Social media and accessibility

In recent years social media and User Generated Content (UGC) have engulfed the online experience. Both can trace their heritage back to the emergence of Web 2.0. The term Web 2.0 was first brought to mainstream attention in the December 2003 edition of IT business magazine, CIO. It wasn't until the O'Reilly Web 2.0 conference in 2004 though, that the phrase really took off. Web 2.0 is a loosely defined term that refers to a supposed second generation of web design and development. Typical characteristics of Web 2.0 include collaboration, communication, information sharing and networking by users. With the advent of Web 2.0, the web saw a shift away from passive media. In other words, a move away from information and services developed by website owners and delivered to its users. Instead a new style of conversational media emerged. The creation of content by users, for users.

The popularity of social media and UGC

UGC has since become one of the hallmarks of social media. A wide range of services that focus on collaboration, sharing, tagging and commenting have sprung up in recent years. Many of the best known social media companies, including Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Delicious, MySpace and YouTube, all appeared on the landscape between 2003 and 2006. If proof were needed that social media is a market force to be reckoned with, the evidence is clear to see:

  • Facebook reports around 200 million active users, uploading 850 million photos and 8 million videos each month. That’s one in every 33 people around the world actively networking;
  • YouTube reports that 20 hours of video are uploaded every minute to the site. That’s 50 days of video footage every hour;
  • Twitter experienced an increase in unique site visitors from 475,000 in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009. That’s a growth of 13,282%.

It is undeniable that social media is a rapidly growing industry. It has also become the driving force behind a new web revolution – social marketing. Organisations around the world are starting to use social media as a tool for effective online marketing.

  • Twitter accounts provide an effective tool for rapid delivery of advertising, information and notices;
  • YouTube channels provide a focus for delivering branded content;
  • Facebook profiles and tailored applications provide a mechanism for news updates and content delivery.

Social media also lends itself well to ‘cross pollination'. It is possible to update Facebook from a Twitter account, embed tweets in another website, pull in YouTube content through alternative media players, or add social bookmarking links (such as Delicious) to the bottom of blog posts. In almost every respect, social media is an incredible phenomenon. It brings out the full extent of humanity on the web. There is little that can’t be seen on YouTube, few fields of knowledge without experts on Wikipedia, hardly any subjects not photographed on Flickr and almost nobody it seems who isn’t on Facebook. So what’s the catch? For web users with disabilities however, the social media experience can be difficult. Some social media sites, such as Twitter, offer a fairly good user experience for those with disabilities. Others, such as YouTube, Flickr and MySpace don’t fare so well. The challenges pulling in content from a social media site to another website raise the bar even further. YouTube provides a perfect example. The website lacks many common accessibility features. The player is not keyboard accessible, nor is it accessible to a screen reader user. Recently, YouTube have introduced the ability to upload captions for people with hearing difficulties, yet the player itself remains an obstacle for many other users. The same problems are apparent when YouTube content is embedded on alternative websites using the standard player. In one swift backwards step, the greatest social interaction of all time, becomes an obstacle. Perhaps even an impossibility. The good news here is that many of the social media sites make their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) openly available. In other words, they make it possible for alternative platforms and interfaces to be developed. For example, an accessible alternative to the YouTube website is Easy YouTube. An accessible alternative to the YouTube embedded player is Nomensa’s Accessible Media Player. Twitter also has accessible alternatives, including Accessible Twitter.


Whether social media is used on an individual basis, or as part of a social marketing strategy, there are challenges in delivering a good quality user experience. With the right knowledge of social media, a thorough understanding of the underlying technologies, along with the right knowledge of accessibility, these challenges can be resolved.

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