Opinion

It’s time to tackle the creator apathy underpinning poor access online

It’s not enough to simply rely on automated accessibility tools – social media platforms must be incentivising their users to provide access themselves, to dismantle creator apathy.

“As much as I would like to type out everything that I say in every video, it would take too goddamn long – to the point where I would be uploading once a week,” says British YouTuber KSI (real name Olajide ‘JJ’ Olatunji), in a video from December. For one of the country’s highest-earning online creators, making his content accessible to deaf and hard of hearing audiences was seemingly too much to ask.

Yet all it took was a conversation with his editor for him to caption his videos. Now, he’s since used the tool to make inappropriate jokes at the expense of accessibility – though that’s a story for another article.

Only so much of this comes down to promotion (and thus, awareness) and education. Facebook’s manual alt text feature remains a logistical nightmare, and when YouTube announced it was scrapping its community contributions tool, creators mentioned mentioned poor publicity in their counter-arguments.

In fact, KSI’s initial response is symptomatic of a wider ‘creator apathy’ around accessible content, which isn’t exclusive to YouTube, either.

“For most creators, where they can rely on automated systems – or voluntary tools such as community captions, which no longer make them responsible for access – they will gladly accept that level of quality which, to many viewers, is far from perfect, but better than nothing.”

For most creators, where they can rely on automated systems – or voluntary tools such as community captions, which no longer make them responsible for access – they will gladly accept that level of quality which, to many viewers, is far from perfect, but better than nothing. When YouTube said they planned to remove it, deaf campaigners expressed concern that what was a “safety net” for videos made by apathetic individuals would now be gone forever.

While one should probably avoid leaning in to YouTube’s accessibility too much in this argument, given that the apathy problem extends to all other social media platforms, the video-sharing site does have a relationship with access tools which acts as a microcosm for the wider industry. Where one of the biggest players in the social media market leads, others will follow.

In their reasoning for deprecating community captions, YouTube staff said scrapping the outdated feature would free up engineering resources to work on manual and automatic captions. For what it’s worth, the platform has since made developments in both areas – for better, or for worse. Automatic captions now come with what is effectively a profanity filter (which has been described as ‘infantilising’ by deaf users), while creators are now encouraged to add manual captions in the site’s upload flow.

Other platforms, however, are yet to recognise the need for a concurrent approach to automated and manual accessibility tools. Facebook hasn’t done much to address its complicated processes for captioning and adding alt text, Twitter is only just working on its computer-generated captions, and the least said on TikTok (which still has no in-app captioning functionality whatsoever), the better.

“There is a power balance here which could generate a further few hundred words, but the crux of it is this: most, if not all, of the power lies with the creator. Yet in the time of apathy, do they want to be reminded of that fact?”

The solution isn’t new. It has been tried before, and iterations are being implemented right now. It concerns incentivising creators and, possibly, some collaboration. While it doesn’t concern accessibility specifically, Twitter’s trying it out at the moment with Birdwatch, its crowdsourced fact-checking initiative. YouTube, meanwhile, did it through its infamous – and heavily memed – YouTube Heroes scheme. Community captions, before it was removed, did the same.

Also, regardless of whether you supported its removal or not, one of the reasons for community captions’ deprecation is telling about just how far these social media platforms have to go to address the apathy around accessibility: viewers and creators alike just simply weren’t using it. Alongside the issue around promotion, people weren’t being motivated enough to provide greater access to YouTube content.

Collaboration only goes so far, too. YouTube Heroes’ demise came with concerns over the power granted to its volunteers, who could flag videos en masse. Alongside issues of low usage, community captions had issues of spam and abuse, with creators taking the blame for what was left in the contributions and translations, sometimes without their knowledge. In deciding the right approach going forwards, YouTube had to consider something which would hand more authority to the creator, whilst preserving the ‘spirit’ of a community-led feature such as contributions. There is a power balance here which could generate a further few hundred words, but the crux of it is this: most, if not all, of the power lies with the creator. Yet in the time of apathy, do they want to be reminded of that fact?

After all, if they’re disengaging from accessibility tools as it is, further pressure to make their content accessible could see them withdraw from the product completely – a scenario which, quite obviously, is not wanted by the social media giants. At which point, one has to wonder how much they know that the creator is responsible, but they’re just waiting to find the right way to tell them?

“I kinda wish YouTube would make adding CC a condition for uploading a video,” writes accessibility advocate Charlotte Hyde, in a tweet which illustrates this point further. My reply followed: “I imagine the corporate response would be that that would put people off making videos altogether,” I say, “stopping YouTube from making money and ‘oh no, that’s very bad for our business model let’s not do that…'” It would, I argue, lead to more apathy, as opposed to more captions.

Another friend prompts me to consider the issue further. “I wonder how [charging a creator for captions from their ad revenue] would impact smaller creators without the budget,” I write. “They may not be able to caption videos themselves, and used to rely on the – now defunct – community captions feature.

“As for bigger creators,” I continue, “deducting money from AdSense to pay for paid captions would certainly help make that process a lot less ‘hassle free’ for the apathetic ones…”

Much like how power structures is a whole other debate in itself, the creator hierarchy is another factor to consider when it comes to incentivising accessibility across platforms. Whatever solution is proposed, must not have a price tag on it.

Whatever happens next for the big tech companies, a universal approach is needed to tackle creator apathy. One which is exciting, inclusive and acknowledges both the automatic and manual features available.

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