Twitter Spaces no longer has captions – let’s talk about that

In what may well be Twitter’s first accessibility feature cock-up since Tesla founder Elon Musk took over late last year, the social media platform has decided to remove live captions from its social audio feature, Spaces – and so far they haven’t given us a reason why.

Hardly surprising, really, when one considers the fact that there appears to be little to no press team at Twitter post-Musk takeover, and we know for sure that the company’s brilliant team dedicated to accessibility has been laid off. I said back in November that this certainly sent a troubling message about the importance of inclusion on the platform, and now it seems it wasn’t long before my suspicions were proven correct.

The disappearance of captions from Twitter Spaces is particularly gutting considering the backstory behind the company deciding to make an audio feature inaccessible to Deaf people. After a pretty big backlash to Twitter deciding to roll out Voice Tweets without any way of making these comprehensible to deaf and disabled people such as myself, the social media network was determined to do right by the disability community, and undertook to have Spaces come with captions from the outset. While they were far from perfect in their infancy – as many expected and appreciated at the time – it was the shift in attitude above everything else which I think myself and others appreciated the most.

Twitter’s research team – another group gutted in Musk’s mass exodus – was integral to implement that ethos, with the Tweeps working on Spaces regularly hosting town halls and openly sharing developments with users as they were being designed, rather than only inviting feedback at the end of the process. They really understood the process of co-production and meaningful engagement with communities impacted by particular features.

If ever there was an issue with the platform, researchers would be alert to it through their conversations with users, Twitter A11y would receive tweets flagging the issue, and – if it’s particularly bad – the communications team would obviously know about it. Now that hierarchy seems to be decimated in favour of a more centralised system and one unpredictable individual: Elon Musk. He did, at one point, take down Twitter Spaces altogether after he was challenged by a journalist on a Space who had had their account wrongly suspended.

When concerns around accessibility have to be addressed to a CEO who previously described himself as ‘Mr Tweet’ and cares little for advertiser concern about the platform, then the usual – and often, only – strategy of kicking up a PR stink to pressure an image-conscious company into doing better is no longer an effective method.

Some may wonder why I’m disappointed in the removal of an access tool for a feature which was still – even with the automatic captions – not completely accessible for disabled people, but I’m of the view that some, imperfect access which is looking to be better, is preferred over total inaccessibility. If that isn’t enough to convince you, then it’s the issue of this decision being entirely reductive. This isn’t Musk and co. ruling out new access features for any number of reasons; it’s the entrepreneur deciding to axe a useful, pre-existing feature.

Andrew Hayward, a former Twitter employee working in accessibility, tweeted the automatic captions deprecation was “evidently a permanent decision”, while another ex-Tweep Tim Kettering replied saying he was “99.99% certain this was ditched to save costs” – and it’s this comment which is particularly significant. A restrictive decision like this is often synonymous with saving money, seeing as for some business owners, accessibility is seen as an expensive ‘add-on’, rather than something ingrained into the core of a feature or product. This is important, because it goes against the ‘involve users at the start’ ethos previously mentioned which pre-Musk Twitter worked so hard to establish.

So what happens now? Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a positive answer to that question. Even other platforms towards which others are moving seem to display a disregard to incorporating access from the outset, with Noam Bardin’s Post choosing to onboard as many people as possible onto its platform and let them flood users’ timelines with inaccessible posts before bothering to make them inclusive. It sure feels like we’re waiting for a new social media platform to lead the way in terms of access after Twitter A11y’s demise, but it brings me no joy to say that right now, I don’t know of any strong contenders…


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