Today brought exciting news for those (like me and the rest of the Siteimprove team) who are looking forward to the day the internet is accessible to everyone!

Instagram announced that photos on their platform (basically everywhere except in the Stories feature) will automatically include alt text. Also, there is now a way to write your own custom alt text on posts. Is anyone else as excited about this as I am?!

Screen shot of two tweets from Instagram saying "We're proud to improve Instagram for people with visual impairments. Starting today, we are automatically adding alternative text to photos on Feed, Explore and Profile so people who use screen readers can hear what's in the photo. We're also adding a new custom alternative text field to photos so people can add richer descriptions for those who use screen readers. These are just first steps to building a more accessible Instagram." Accompanying images show the process of adding alt text in the advanced settings of a post.

Link to Instagram's Tweet

This change means that one of my personal favorite social media platforms is now a little more accessible for the (huge) community of screen reader users around the world. But stay tuned, because there is a catch…

The Before Picture

For a little background on why this change is a step in the right direction, let’s talk about Instagram, pre-alt text.

Alternative (alt) text is simply a bit of descriptive text that tells screen reader users what an image looks like. It gives much-needed context and provides a richer web experience for those using assistive technologies.

So, what exactly was it like to navigate such a visual social media platform sans alt text? The answer is, not so great. Apart from the occasional user-added alt text (yay, early adopters!), for the most part, those who use screen readers didn’t have a great way to enjoy the pictures of your beautifully plated brunch unless you added your own alt text in the description.

Screenshot of a Siteimprove Instagram post with alt text included in the description under the image saying, "Alt text: Students in a classroom watching a presentation about using a screen reader."

Imagine scrolling through a list of Instagram captions and profile links but not getting any information contained in the images. Having trouble picturing it? No worries, I took the liberty of scrolling through my own personal feed for an example of the types of captions someone using a screen reader might see.

A Tour of Hilary’s Instagram Feed

  • #HappyThanksgiving part 3
  • Misleading headline. I actually only think MY DAD doesn’t know how to tell a story.
  • Black Heart
  • The future just got very cute. Fox @enterprise #ad
  • This place is nice.

Note: Those little interludes like “black heart” and “fox” are how screen readers read emojis.

See what I mean? Instagram quickly becomes a lot less fun when you’re only reading captions. (That said, I would love to hear what you think the pictures accompanying those captions might be. Tweet us at @Siteimprove with your guesses.)

That’s not to say these limitations have kept people with print disabilities from using Instagram. If you’re curious how screen readers have helped users navigate in the past, check out this video of someone using a screen reader to post on Instagram.

The After Picture

This is just the beginning of making Instagram more accessible for everyone. It’s a great attempt at lifting a huge barrier to use and it’s clear their goal is to provide a way for people who use screen readers to fully participate in the platform.

With the ability to customize alt text in the advanced settings of every post, every user can directly participate in making Instagram a little more inclusive.

However, I wouldn’t be me if I neglected to bring up the AI elephant in the room.

It’s Not Perfect

I want to repeat, this is a great first step toward a more diverse and inclusive Instagram. I really hope this serves as a cue for more people to add their own alt text to their posts. That said, those posts without alt text will feature auto-generated alt text, which has earned its reputation of being—how do I put this gently—terrible.

Take, for instance, a picture of my overweight, cross-eyed cat. Auto-generated alt text might populate with “Picture may contain: dog.” 

Even the two simple adjectives I provide paint a better picture than the AI might be able to detect. Long story short, robots aren’t humans (yet) and can’t generally detect the same nuance that most of us take for granted.

To further paint the picture of how far we have to go, let me present what might be the greatest irony of all time: the Twitter post announcing this change doesn’t include alt text for the accompanying images. #oops

What’s Next

I sincerely hope to see more announcements like this going forward. Instagram said it themselves, these are just first steps.

Since Instagram is owned by Facebook, the next thing I would expect to see is auto-generated captions on Instagram videos, similar to what can be found on the videos in Facebook’s feed.

While auto-generated captions also often leave something to be desired, it would be another step forward in the quest for a more accessible internet. For now, if you want to caption your own videos on social media, there are many apps available—Clipomatic is a good example.

And remember to customize the alt text on your Instagram posts to help make the web a better place for all! 

For now, happy scrolling – to everyone!