Social networks like Twitter compete with the startup clubhouse by bringing their own live audio products to market.
On Thursday, Jeremy Browning, aThe product manager gave the public a behind-the-scenes look at a new feature the company had developed for live audio chats. However, not everyone could understand what he was saying.
Fittingly, Browning moderated the conversation on. The audio chat tool has live subtitles, a feature designed to help the hearing impaired. Twitter users who tried to follow the conversation solely through the subtitles probably had a hard time deciphering Browning’s words.
Cut the chatter
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“I was kind of able to see you rooms because of my employment and Twitter and you rooms before the war, the water public was a small percentage of the pop quiz,” read a live caption of Browning’s remarks on Twitter Space. Browning actually told the audience that as a Twitter employee, he could see new rooms before a small percentage of the public was.
In the middle of the conversation, heldother problems arose. The audience could no longer hear what Browning was saying, giving hundreds of Twitter users a taste of what it is like to be completely excluded from a conversation.
Live captions in Twitter Spaces are still in the works.
Queenie Wong / CNET
Social media companies, including Facebook, leverage live audio after watching itburst onto the scene. High profile celebrities like , TV personality Oprah and actor Kevin Hart joined the app by invitation only. Both Clubhouse and Twitter are working to make their products more accessible. However, Twitter’s buggy audio chat is a clear reminder that these features still exclude hundreds of millions of hearing impaired people from online conversations.
According to the World Health Organization, around 430 million people, or more than 5% of the world’s population, require rehabilitation to impair hearing loss, with the majority of people living in low- and middle-income countries. By 2050, around one in ten people is expected to have hearing loss.
Meanwhile, the use of audio products has increased during the pandemic. Facebook, the world’s largest social network, is working on a product to compete with Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces. And with the advent of short videos and experiments in virtual reality, the future of social media is likely to include more audio.
Facebook didn’t answer questions about how it is approaching accessibility for social audio. Reddit was testing an audio chat feature, and a spokesman said live subtitles were a “priority”.
Unlike Twitter, Clubhouse doesn’t have live subtitles. A spokesman for Clubhouse said his goal was to create an app for “everyone” and “continue to work closely with the deaf community to introduce closed captioning in the near future”. Discord has released a live audio product called Stage Channels that also has no subtitles. A Discord spokesman said the company is looking into “a number of ways” to make stage channels “more helpful and accessible.”
Gurpreet Kaur, who oversees global accessibility on Twitter, said the company is working to improve accessibility for all of its products, including subtitling in Twitter Spaces. Speakers currently have to turn on auto-captioning, and Twitter knows the transcriptions can be inaccurate. Sometimes, she said, it takes a lot of focus groups and discussions with lawyers to make sure the company doesn’t develop a “band-aid solution”. With technology constantly evolving, Kaur doesn’t believe any product will ever be perfect.
“We’re trying really, really, really,” she said.
Accessibility as an “afterthought”
Improving access to social media is an ongoing problem that has long frustrated people with disabilities and discourages some people from trying new products. Even when there are improvements, the quality of accessibility is often poor or difficult to find.
Sheena McFeely, a 36-year-old deaf creator and attorney in Texas, says she knows Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse but was hesitant to try them out. She fears that they are likely inaccessible or not properly labeled.
McFeely says she often had to look “high and low” for a viral video that was properly labeled or had a text description. One of her daughters, deaf YouTuber actress Shaylee Mansfield, expressed her frustration in a video about the lack of captions on Facebook Instagram.
For over 30 years, DHH people fought over subtitles. More and more people are relying on technology during the coronavirus. Shaylee Mansfield, deaf girl, had had enough! She sends a loud message to @instagram to add #instacaptioning for 400+ deaf and hard of hearing people on her platform. pic.twitter.com/1V0IOqPqcz
– Sheena McFeely (@SheenaMcfeely) April 30, 2020
At the time, Instagram Stories that allowed users to post content, including videos that disappeared within 24 hours, didn’t have auto-captioning. The feature didn’t arrive until May when Instagram released a sticker that automatically transcribes the language in stories. Instagram first featured Stories almost five years ago. Short-form video app TikTok launched automatic subtitles a month earlier.
“It is a bittersweet feeling because all possible accessibility features could not do without backlash, backlash and criticism,” said McFeely in a text. Social media companies would need to better market their accessibility features and hire more people with disabilities to work on their products.
Play fuels ensure more accessibility
Last year, Twitter apologized after a series of complaints about an audio sharing feature in Tweets that had not been made available to the hearing impaired. In September, Twitter announced that it would introduce two new teams that will focus on accessibility.
We’re sorry to test unsupported voice tweets for people with visual impairment, deafness, or hearing loss. It was a failure to introduce this experiment without this support.
Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. (1/3) https://t.co/9GRWaHU6fR
– Twitter support (@TwitterSupport) June 19, 2020
Liam O’Dell, a 24-year-old freelance British journalist and activist who describes himself as slightly deaf, posted a note on his website that Twitter’s voice tweets and clubhouse are inaccessible to the deaf due to a lack of subtitles. He also tested the subtitles on Twitter Spaces and found that they were “far from perfect”.
O’Dell, who uses most of the major social media apps like Snapchat and Clubhouse, finds that Twitter, whose website is still high in text, is the most accessible. Nevertheless, the company “found a way to make content” accessible to him “as a deaf person”. According to O’Dell, involving more disabled people in the new product development process could lead to improvements that benefit both people with disabilities and people who simply prefer to read better captions.
“A product or feature without access is not a finished product,” he said in a Twitter direct message. “It will take time and probably money, but access equals engagement, and in the social media world, engagement often generates revenue.”
Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said in an email that companies adopting closed captioning also need to consider various factors that can affect transcription, such as background noise, the number of speakers, and sound quality. Not only do the subtitles need to be easy to use, they should be enabled from the start instead of requiring users to log in. They should also be easy to edit and allow users to customize subtitles to suit their needs. especially when they are deaf and blind.
“Automatic subtitling is improving, but it can vary from pretty good to cruel,” he said.