April 4, 2016

How blind people interact with visual content on social networking sites

By: Shaomei Wu

Mobile technology has made it much easier to capture, share, and respond to photos and videos. As a result, we are seeing a shift to visual communication (e.g. photos, videos, emojis, stickers) online. Every day, people upload and share more than 2 billion photos across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.

While visual content provides a fun and expressive way for people to communicate online, it also creates challenges for people with low vision or blindness. The challenges arise in both creating and consuming visual content. As a result, some people can feel isolated and frustrated when they can not fully participate in the interaction around visual content.

To achieve our mission of making the world more open and connected, we have to connect people of all backgrounds and abilities. We work closely with the blind and visually impaired community to ensure that Facebook works well, even with a News Feed full of photos and videos.

In March 2016, we published a new study with Cornell University based on surveys and in-person interviews of blind Facebook users to understand their everyday experiences on Facebook. In a previous study [1], we found that people with visual impairments comment and like photos as often as people who did not have visual impairments, though they create and share slightly fewer photos than the average Facebook user. In this new study, we focus on (1) the experience taking and posting photos and videos, (2) interpreting visual content, and (3) responding to visual content. These findings, along with our previous research [1], have informed our new AI-powered automatic alternative (alt) text to better caption visual content on Facebook. You can learn more about the launch of this technology here.

Taking and posting photos and videos

It’s not surprising that blind people also care about the aesthetic elements and the quality of photos they share on social media. However, to take a good photo, blind people first face a series of vision-related challenges, such as composing the photo and capturing the desired subject matter. This becomes particularly challenging when it comes to selfies. One participant told us that although she can take better selfies now after a lot of practice, there was one time when she forgot to switch on the front-facing camera and shared the photo she took — she didn’t realize she had taken a photo of a wall until her close friends told her. Situations like this worried our participants, and as a result, many ask friends or family to take photos or videos for them. Although there are apps and tools that help blind people take better pictures, our participants were not always aware of them or actively using them. Participants also cared about looking good in their photos, a judgment not currently supported by any of the photography tools.

After taking photos, our participants faced additional challenges of selecting and editing photos before uploading to social media sites. One participant told us that he accidentally posted the wrong picture from his photo album and didn’t realize it until he read the comments. Even after our participants selected the correct picture, they were stuck again if they wanted to edit their photos using crop, rotate or retouch features. Sometimes such editing is mandatory to meet the dimension requirements. Again, our participants had to reach out to trusted sighted friends for help when running into these situations, thus delaying and deterring blind people from posting.

The good news is that posting a photo to Facebook was relatively easier for the participants in our study — especially through Facebook’s mobile app. Most of the participants were able to post photos or videos without help.

Interpreting visual content

Although people with visual impairments cannot perceive the visual content the same way sighted people do, the majority of our participants did try to interpret the photos posted by others and interact with them.

The text associated with photos is important, including the names of people tagged, the geo-tag, the caption by the photo uploader, and the comments. Among them, the most informative thing is the caption, but this is not always present or very descriptive. This really frustrated some of our participants and left others feeling helpless about the situation with photos and videos. Their last resort is to ask sighted friends or the photo owner for a description, but since that can be a burden, people only do so very occasionally.

Responding to Visual Content

How to respond to a photo on Facebook is tricky for many people, but it is much more so for blind people. Our participants came up with many strategies for how to react to photo posts. Some liked all photos they are tagged in, some liked photos with descriptions mentioning kids and babies, some liked all photos by someone they feel very close to, and some liked photos that already received a large number of likes. In terms of commenting, a participant told us that she would read previous comments and rephrase them, or say something general like “nice pic” when nothing is available.

Improving Facebook for people with low vision

Learning about the challenges blind people face in a visual web inspired us to develop new technologies that we hope can help address some of the issues. We are in the process of rolling out AI-powered automatic alt text to all screen reader users on mobile and web, and will continue to explore ways to use our innovative technologies to make Facebook useful and enjoyable for all, regardless of background or physical ability.

Full link to our paper


1. https://research.fb.com/publications/visually-impaired-users-on-an-online-social-network/