The Unsocial Web

Colleagues at work frequently talk about del.icio.us and StumbleUpon. These are just two web sites and services in the category of social browsing. The theory behind these kinds of web sites is simple. You find web pages that are interesting and mark them in some fashion. Then others who are users of the services can see what you find interesting and correspondingly you find what others with similar interests as you are browsing. It all sounds grand and I suppose anything from marginally interesting to quite handy depending on how much you want to tap the collective experiences of others browsing the web.

 

Signing up for StumpleUpon and del.icio.us is what’s largely the standard for new accounts with services on the web today. And it is here that we see yet another example of the unsocial web.

 

StumbleUpon and del.icio.us both use the typical CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) for web sites of requiring entry of the characters from a graphical version of a word to stop hackers, spammers and other ne’er-do-wells from causing problems. Unfortunately these tests have a tendency to lockout honest people too, especially if you are not able to see the characters to enter.

 

Solutions to the inaccessibility of these tests do exist that can improve the situation to some degree. The most typical is to offer an audio version of the characters. There is a more in depth discussion of the issues around the inaccessibility of CAPTCHA in this paper.

 

I have no firsthand knowledge as to why StumbleUpon or del.icio.us do not offer audio solutions for this problem. I suspect like most situations, the inaccessibility of these tests was not known to the individuals responsible for implementation at the particular companies.

 

Like many with disabilities who encounter these challenges, I’ve started the contact process to see if either of the companies in question here offer alternative sign-up solutions or are aware of the issues. We’ll see what kind of results happen.

 

My own reaction to the general class of problem here runs the gambit of emotions. I fully understand the reasons why these tests are in place and as a general practice will not fault individual web sites for needing them. Nor can I entirely blame the web sites for not knowing about the need to have some solutions to the accessibility challenges in place.

 

The simple fact is that societal awareness of disability and related issues is still generally low. It requires a relatively high degree of awareness to know that people who are blind can actually access the computer and web sites but also that this access is not magical and does not work perfectly.

 

All that said, it is annoying, frustrating, and sometimes downright anger-inducing to be on the wrong side of anything that blocks you from trying to do what you want. In this case I’ll give the contact and awareness routines some time to work themselves out with a taciturn acceptance that the social web is sometimes not as social as we think. I’d like to join the party too.

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