in a corner, and I must continue to shoulder the constant issues you create. My job and social life depend upon us getting along.
That said, dearest Facebook, I don’t have to like it.
And you know what? I don’t have to like you, either.
There, I said it. I love you, but I don’t really like you anymore.

Put your money where your mouth is. Use the same level of force to direct your accessibility team as you do to ensure that customers—I mean, users—use your ridiculous apps. If you put a fraction of the effort you pour into, say, the like button into accessibility, darling, we’d have a very different relationship, you and I.

So, Facebook, I ask only this. Until you make real, lasting strides in the direction of genuine usability and accessibility, please don’t pretend you care, because I’m done pretending I believe you.

Yours, very grudgingly,
A girl with broken eyes (and a broken heart)

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Breaking The Social Media Chain: Stop Pasting, Start Caring

“One like = one prayer!”
“Scroll down and type amen!”
“I know many people don’t give a hoot about…”
“I know 97% of people won’t post this, but my real friends will!”

I think it’s safe to say most of us have seen these copy-and-paste chain statuses. They’re shared by well-meaning people who have fallen for the slacktivism trend—that is, they’ve been tricked into believing a boilerplate Facebook status will inspire positive change. This isn’t to say that the people sharing them don’t care deeply enough, or that they don’t play a significant role in their offline lives, but it’s worth unpacking the reasoning behind these posts to ascertain their usefulness.
Awareness is a great buzzword, and it makes people feel as though they’re accomplishing something just by hitting “post.” While social media can be a powerful tool, this isn’t the best way to use it.
First of all, these statuses employ a confrontational, aggressive tone. Claiming that most people “don’t give a hoot” about serious illnesses and disabilities is unlikely to win people over. Whenever I see this, it irritates me and makes me want to scroll right by. These posts often go on to say that only “real” or “true” friends will repost, as though anyone who doesn’t is an unfeeling, poor excuse for a friend. Each time I see this type of statement, my instinct is to declare that my true, real friends would refrain from posting these at all. If the many snarky parodies all over my news feed are any indication, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Sharing these posts comes across as inauthentic. It only takes a line or two for me to realize my friend did not, in fact, write it for themselves. It doesn’t sound like them, and doesn’t even seem to fit their personality. Since it doesn’t align with who I know them to be, I’m less willing to spend time reading it. I try to fill my Facebook feed with people who interest me, and while it’s wise and sometimes even necessary to share the words of others, copying and pasting a generic rant about real problems and “true” friends seems out of place and careless. I’m happy to get behind a cause that my friends care deeply about, but in my opinion at least, these posts don’t convey sincerity.
These statuses devalue the power of thoughtful, specific posts intended to raise legitimate awareness. A personalized message from one of my friends is much more likely to influence me than a template some stranger developed—especially when it’s clear the original poster had little grasp of how best to persuade people to listen and act. Sure, the unusual combination of aggression and warm fuzz garners plenty of attention and millions of shares, but does it really result in anything lasting or meaningful? I’m doubtful. (If anyone has any actual data on this, I’d be genuinely interested!)
Last, and perhaps most importantly, these chain messages don’t demonstrate anything other than a person’s ability to copy and paste. It takes almost no effort to do this, and even less thought. It’s so easy to hit a couple of buttons and feel as though you’ve made a real difference in the world, especially when you’re rewarded with likes and shares. In the end, though, all you’re doing is helping a chain letter spread to as many corners of the internet as possible. Maybe sharing does raise genuine awareness and maybe it doesn’t, but it’s not enough to change your status—you need to prove you care, too.
If you want to do some tangible good, reach further than a Facebook post. Seek out friends who are suffering and let them know you’re thinking of them. Instead of “liking” a status in lieu of a prayer, why not go ahead and say an actual prayer? (I don’t know that this does any good, but it’s still preferable to hitting a “like” button and calling it a day.) Donate to charities you believe in; sending money to a trusted organization is a lot more useful than addressing popular causes in vague terms on Facebook. If you don’t have the money to donate, use your social media reach to promote those charities instead, so that others can support them. Speaking from my own experiences, I benefit far more from a phone call, text, or thoughtful blog post than a wordy, spammy Facebook status. I do write a blog, and I do use my modest online presence to raise awareness, but I also do my best to strengthen, encourage, and bolster people as individuals.
My words shouldn’t be interpreted as an attempt to disparage social media or awareness campaigns. I began this blog in an effort to reach as many people as possible, and social media is the chief way in which to do that. I write to inform the public, so likes and shares do make a difference. Sometimes, engaging with your friends, family, and wider network is your only option, especially if you lack money and political clout—and I definitely lack both.
So, it’s not a sin to post these things, though be warned that many of your Facebook friends will find them very annoying. It’s okay to use your social media profile to spread awareness of causes you care about. I urge you to broadcast the voices of those who are experiencing illness and disability. We appreciate when allies signal-boost us, because it might be the only way to be heard.
As you do this, be conscious of the limited good social media can achieve. Never fool yourself into thinking that social media is the best or only way to make an impact. The world needs more than good intentions and viral content. We need comfort, friendship, solidarity and concrete assistance. We need people to write to political representatives; donate to organizations that help us; remind us that we’re not alone; and ask open-ended questions about what we need on an individual basis. Improving our lives is best accomplished by employing us, dismantling societal barriers, and offering us your shoulder when we need it most.
So, share away, by all means. Your social media platform is yours to use as you will; I’d never dispute that. I simply request that you consider the impact of what you post before you post it, and ask yourself whether you could be doing something else—something more productive.
Scroll less, pray more.
Paste less, write more.
Share less, give more.
Most of all, be there for the people who need you. Your little area of the world is where you can do your best work.

The Problem With Naming And Shaming

It’s hard to escape our culture’s love of the practice of naming and shaming. Social media has provided fertile ground for this urge, tempting many a person to call out specific people for their mistakes. Where once we would have contented ourselves with disgruntled grumblings over a consoling cup of tea, we now take to Facebook and Twitter to denounce what we perceive to be mistreatment, ignorance, offence, and disgraceful behavior.

It’s quite understandable, really, even if it does bring an unsavory part of our culture into stark relief. The steady stream of likes and comments (and maybe even a mention on someone’s blog) are irresistibly gratifying. They create a cozy echo chamber, and any who dare to disagree or at least express empathy for the other side are silenced. It’s considered rude and even foolish to chime in if you disagree, because you’re “asking for it.” This argument is akin to the belief that people deserve death threats when they speak about controversial issues. It should not be the norm to be attacked when contributing thoughtfully and respectfully to a conversation on social media, no matter how strong the opposition.

This practice has dire consequences—consequences few people actually understand or even know about. When you name and shame a specific person, do you consider how this might affect their lives? More than once, a person’s life has been effectively ruined by some careless mistake they made, even when they have explained themselves. Can you imagine how you’d feel if you made an honest mistake and found yourself being torn to pieces for all to see? Serious offences, especially when committed knowingly, might merit this treatment (and it must be done judiciously even then) but sometimes we need to move on, if not forgive. Calling out a business, institution, or politician is one thing, especially when dealing with discrimination; calling out the average Joe for something they did to offend you is another. These people have feelings, and reputations, and a right to dignity. Even if you are deeply hurt and on fire with rage, think before you spew that invective on social media.

Yes, it’s frustrating when someone pets your service dog. Yes, it’s infuriating when someone treats you like a child. Yes, it’s demoralizing when someone grabs you without permission while you walk down the street. Yes, you have every right to be angry and, yes, you have every right to post about it. Goodness knows I do. No matter how upset you are, though, you still need to think carefully about consequences before you call someone out by name.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because your privacy settings limit visibility, either. People get in trouble for shaming coworkers all the time, because all it takes is one person sharing screenshots of your post for your actions to become public knowledge. I think most of us have either done this or at least felt the pull—I know I have—but it’s time we gave this more thought. Sure, some people exhibit irritating and dangerous behaviour, and we should definitely shame that behavior in general, but is eviscerating the person on social media going to accomplish much beyond catharsis?

I do not think we should all remain silent when oppressed or genuinely hurt. I also think it’s reasonable to discuss bad behavior without naming specific perpetrators, as I do on this blog with regularity. However, we’d do well not to get too comfortable in our snug little echo chambers, even though they make us feel vindicated. If you want validation, call a friend you trust. Talk to a counsellor. Vent in safe spaces. Don’t use a public (or potentially public) platform to vent your spleen. In an age where everything we reveal online is preserved indefinitely, for anyone to stumble upon and bring to the fore even decades later, impulse control is more important than ever. If self-preservation isn’t enough for you to think twice, at least consider the impact your emotion-fueled condemnation will have on another human being—a human who wronged you, but who has a right not to be dog-piled by an angry mob.

So, think before you name and shame on social media. You never know what the long-term consequences might be.

On The Outside Looking In: Why Facebook Is A Terrible Friend

I remember a glorious time, back in, say, 2009, when Facebook was a legitimate way to keep up with people I cared about. Most of the content was generated by real-life experiences my friends and family were enjoying (or enduring as the case may be) so I was able to participate quite easily. And then…

After a couple of years of relative contentment, a new trend emerged: personal, original content was largely replaced by external content (usually photos). Every time I scroll through my news feed, I encounter shared posts about well-loved photography, inaccessible articles, and random pictures of, I dunno, cats. Sheepish as it makes me, I must admit that I feel more and more isolated. I can no longer participate as fully as before. I can no longer keep in touch in any meaningful way.

I’ve discussed how to make posts more accessible on Facebook, and reassured sighted users that they don’t have to describe every single photo, whether personal or shared from an external source, in expansive detail. It’s way too much bother for limited reward. I can’t pretend it doesn’t make me feel like I’m being excluded, though. Instead of hearing about the antics of my friends’ cats, I miss out entirely because photos tell a better story. Instead of enjoying a new recipe a friend posted, I get to scroll right by because the text is inaccessible. Instead of laughing along with my friends’ favourite image-based jokes, I get to hope that the accompanying comments will give me enough context to go on. Most of the time, they don’t, and while I occasionally ask for explanations if I’m really intrigued, I hate to do it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I thought perhaps my feelings were exaggerated. How much of my feed was genuinely hidden from me? I wanted to find out, so I performed an informal experiment. I scrolled through the last hundred posts in my news feed (yes, it took ages), “hiding” all the posts that featured only photos shared from external sources. Eighty-six percent of the posts were eliminated. It was even worse than I’d thought. While I can comfort myself with how clean and clutter-free my news feed is, that comfort is awfully cold.

I’m probably not missing much in the grand scheme, I know. Considering all the other consequences of inaccessibility, this is really small potatoes. Even so, a lot of my friends and family spend so much time appreciating other people’s image-based posts (some spend hours on Facebook per day) while I spend five minutes, tops, because there’s nothing to see. (Yes, it does wonders for my productivity, but still!)

I’ll get over it, I really will. Most days I don’t even think about it; but I admit to moments of weakness when I let it bug me. Social media can make people very lonely, and this is a special type of loneliness that won’t ever go away, not really. Facebook is implementing groundbreaking image recognition technology to help blind people figure out what’s in an image, but there’s no telling how accurate or useful it will be.

Like I said, most days it’s no biggie. Just for now, though, I’ll have a bit of a wallow. Indulge me.

Dear Parents: Think Before You Share

If you’ve ever googled any specific disability, you’ll find public Facebook and Instagram profiles, blogs, biographies, anthologies, and videos about what it’s like to parent a disabled child. The angle might change a little. Some parents want to tell you that it’s all roses; others want to point out that it’s occasionally rather awful; some want to assert that it’s somewhere in between. Whichever angle they take, though, their actions amount to the same thing. They are constructing, however unwittingly, a publicly accessible wealth of data about their children, often in the absence of knowledge or consent. Your blind toddler is too young to tell you whether he wants his pictures posted publicly. Your twenty-year-old mentally disabled daughter may be incapable of consenting, even if she does know you’re uploading pictures of her for the world to see.

I never really gave much thought to the activities of parents on social media until the advent of the #FreeTheNipple campaign. Facebook got in trouble for removing pictures of breastfeeding mothers, and there was, predictably enough, mass outrage. People assumed that the removal was due to an inability to tolerate a naked nipple. Breastfeeding isn’t gross or shameful, said protesters, and there is no reason to take down such photos when equally explicit ones are shown elsewhere in much less innocent contexts. Amid all the righteous anger, though, nobody seemed to be considering the rights of the children in question. Everyone was fixated on the woman’s right to display her breasts, while failing to analyze whether the children should be in full public view before they are old enough to know what Facebook is, let alone give informed consent. This isn’t 1990. Photo albums aren’t locked up in a dusty closet. Long after your friends are done cooing over your little one, the pictures remain easy to find, especially if your privacy settings aren’t as airtight as they ought to be.

I suppose one might say I’m fear-mongering; what’s the harm in showing cute pictures of your kids, after all? I really think that the game changes when it comes to disabled children. Many of the blogs and public profiles dedicated to parenting contain details of bad days as well as good days. The indignities of life with, say, autism are often described in full detail right alongside the joys of parenting these children. It’s one thing to post a cute picture of your daughter using her first cane, but quite another to go on at length about your autistic daughter’s most recent meltdown. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t appreciate having that plastered all over the internet for everyone to…what, sympathize? Gawk? Cluck their tongues in pity? Hail my mother as a martyr? None of these reasons seems adequate to me.

I get it: parenting a disabled child is sometimes exhausting, lonely work. It can be therapeutic to post your struggles online, where you may seek support from informed strangers outside your immediate social circle. It’s comforting to find a network of parents just like you, who can offer advice and guidance. While you are enjoying all this support, though, I urge you to take a moment to consider the focal point: your child. To what extent are you sacrificing their personal privacy for public solidarity? Are you surrendering too much detail about their lives where anyone at all can see it (including future employers, peers and so on)? Are you exposing potentially sensitive information that they may one day be upset by? The blogosphere can be a dangerous place to express unpopular opinions which may be why so few voices are countering the main viewpoint.

It’s one thing to blog about yourself. While I am relatively circumspect about what I discuss, I do write with intentional frankness. As someone once described it, my writing “goes there” and I’m proud of that. I do mention others and explore universal themes, but the blog will always have its roots in my personal experiences. Privacy, it seems, is a human right that is cherished less and less. If you’re going to endanger privacy, let it be your own.

When it comes to your disabled child, though, you should be as careful and thoughtful about your posting habits as you can. Ideally, you should remain anonymous, but if you can’t (or won’t), at least be cognizant of your actions’ potential impact. Maybe it feels liberating to hammer out a post after a long day of dealing with hardship. Maybe it gives you pride to compose a detailed article about how your blind daughter has finally figured out how to, say, navigate her first school independently. It feels great to share these things, I know. Our natural human desire to share everything that matters to us is what keeps Facebook and Instagram in business, after all. Just remember, as you fulfill this desire, that it’s not all about you.

It is not necessarily selfish of you to blog and share photos and other media about your child publicly. It’s not inherently wrong. In the context of an anthology or other formal document, it might even be a good thing, because you are bringing to light different facets of parenting (under your editor and publisher’s watchful eyes). One of my editing projects centred on just such an anthology, so I’m the last person to say none of this information should be available.

Do hear me out, though: it becomes risky, whether you’re doing it for support, or to raise awareness, or to encourage others. I’ll put it very bluntly: your need to feel the warm fuzzies with every careless post is far less important than your child’s right to privacy. Don’t use good intentions as your escape hatch. Once you release personal information, it can’t be recovered. We’ve all heard the lectures. If your physically disabled infant is too young to consent, you should be very strict about what you share. If your mentally disabled daughter is incapable of giving informed consent, you have to be even more respectful of her rights.

Parenthood is not ownership. You are raising people who may be able to view the material you exposed when they were too young (or otherwise unable) to say no. These children are not walking, talking sources of validation. They should not be used as a “like” generator. They do not exist to promote your worth as a parent and you should never treat parenting as reasonable justification for playing the martyr. Most of you would never do any of this, but you still need to put your child first. So please, think before you share. Children have rights, too.

FAQ: Improving the Accessibility of Social Media Posts

Last week, I published a short article listing the most common inaccessible posts sighted users tend to make. While it was not meant to instruct, I did intend to shed light and raise a little awareness. I refrained from advising sighted people to alter their posting habits in any way; I did not want to give the impression that I believe they are somehow responsible for making any and all material accessible.

Once the post had been published, though, several sighted people expressed gratitude, and were eager to make minor adjustments to their social media practices for the benefit of their blind friends and followers. Immensely pleased by all the enthusiasm, I agreed to write a brief Q & A, covering the most basic aspects of social media accessibility. And here it is.

Note: I’m using Facebook as a starting point, though many of the same general rules apply on other social media platforms.

Q: What should I do when uploading a photo?
A: If you upload a picture of your own, there will be no caption or description by default. A screen reader user will hear a string of meaningless numbers and letters (this is how photos are rendered) and that’s about it. They will know you posted it, but unless the accompanying comments provide context, it is impossible for a blind person to interact with your post. Most blind users will be perfectly happy with even the briefest description. For example, if you post a picture of your cat, you need only mention its name. Your blind friends don’t need to know all the details; if they are truly curious, they can contact you for more information.

Q: What should I do when sharing a photo?
A: When sharing a photo from someone else’s page, you may get lucky: there might already be a description or caption attached. Blind users can often interact with shared photos, because either the comments or the description provide enough context. If, however, the photo stands alone, you may have to add a short description, which is very easy to do, especially on Facebook where space is not at such a premium.

Q: What should I do when sharing screenshots and text embedded in images?
A: Many sighted people don’t realize that text embedded within images is completely inaccessible to screen reader users. The reader interprets the image as a graphic, and cannot recognize the actual text inside it. In this case, you may actually have to write out the contents in plain text so your blind friends can understand it. If it is a particularly long post, (or, as in some cases, the post is a lengthy article constructed entirely of images) it may be wiser to wait for a blind person to request information. Don’t spend ages writing everything out before you know whether your efforts are necessary.

Q: What should I do when posting from Instagram, Pinterest, or other largely-visual platforms?
A: Again, you must consider what you’re posting before making a decision. If you’re posting from Instagram, and it’s just a picture of what you had for breakfast, write a quick, plain text description like, “Look at my scrumptious chocolate muffin!” Blind users will understand the gist; they don’t necessarily require lavish descriptions of the muffin’s various attributes. Keep in mind, though, that most blind people understand that Instagram and similar platforms are primarily intended for sighted people. As such, it is not a sin to post visual items from those sites without taking the time to describe every single photo. There will be certain things we just can’t access properly, and most of us are totally fine with it. It’s not life or death, after all.

Q: Can you give me some general advice that will cover everything?
A: Yes. The best general rule is this: perform a cost-benefit analysis. If what you are sharing is important, taking steps to make it accessible is greatly appreciated. If you run a business or promotional page, you are obligated to make your content as accessible as possible. I recently admonished the CNIB for posting on Facebook without including a description of the photo they’d uploaded!
If you’re just posting on your private page, though, don’t worry too much. Blind people may skip past four out of five visual posts without being particularly bothered about what they’re missing. If you’re worried, extend an invitation to them, encouraging them to contact you when they want more information. That way, you never waste your time adapting things no one will benefit from.

Your time is valuable. Thank you for the minor adjustments you make for us. They don’t go unnoticed.

10 Bits Of Facebook I’ll Never Quite Get

These days, it’s rare to see actual statuses being posted to Facebook and Twitter. When I scroll through my newsfeed, the majority of content looks like this: “so-and-so shared a photo”, followed by a string of incomprehensible numbers and letters (which is how a screen reader interprets an image). Much of Facebook is totally visual now, so my level of interaction is lower than I’d like. Here are just some of the aspects of the network that I’ll never be able to grasp.

1. Pinterest—pictures galore, and I can’t appreciate a single one.
2. Photo sharing—people do this to excess on Facebook, and of course I can rarely figure out what’s going on.
3. Selfies—it doesn’t seem like I’m missing out, mind you.
4. Articles that use images—many, many times, an interesting article is unreadable for me because the text is embedded within images. Sadface.
5. Instagram—that whole platform, besides the occasional video, is a no-blindy zone (which makes sense, of course, but it still sucks).
6. Cute, fluffy creatures—every now and then I get to listen to a den of kittens purring away, but generally I miss out on the kittens and puppies that dominate my news feed.
7. Graphic design and visual art—I have friends who are tattoo artists and graphic designers, and they use Facebook as a promotion tool. I can’t applaud them for their work. More sadfaces.
8. Dialogue-free videos—and there are so many of these! I get to hear pretty music, but most of the time I haven’t a clue what any of it’s about.
9. Viral nonsense—people do love to share videos and articles on sites like Upworthy, but often the article is just a bunch of images. Other times, the video player is either inaccessible, or missing altogether.
10. Virtually anything on Tumblr—again, people love to link to Tumblr content on Facebook, but more often than not, I just can’t access it. I don’t know if I’m just unlucky, but I have never, ever had success with Tumblr.

So, if you notice that I never “like” your posts, or comment on your content, please understand that it’s probably because I don’t get most of it. Never fear: if I’ve added you on Facebook, I like you, I promise.