Blind Bargains

Editorial: Let's Eradicate the #a11y Hashtag And Replace it with Something Useful

It's not often I write an editorial calling for collective action, but one certain issue has bothered me long enough. It's time to get rid of the #a11y hashtag on Twitter and replace it with something much more meaningful.
For those who are not familiar, a hashtag is a shorthand way of grouping tweets together by a topic. The NFB13 and ACB13 hashtags for the national consumer conventions in the United States are a good example of where this idea works well. One can search a hashtag to find related tweets on a topic. Plus, a quick look at the hashtag gives the casual viewer a good idea of what it represents. It is this latter point where the #a11y hashtag falls on its face.

At some point in the early depths of tweeting, the #a11y tag was created for grouping tweets on the topic of accessibility, the 11 standing for the number of letters between the A and Y in accessibility. This was done, we assume, because using #accessibility would take up 14 of the 140 characters allowed in a tweet, leaving less room for the actual content. But this shorthand makes the hashtag, dare we say, inaccessible to the casual fan. If one needs to explain the meaning of a hashtag in a literal sense, then it is too confusing and a barrier to entry to the casual user.

We're not the first to call for an end to this meaningless Twitter trend, and Jonathan Mosen makes some great points in the article linked above. But I contend the solution may be a new hashtag that conveys our ideals while being more understood by the general public.

So what is the solution? Should we just use the #accessibility hashtag? With URL shorteners and other more understood abbreviations, you can still do a lot with 126 characters after using the term accessibility. I'm not entirely convinced this is the answer either though, as the term accessibility can mean different things to different people, and still often requires explanations to companies when it is used.

I'm often met with silence or a blank stare when I try to tell a company their website isn't accessible. But if I say that I can't use a website with my software because I am blind, the light bulb seems to click a lot faster. So perhaps we need to find a term that is both short and easily understood by the masses. The only thing I'm convinced of is that using #a11y is definitely not the answer, and it's a hashtag you'll never find on our feed, other than the title for this post.

Got an idea for a new accessibility hashtag? Think I'm nuts? Sound off in the comments.

Category: Articles
Displaying 3 comments.
GregTW Monday, 19-Aug-2013 7:44 PM ET:

I agree here. I have been blind for a little over 11 years. I just recently figured out what in the world that hash tag meant. As for a suggestion, I have no clue. It is hard to get something like that across with such a short amount of characters.

Kyle Tuesday, 20-Aug-2013 11:54 AM ET:

In this article, you express your displeasure with the use of the #a11y hashtag, but you present #NFB13 and #ACB13 as examples of hashtags that work well. I must disagree with this. First of all, #a11y stands for accessibility in the same way that l10n stands for localization and #i18n stands for internationalization. It took just as long to find out what i18n and l10n are as it did to find out about a11y. There is no more and no less of a barrier to entry for any of these hashtags, and the fact that many people who use them have agreed that these are the shortest, most meaningful abbreviations makes them quite searchable for anyone wishing to see all tweets related to any of those subjects. Replacing the #a11y hashtag, or #l10n and #i18n for that matter, would now present greater difficulty finding tweets about any of those, especially since no one can agree on a suitable replacement, and you yourself don't have a better solution. Additionally, what to the casual user is an #NFB13? What is an #ACB13? These tags represent conventions, but if someone hasn't been to one of those conventions, or is unaware of the organizations whose acronyms are in the hashtags, they would have no idea of what they represent. If we choose to replace the #a11y hashtag, we may as well say that acronyms should be disallowed for the same reason. What in the world is a NASA? We only know that it is an agency of the United States (US) government related to space, and some people may not even be aware of that much. So should we find a different method of referring to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because people may not know immediately what it is? Better yet, how about we rethink the use of all abbreviations. I say we need to stop using Dr. in casual writing. After all, blind people who use speech will tell you that their speech synthesizer says drive instead of doctor and doctor instead of drive too many times, because the abbreviation has two meanings in two different contexts. What then would be wrong with using doc for doctor and drv for drive? The same thing as replacing #a11y; the fact that many people agreed to use the abbreviations, and it is now easy to find what they mean, and to find relevant posts about those things. I don't like them because they are ambiguous, but it's not for me to like or dislike them; they are being used, and I must know what they mean and how to use them correctly. To explain further, people eed a quickly and easily searchable way to find things on Twitter, and now Facebook, as well as Diaspora, Google Plus and other social networks. In order to make this search easier, we use hashtags for specific topics, categories, events, etc. The quickest and easiest search for a specific topic happens when there is only one hashtag that represents that topic. The most effective hashtags, especially on Twitter, which limits each tweat to 140 characters, shorter than a text message on a mobile phone, are the ones that are short, yet express in some way the idea being conveyed. It also helps when people agree to use the same hashtag for all tweets or posts related to a topic. If the topic is Linux, and some people use #Linux, some people use #lnx, some people use #l3x and others use #lin, no one would be able to find all relevant tweets without doing 4 separate searches. With this in mind, although #a11y may not be the best possible hashtag for things related to accessibility, which itself is ambiguous at best, meaning different things to different people, it has been used long enough by enough people that it is indeed quite searchable, and replacing it with something different now would only make it harder to find relevant tweets or posts. The point of a hashtag is that we don't have to all like it, but because enough people are using it on a regular basis, we need to make life easier for people who want to know about it by continuing to use what has been agreed upon by the community at large. I'm all for bucking the system, but unfortunately, doing so in this area would cause more problems than it could hope to solve.

mf723 Wednesday, 21-Aug-2013 02:28 AM ET:

I used to agree with what was said in this post, but after discussing it with someone and pondering it further, I think the hashtag is best left as is. First, you argue that developers won't know what the hashtag means, and you are absolutely right. However, I'm not sure developers would know any better what is meant by #accessibility. A developer might think this simply refers to whether or not their app can be accessed, and since they can access it just fine, they won't bother replying. Regardless of the hashtag being used, #a11y, #usability, #accessibility--there is no way a developer can understand what you mean based on a hashtag. We need to explain to developers that we are blind, use assistive technology and are having difficulty using their app or service. We then need to go on to explain the specific issues we are having. I'm a developer myself, and I can tell you from personal experience that if I receive a vague, uninformative message which I do not understand the meaning of, I most likely will ignore it, given that my service (RS Games) is free and is far from my top priority. Developers are busy, and have to prioritize and make the most productive use of their time. As far as the hashtag is concerned, we seem to have consistency with #11Y. Everyone in the accessibility community uses this hashtag, making it easy to search for tweets about this topic. If we try to change it now, some will likely continue to use the old hashtag and we'll only make things more complicated for not only us, but developers who are curious and take the time to research what the term means. Might I add that the first result for a Google search for #A11y is a Wikipedia article on computer accessibility. Thus, it really isn't too difficult to find out what the hashtag means.

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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