Sunday, December 21, 2014

Don't Tweet Pictures of Text

Ironic tweet of a screen capture of a tweet saying 'these pictures of tweets drive me insane.'

Earlier this week M.G. Siegler posted Hacking the Tweet Stream at Medium, where he describes the trend of posting images of text to do an end-run around Twitter's character limits. His post quickly changes from descriptive to prescriptive, advocating for this behavior to bypass what he sees as a limitation of Twitter.

Christian Heilmann quickly responded to note what a bad idea this is (my words) in his post Great publishing works with the medium, not against it.

Reasons Not to Do It

Christian covered a few reasons why you shouldn't rely on images, which I am including here from his Medium post:

  • Maybe they are blind and can not see text in an image
  • Maybe they are on a tiny device and whilst the font here is readable the text in a small JPG with artifacts is less so.
  • Maybe they are on an unreliable connection and the image hasn’t loaded yet
  • Maybe they have a mis-configured ad-blocker that is overzealous with its blocking

Let me add some more:

  • Maybe the tweet isn't in the reader's native language and he/she wants to translate it.
  • Maybe the text contrast is too low for a small screen or sunlit screen.
  • Maybe the user is bumping against data caps and has to pay for each extra byte.
  • Maybe the user is on a feature phone (think of users outside of North America and Europe).
  • Maybe the user relies on searching the text to find relevant tweets. There is an opportunity cost to not using text.

This isn't an accessibility issue, it's a usability issue and an engagement risk. When you factor connection quality, data plan caps, image quality, contrast, potential image blocking, and search failures, this seems like a terrible method to get your important message in front of people.

Better Options

There are some easy ways to get around this that are native to the medium. I originally offered three of these in October, so I'll include them here with more.

  • Link to the source. Most of these tweets are screenshots from web pages, so link to them.
  • Use Tumblr or a similar platform. Twitter Cards will embed the image into the tweet (except for Instagram).
  • Tweet your own text version or abstract in a follow-up tweet.
  • When you are retweeting someone else, include an abstract or link to the source.
  • Ask the original tweeter for the text or the URL of the source.
  • Use a tool meant for this purpose, like Easy Chirp (an example using a useless tweet from the CDC).
  • Write less. Get to the point, focus on the message, write for the medium.

Now for the Expected Rant

I think this is too easy to dismiss unless there are examples and context. I think it's important to also show that even people who work in UX struggle with it, as I too have done before.

Media Outlets Are Getting Lazy

It seems more and more news outlets are trying this out. In so doing, they are leaving some readers in the dust. More importantly, the reporters who do this are leaving their employers in the dust by not linking back to the news site.

I even asked politely for a non-image version, maybe a link to a release or news story. No response.

I asked the same here, and again no response.

Same situation, different news outlet, still requested a plain text link. At least this tweet has an abstract, though no link to the source.

People Who Should Know Better

While these examples are far from the only three who engage in picture-only-tweets, they each came up in my timeline recently and none included anything helpful for users who cannot see the image (whether by vision impairments or technology issues). These are in reverse-chronological order.

Jared Spool, from his personal account, tweeted a screen shot that had already made the rounds, and didn't take any opportunity to add any value. Of course I got snarky, but when this image first appeared at least I asked for the source URL and got it. It's not that hard.

This tweet from Zeldman is an image of browser stats from a site (probably one of his). That's it, just an image. No descriptive text, no context (though the included text might make it seem NSFW). As I demonstrated in a follow-up tweet, you can fit all the information into a tweet as plain text.

Luke Wroblewski ran a series of tweets which were nothing but images, though he included a barely-legible URL at the bottom of each image (itself a gray URL that is so small and light it's terribly difficult to tell a 1 from an l). Why would he do this when the tweets had more than enough characters for the URL as well? Even the image confused some users. I opted to retweet some of them with the links restored and context added.

I am of the opinion that if your image-only tweets had text or links to sources, readers wouldn't need to make a Storify of them, manually creating the URLs on your behalf (and noting that now the embedded-in-image links are clickable).

Given the influence these names have on web developers and the industry in general (497,000 followers combined), and given Spool's position in the UX community, the recent push from Zeldman for accessibility on the web, and Wroblewski's constant push for better UX on mobile, their own behavior simply validates laziness when they could, rather should, be examples of useful, inclusive behavior.

Update: January 2, 2105

Steve Faulkner provides a less ranty collection of tips: Notes on providing alt text for twitter images. In it he outlines three of the techniques I do above, noting that by itself Twitter doesn't include any of the elements nor attributes that would enable accessible images otherwise.

Update: April 8, 2015

In my post Twitter (Accidentally) Takes Step Toward Accessible Images, I discuss how Twitter's new quoting feature can be used to help make image tweets more accessible.

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