Image descriptions on Mastodon

I'd like to talk a bit about why 1) image descriptions on Fedi are so great, and 2) why I sometimes reply to people's posts with a description of the image they posted without one. I was worried the latter might come across as passive aggressive, hence this explainy-post. This was originally a series of toots, but it got too long, so it's over here. Also, I want to be able to find it again, ever.

(This post is intended for an audience of people using Mastodon or other Fedi clients, but most of it also applies to image descriptions on the internet in general.)

Image descriptions rock

First, I want to say why I think image descriptions are so great! Obviously, they're very important for people who are blind or have low vision! This is not a rare thing, even if you think you don't know anyone in those categories. But it goes way beyond that, too. Less obvious use-cases:

  • People using non-graphical browsers. I sometimes check in on notifications from work by SSH'ing into my home server, where I use a text-based UI. It's unobtrusive, and doesn't let me get sucked in and distracted. But if you post an image, *all* I see is the description, or failing that, the URL.
  • If you export your Mastodon [etc.] archives, and you want to find some awesome toot that including an image, how will you find it? Image descriptions vastly increase your chance of finding it, especially if the image had some text you partially remember. (If it's *only* text, please consider forgoing the image and just posting the text!)
  • It's not always obvious what part of the image the poster thinks is relevant or interesting. Describing it can highlight that.
  • Even less obvious is that people who can *see* the image don't always understand what they're looking at! My face recognition is terrible, and I often don't have the cultural background to recognize what game, TV show, or meme is being referenced. In spite of that, I often can get the joke if the image description names the character or context.
  • If an image is gory or NSFW, it can also allow the reader to understand what it shows without fullscreening it, which might be upsetting or awkward.

There are even more reasons beyond that, but I think you get the idea! Image descriptions are cool and useful.

Helping out

Nevertheless, a lot of people post images without descriptions. This makes me sad, because I often want to share the images via boosts, but don't want to shove un-described images in the faces of friends who won't be able to make use of them (for the above reasons), and also because I know I won't ever be able to find them again even in my own archives. To patch over that, sometimes I'll reply to the toot with a description of the images. This serves two purposes: I get the description for my own archives, and my reply serves as a sort of boost of its parent. (The original poster gets a copy for their own archives, too! Maybe they were just too tired to describe it at the time.)

There's a bonus result, too: It gives people examples of what image description can look like. I think a lot of people are maybe intimidated by the image description field and don't even know what to write. By giving examples, I hope I can show people that it's not so hard, and that descriptions don't have to be bland and boring.

And feedback has been positive! So far, I've almost always gotten a fave from the original poster, so maybe I don't need to worry about it coming across as passive aggressive after all. :-)


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