Clubhouse have finally added captions to their platform – why did Deaf users have to wait?

Don’t fall for Clubhouse’s self-congratulatory nonsense on captions – there’s no pride in introducing an accessibility feature which should have been there from the start.

There’s certainly better hobbies to have than replying to almost every tweet a social audio platform put out online, but it had been a year and the fairly established mobile app Clubhouse still hadn’t made itself accessible to Deaf and disabled users by introducing automatic captions.

#CaptionsOnClubhouse was my annoying hashtag drawing attention to the issue on Twitter, and while I can’t prove it for definite, criticising their lack of captions earlier this week prompted them to reshare their announcement that captions were finally here.

“News you can use,” they wrote, in a tweet which I definitely think is a subtweet at yours truly.

I would rejoice at this feature, if Deaf and disabled users hadn’t been calling for this feature to implemented for well over a year ago now. Their requests for Clubhouse to open up the app to more users – a fair and logical ask for a platform which was, at the time, still very much in its infancy – were ignored.

In one outrageous incident, it went further. The app’s aggressive stance against recording rooms on the app caught out a blind man who did so to make the conversation accessible to Deaf people. His step towards inclusivity was penalised, and he was temporarily suspended. It wasn’t just that Clubhouse knowingly disregarded the concerns of disabled people, they also willingly punished them for daring to make their app even more accessible.

Their statement to Insider on the issue was equally laughable, saying they want to “not only to avoid instances of confusion like the one in question but to make the app more accessible to everyone”.

That comment was issued in April. The feature finally came in November. I’ll soon be turning to what took Clubhouse so long, but first, I should probably review the quality of the captions themselves beforehand – not least in comparison to their biggest social audio rival, Twitter Spaces.

Diving into a handful of rooms on Friday, what’s immediately apparent are the captions’ accuracy. In comparison to Twitter’s offering, few mistakes come through in the transcript, and if they do, the software is quick to go back and correct them.

The issue, however – and this is where Twitter has the edge – is that there is no ability to scroll back through the transcript. For a Deaf host or speaker managing several administrative tasks in a room, catching up on points raised is rather essential.

Add to this the fact that Clubhouse have had more than enough time to get this right – given that it launched well over a year ago – and one has to wonder how many errors or issues acceptable at this point.

After the social media platform retweeted one of his posts, I was able to ask Justin Uberti, Clubhouse’s Head of Streaming, about why automatic captions weren’t available from the outset.

I wasn’t expecting a reply, but I received one. “I’ve only been working here a few months,” wrote Uberti, “but I can attest that captioning a global service, with multiple (often concurrent) speakers, in realtime, and with acceptable transcript quality, is a challenging problem.”

Of course, setting up a new social media platform and dealing with a ton of code just to transcribe audio is certainly going to be tricky – trust a Deaf social media journalist to know about that.

And to quote a hit song from a global band popular in the noughties: “nobody said it was easy”.

Anyway, I digress. I raised the same issue – albeit worded differently – in my reply.

“Of course,” I comment, “but the response from disabled users to this question myself included – would be to ask why a fundamental accessibility feature wasn’t implemented prior to launch, rather than forcing Deaf users like me to wait such a prolonged period of time?”

While I received a response to my point on Twitter Spaces, who were able to implement captions prior to launch, my argument on making the app accessible from the outset remained – and continues to remain – unanswered.

This is important, not least because if an argument about programming, administration and computing is put forward, then there is still the point about company ideology and mindset. Why, Clubhouse, did you not consider accessibility to be integral to your product?

I’m still waiting for an answer to that question – one which I have been asking for months now. It’s clear that while Twitter Spaces had the right idea of (seemingly) making accessibility a necessity in order to launch the product – not least, I suspect, as a result of the outcry of rolling out Voice Tweets without captions – Clubhouse has gone for an approach I’ve called “access on demand”.

Essentially, this frames tech accessibility as a demand, rather than an expectation. Instead of implementing inclusivity from the outset, it becomes a case that a social media platform would seemingly wait for a PR hit before realising that such a feature is necessary. Yet, of course, companies shouldn’t wait for such a moment, and should anyone wish to argue that the app was – for a long time – in beta, then they don’t have much of an argument there either.

That’s because accessibility can be implemented in a way where basic requirements are met, while still establishing a community in which further improvements can be suggested. It is, in my view, Twitter’s secret sauce among their research and design teams at the moment. Instead of feedback being retrospective, it’s live.

Surely, for a social media platform which was – until fairly recently (June) – still in beta, growth is still high on the agenda. So why is it still going backwards on accessibility?

Given Clubhouse aren’t providing us with an answer to that themselves – which is perhaps revealing of the actual reasoning – your guess is as good as mine.

Photo: Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr.

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