Gideon Goldberg: How Facebook made subtitled videos cool

Posted on July 21, 2016

As someone who cares a lot about accessibility having got my start working on the BBC Ouch Disability blog and subsequently on a number of web content publishing sites, there’s been more than one occasion where I’ve had a conversation like this:

“I think we really should be subtitling our videos for deaf users”

“Yes, that’s a great idea and really something we should be doing BUT…”

Those ‘buts’ include

  • Technical issues: having a video player that can render subtitles and having tools to be able to produce them.
  • Cost issues: professionally produced subtitles are not free and in an online world where publishers don’t have the same obligations as on TV, those costs have to be weighed against other priorities
  • Timeliness; particularly for news content; subtitles that go live a day after publication aren’t going to cut it for stories with a shorter lifespan

Let me be clear I’m absolutely not trying to castigate publishers or on the other hand to absolve them for inaction but just to lay out some of the considerations that they face.

However, in the last year or so I’ve noticed a real change with subtitles popping up in unexpected places and I haven’t had to look very far, in fact, you just have to open your favourite social media app to see it. 

Screengrab from a Channel 4 News video on Facebook

Screengrab from a Channel 4 News video on Facebook

The catalyst for this change hasn’t been some magical resolution of the buts I just described, rather it’s the introduction of silent auto-playing videos on Facebook and other social media sites.

Suddenly the tables have turned! When most people experience partial deafness, subtitles become a no-brainer for publishers! No longer an accessibility afterthought they are now the crucial hook to gain the user’s interest as they scroll through their feed.  

The style has changed too. Where often TV news reports contain a voiceover accompanied by some vaguely related stock footage. On social media you get a graphics and text lead video with some vaguely related stock music.

And whilst these videos weren’t designed specifically with deaf users in mind suddenly they can be part of those conversations.

And this flipping of the script is not a unique case, taking a ‘universal design’ approach can suddenly put disabled users on a par with their peers. Another recent example being the Amazon Echo device, which is operated solely via voice, making it equally accessible to blind and sighted users alike.

So what’s next? Whilst YouTube’s Auto Generated captions leave much to be desired, I do believe some combination of automatic speech-to-text, along with crowdsourcing and manual curation will greatly speed up the current (largely manual) subtitling and transcription process, indeed start-ups like Amara and Trint are working towards this, trying make more of the web accessible to all.

I would love to hear if you have benefited from the rise of captioned videos on social media!

Gideon is facilitating the session ‘Insert Caption Here’: how Facebook made video captioning cool at the SRCCON 2016 conference on July 28th/29th in Portland, Oregon

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