Last year I wrote a blog called Instagram Taps Blind Spot for New Users, which explained how Instagram had enabled automatic and customized alternative text (Alt Text) to be included for photos on the popular social media platform. When I wrote this, I had no idea what the user interface or experience was like on Instagram. I stopped using social media personally in 2013, and only used Twitter and LinkedIn sparingly and professionally – with an uptick on LinkedIn in recent months. However, since we have been social distancing the past couple of weeks, I decided to check out what the fuss was all about on Instagram.
Years ago, I created an Instagram account, but I never looked at it – I didn’t even have the app on my phone! However, last week my friend Vina Verman tagged me in a photo, which was the tipping point for my curiosity – I logged in and took a look.
When I looked at the image, my screen reader described the image as “may contain four people, laptop screen, and indoor.” The auto-generated alternative text didn’t really describe what was going on. I was then forced to ask my wife, who is sighted, to describe the image. If a customized alternative text was used, it could have read “Zoom Conference with eleven participants dancing in separate panels.” This would have clearly described the picture – and how much fun we were having!
Alt Text is a short phrase that can be used to identify and describe images, and is required for screen reader assistive technology users to understand what is being shown in a picture. We can estimate that roughly 3% of the 3.8 billion users of social media are using a screen reader, which comes out to 100 million people across the globe.
As I started to explore the app and look at other people’s shared content, I could not appreciate any of the pictures on the screen. Almost every single picture had poorly automated either generated Alt Text or worse, nothing at all. Even many of the disability focused organizations did not have Alt Text, which was disappointing.
As I posted a couple of images, I saw that adding Alt Text was so easy! The main barrier is the fact that it is hidden in Advanced Settings, which I assume most people do not see or know how to find.
From a Diversity & Inclusion perspective, I think that Instagram is critically important because of the mass reach and popularity that it has across the globe. I was shocked to learn that:
Instagram was the second most downloaded free app in the Apple App Store
One billion people use Instagram each month
37% of adults in the US use Instagram
Instagram is the most popular social media platform; 70% of social media users have Instagram
200 million Instagram users see at least one business account during their daily scroll
Instagram was more popular than I ever guessed, so it is even more important that it be inclusive of all people, including those with visual disabilities. Most importantly to me, is the 70% of young people who are using the platform. It is important that young people with disabilities feel like they belong as well. I want them to see professional and personal “influencers” that they can relate to, and who can empathize with the challenges they are facing.
I hope by sharing my personal story and engaging on a platform that has not been traditionally inclusive of the blind community, I can inspire a few people, and change the attitudes of many.
Follow me on Instagram @JohnGSamuel – but don’t forget to add Alt Text, so others, and I, can enjoy following you too!