Accessible Twitter, Accessible Tweets

Preamble

Twitter is one of a host of web-based social networking tools, excellent in concept, but (in my opinion) less-than-perfect in implementation – especially when it comes to usability/accessibility.  Whilst this article discusses Twitter and Twitter messages (updates, tweets,) certain aspects apply equally to other contexts.

Accessibility Through Alternative Interfaces

Like many of the web applications that I encounter, it appears to me that little (if any) thought has gone into the accessibility and usability of interface. I see little point in working through the issues and proposing possible solutions when this work has already been done and can be seen as Accessible Twitter. Accessible Twitter, the work of one Dennis Lembrée, is still in the alpha stage of development but is already everything that the Twitter web interface should be and more.

In a way, Twitter actually gains accessibility points through offering the API which Accessible Twitter and numerous other alternative interfaces operate – if one looks at the Big Picture. (My more cynical side looks at the API as a cop-out on the part of Twitter: Don’t like the interface? Here, go build your own.)

Could this be the modern-day “provide a text alternative” from WCAG10? (Which was also a cop-out.)

However one feels about this, APIs for many web applications are available and may be used as a Force for Good (or at least to provide more usable/accessible interfaces.)

What the Heck Did That Mean?

Twitter has one major limitation: 140 characters.  Historically, this was to allow messages to be sent by SMS; SMS messages can be up to 160 characters (or 2 lines of an 80 column terminal for those old enough to remember) long.  The 140 character Twitter limit is based on 20 characters of user name plus 140 characters of message.  I have always questioned the logic of this; if Twitter was designed to work via cellular telephones, why not use WAP which has no limits? (The sophistication of today’s cellular telephones – even the basic ones – offers a host of better ways to work than SMS.)

Here is not the place to debate this issue, nor is there any real point in doing so – Twitter has a 140 character limit: it is a given, we are stuck with it, end of story.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

If this is so, oh, what a witty place Twitter must be!  (My attempt at humour in less than 140 characters.)  There are those who argue that the 140 character limit can make us better communicators.  This I dispute: if it takes me 20 seconds to type a message and then a further 5 minutes trying to re-phrase, remove punctuation, and (horrors!) abbreviate words to fit that message into the permissible 140 characters, I do not feel that this is effective use of my time.

Whilst many messages might fit into 140 characters without requiring any form of re-work or compression (“happy birthday!”, “dinner’s ready”, “war is peace”, “ignorance is strength”, “freedom is slavery”,) there is much that does get shortened into an oft-incomprehensible form of Newspeak. I read Twitter messages from people that I know beyond the realms of Twitter and frequently find myself mystified by industry-specific abbreviations which leave me thinking “what the heck did that mean?”  Generally I feel too embarrassed to ask.

Accessibility Implications

Consider this: however we access Twitter, it can be considered to be “on the web”.  Twitter messages are, therefore, web content.  If the various interfaces to Twitter are used to create web content, that makes them authoring tools.  Should these interfaces therefore be covered by the ATAG? No, that’s not part of the discussion.  Just thinking tangentially there.

Twitter messages are, nevertheless, web content.  By causing people to use degenerate (can’t think of a better term) language (2 for ‘to’, 4 for ‘for’, u for ‘you’ – and all the others that make me twitch and occasionally froth at the mouth,) the web content that is Twitter messages becomes anything but plain language – and thus becomes less accessible, especially to those for whom the language in question is not a first language, those with literacy issues, etcetera.

Answers?

I have no practical answers to this issue.  One can write a blog post with the required text and post a link with just a headline on Twitter.  This, however, is just too slow and inefficient.  A 200-word answer to a one-off question may not justify a blog post anyway.

Splitting a message into a series of Twitter messages is something that I have seen a few times but:

  • Twitter has very little support for message threading.
  • Messages may arrive with messages from others interspersed and thus lose sense due to the broken context.

Conclusion

This article seeks to raise awareness of the following:

  • Third-party applications may be used in place of Twitter’s less-than-perfect web interface.
  • The limitation in length of Twitter messages may create accessibility issues due to the use of abbreviations and degenerate language.

@smiffy

TinyURL for this article: http://tinyurl.com/cbxphx

Further Reading