I have a bit of time to kill in Texas before heading to Indiana. So I’m reading my Twitter timeline a little closer than I have in a while.
Yesterday, Devon Persing tweeted: “Quarterly reminder to turn on alt text support for when you tweet images. It’s a small thing you can do to help improve this hellscape of a website when you make visual jokes or use screenshots of text to make a point.”
What does that mean? Briefly, the piece of computer code that makes images show up on the internet has an optional little snippet that describes what the image is about. A photo of a woman sitting on a teeter totter, wearing a hand-made hat, might have a snippet that reads like this:
alt = “In this photo, a woman named Devon Persing is riding a teeter totter, wearing a hand-made hat. The view is from the opposite end of the board where Devon is sitting.”
How can that kind of snippet be added to tweeted images? A quick back-and-forth with Devon guided me to the accessibility settings on web-based Twitter. The ability to add alt text to every image uploaded to Twitter is a matter of checking a box labeled “Compose image descriptions” and saving the settings.
If that setting is switched on, when Twitter users upload images, they’ll get prompted to add alt text.
Why is the inclusion of alt text useful? It’s because the alt text gets spoken aloud by screen readers—assistive technology that gives a “voice” to the contents of a computer screen. If the alt text accurately describes the image, a blind person using a screen reader will get a good idea of what’s in the image displayed on the screen.
What if Twitter users, and authors generally, committed to including alt text for all images? It would no doubt improve the internet experience for people who use screen readers.
But I think that commitment might have a neat side effect: the improvement of writing on the internet. The tiny extra step of adding alt text could be enough to make some authors skip adding an image. That means they’ll have to rely solely on their words to convey meaning. And it could mean fewer images are added just as decoration.
Why is Devon Persing one of the few people I follow on Twitter? I met her eight years ago when I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was wrapping up her time in Ann Arbor, heading for Seattle, and I wanted to interview her for a website I operated called Teeter Talk. [Link to interview on a teeter totter with Devon Persing]
The Teeter Talk website was a hand-coded sort of project. Today I reviewed the version of Devon’s interview that’s still available on the Wayback Machine. It seems like I knew enough to include some alt text for her totter portrait, even if it was pretty bare bones. It just says “Devon Persing.”
It really should have included a mention of the hand-made hat she was wearing.