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`alt` text culture

More than any other time in my online life am I aware of the value of alt text. I make a point to write image descriptions whenever I can. Kind strangers with a variety of accessibility needs have been helping me understand how to best capture my interpretation of an image. I’ve come to regard alt text as the secret side bar I get to have with blind people and others who need it.

For me, alt text raises interesting cultural questions, particularly around its growing visibility. Traditionally, it requires that people who don’t use accessibility tools hover an image to produce what I call “the world’s slowest tooltip”. In addition, I’ve been seeing a growing number of people work alt text into places where it doesn’t exist. Places that don’t require a hover. Two examples of this are Mastodon’s profile and banner images.

A few weeks ago, I saw the profile picture of a young woman winking. Her bio captured the image with something along the lines of “young woman looking seductively at the camera, winking, and slightly sticking out her tongue hoping to engage the viewer”. Before reading that text I felt engaged indeed, my mind painting a quick image of what her manic pixie dream girl university campus life would be like.

Reading her description of the image had an effect. I gather it was the overtness — her self-awareness about what the image could convey — that somehow put me off just slightly. The image and not so much her description of it but the very fact that I could even see that description, and that she understood I would, changed how I saw her in the image. It also changed how I see the Internet.

What does it mean, I’ve been thinking ever since, that people with no need for alt text get to peek behind its curtain? What effect can this form of double meaning-making have? Does it mean we’ll eventually go on to describe images differently, knowing that not a portion of our audience but the entirety of it is looking on? Does it mean we may, some day, try to say less with imagery? In one way, I’d consider that reduction of fluff a triumph for accessibility.

Today, Piper Haywood’s blog put me onto a handy alt text decision tree. I’m entirely surprised to read that the answer to the final question in the tree, “Is the image purely decorative or not intended for the user?”, is “use an empty alt” and not “don’t post the image”.

I guess that paints the best picture of how much of a reductionist I am.