Social networks such as Twitter are competing with startup Clubhouse by launching their own live audio products.
On Thursday, Jeremy Browning, a Twitter product manager, gave the public a behind-the-scenes look at a new feature the company built for live audio chats. Not everyone, though, could understand what he was saying.
Fittingly, Browning hosted the conversation on Spaces, Twitter’s live audio product. The audio chat tool has live captioning, a feature meant to help deaf or hard of hearing people. Twitter users trying to follow the conversation solely through the captions likely had a tough time deciphering Browning’s words.
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“I was sort of by virtue of being employed and Twitter able to see and you Spaces before the war the water public was a small percentage of the pop quiz,” a live caption of Browning’s remarks in the Twitter Space read. Browning actually told the audience that as a Twitter employee he was able to see new Spaces before a small percentage of the public was.
Midway through the conversation, held on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, other problems popped up. Listeners could no longer hear what Browning was saying, giving hundreds of Twitter users a taste of what it’s like to be completely left out of a conversation.
Live captions in Twitter Spaces are still a work in progress.
Social media companies, including Facebook, are embracing live audio after seeing startup Clubhouse burst onto the scene. High-profile celebrities like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, TV personality Oprah and actor Kevin Hart have joined the invite-only app. Both Clubhouse and Twitter are working on ways to make their products more accessible. But Twitter’s glitchy audio chat provides a stark reminder that these features still exclude hundreds of millions of people with hearing loss from online conversations.
About 430 million people, or more than 5% of the world’s population, require rehabilitation for disabling hearing loss with the majority of people living in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. By 2050, about one in 10 people is projected to have disabling 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 rise of short-form video and experimentation in virtual reality, the future of social media will likely include more sound.
Facebook didn’t answer questions about how it’s approaching accessibility for social audio. Reddit has been testing an audio chat feature, and a spokesperson said live captions is a “priority.”
Unlike Twitter, Clubhouse doesn’t have live captions. A spokesperson for Clubhouse said its goal is to build an app for “everyone” and it’s “continuing to work closely with the deaf community to roll out close captioning features in the near future.” Discord launched a live audio product called Stage Channels and that doesn’t include captions either. A spokesperson for Discord said the company is exploring a “number of ways” to make Stage Channels “more helpful and accessible.”
Gurpreet Kaur, who oversees global accessibility at Twitter, said the company is working on improving accessibility for all of its products, including captioning in Twitter Spaces. Speakers currently have to turn on automatic captions, and Twitter knows the transcriptions can be inaccurate. Sometimes, she said, it takes a lot of focus groups and discussions with advocates to make sure the company isn’t creating a “Band-Aid solution.” Because technology is constantly evolving, Kaur said she doesn’t believe that a product will ever be perfect.
“We’re trying really, really hard,” she said.
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Accessibility as an ‘afterthought’
Making social media more accessible is an ongoing issue that has long frustrated the deaf community and others, discouraging some people from trying new products. Even if there are improvements, the quality of the accessibility features is often poor or tough to find.
Sheena McFeely, a 36-year-old deaf creator and advocate in Texas, says she knows about Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse but has been hesitant to try them. She worries they likely won’t be accessible or properly captioned.
McFeely says she’s often had to “search high and low” for a viral video that’s been properly captioned or has a text description. One of her daughters, deaf YouTuber-turned-actor Shaylee Mansfield, expressed her frustration in a video about the lack of captions on Facebook-owned Instagram.
For over 30 years, DHH people fought for captioning. More people r now relying on technology during coronavirus. Shaylee Mansfield, Deaf girl, had enough! She sends a loud message to @instagram to add #instacaptioning on their platform for over 400 Deaf & hard of hearing people. pic.twitter.com/1V0IOqPqcz
— Sheena McFeely (@SheenaMcfeely) April 30, 2020
At the time, Instagram Stories, which allows people to post content including videos that vanishes in 24 hours, didn’t have automatic captioning. The feature didn’t arrive until May, when Instagram rolled out a sticker that automatically transcribes speech in Stories. Instagram first introduced Stories nearly five years ago. Short-form video app TikTok launched auto-captions a month earlier.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling because all the accessibility features made possible did not come without backlash, pushback and criticism” from the deaf community, McFeely said in a text. Social media companies, she said, need to do a better job of marketing their accessibility features and hiring more people with disabilities to work on their products.
Backlash fuels push for more accessibility
Last year, Twitter apologized after a backlash of complaints about an audio-sharing feature in tweets that wasn’t made accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people. In September, Twitter announced it was introducing two new teams that will focus on accessibility.
We’re sorry about testing voice Tweets without support for people who are visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing. It was a miss to introduce this experiment without this support.
Accessibility should not be an afterthought. (1/3) https://t.co/9GRWaHU6fR
— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) June 19, 2020
Liam O’Dell, a 24-year-old freelance UK journalist and campaigner who describes himself as mildly deaf, has pointed out on his website that Twitter’s voice tweets and Clubhouse aren’t accessible to the deaf because of the lack of captions. He’s also tested the captions in Twitter Spaces and also found they were “far from perfect.”
O’Dell, who uses most of the major social media apps including Snapchat and Clubhouse, said he finds Twitter, which still has a lot of text on its website, the most accessible. Still, he noted, the company has “a way to go to make content accessible” to him “as a deaf person.” Involving more disabled people in the development process of new products, O’Dell says, could lead to improvements that benefit both people with disabilities and those who simply prefer reading 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, too, but access equals engagement, and in the world of social media, engagement often leads to revenue.”
Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said in an email that companies introducing captioning also have to look at different factors that can impact transcription, such as background noise, the number of speakers and the quality of the sound. Not only does the captioning need to be easy to use, it should be turned on from the start as opposed to requiring users to opt in. They should also be easy to edit and offer ways for people to customize captions to fit their needs — especially if they are deaf and blind.
“Automated captioning is improving but can vary from pretty good to atrocious,” he said.