Opinion

Twitter Spaces’ Voice Effects are hellish and inaccessible – they have to go

Twitter Spaces’ Voice Effects are hell, and it isn’t just me who’s saying this. 

After an unintended break from the social audio feature for a few weeks, I returned to test out the collection of new ‘transformers’ designed to make things a little bit easier for those who may find using their own voices in Spaces a tad uncomfortable. 

Yet, what may be more comfortable for them, is in fact completely inaccessible – and even painful – for disabled people, such as autistic people and others who identify as neurodivergent.

As more people tuned in to my Twitter Space – and thus, hadn’t heard me test out effects ranging from a helium voice to microphone-like reverb – I suggested that I give a signal for people to turn their volumes back up once I had carried out the test. In other words, Twitter’s Voice Effects were so overwhelming, that I had to take steps to ensure my listeners were not left in physical pain.

Just for reference: the last time Twitter was made aware that an aspect of their product was causing physical pain – namely that their high contrast redesign was causing eye strain – they got on that pretty quickly.

Twitter, it’s time for you to ditch the voice effects. Anonymity should not come at the expense of inaccessibility.

The fact that such an exclusionary feature was even created raises questions around the level of involvement and control that Twitter’s internal accessibility team have over product design processes. Blind and visually impaired folks would tell you that voice effects can interfere with screen readers; Deaf people like me would tell you that for many of them, captions hardly work at all; neurodivergent people would tell you that the sounds are overwhelming and painful.

All of the above and more would tell you that in the context of anonymity, voice effects such as helium and a bumblebee are unnecessary and completely nonsensical, and severely lacking in clarity.

Clarity being an important word here in the context of Spaces, as a balance must be struck between effectively masking a person’s voice, and enabling the speech itself to be easily understood. None of the features allow for such a balance, and I am reminded of a comment from one Twitter user in my Space, who suggested a slider to customise the voice effect. Functionality and practicability aside, it would certainly allow for both objectives to be achieved.

On top of this, Twitter appears to be planning to make it so that individuals can listen to a Space without having to log in. If these people can also speak in the call, then surely that is a way to remain anonymous? Not only that, but when one considers the fact that you can use a pseudonym in your display name and handle, an illustration as an avatar, and lock your account, why might an account need to mask their voice?

Some important answers to that question were given in the Space, from preventing trans folks from experiencing dysphoria, to it offering another level of protection should the Space be recorded without their knowledge. I’m sure there are other uses I have forgotten here, but as the recent debate in the UK over IDs for social media users has shown, anonymity has its uses.

Furthermore, when it comes to abuse, a Twitter spokesperson recently told me that most people prefer to add their name to abusive comments. Host controls in Spaces to mute and remove speakers should solve that issue too.

In fact, the appearance of a fellow Deaf Twitter user in the Space raised an interesting and important point: why can’t text-to-speech be implemented as an option?

Granted, Twitter appears to be pretty averse to any text feature in Spaces (there is still no sign of an in-Space live chat function), but if we’re talking about social audio, text-to-speech would not only allow anonymous users, Deaf users and non-speaking individuals to participate in Spaces, but would also offer a workaround for those who wish to indicate that they’re unable to speak.

The solutions to anonymous speakers in Twitter Spaces is there, but pursuing nonsensical Voice Effects risks undermining the feature’s recent promising developments in accessibility.

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