Untangling the Web
A New Way to Find Old Friends: A Review of the Accessibility of Facebook
In the 21st century, there has been a communications revolution. Social networking sites, including MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook, have given people a new way to interact. By using each site's methods for finding friends or people you may know, it is possible to connect with people from the past or make new friends. These sites have specific groups with a wide variety of topics, including "high school class," "where you grew up" and "fans of a particular television show." During the past election, many newscasters mentioned Facebook's exit polls.
In this article, I discuss the social networking site Facebook, although all the sites basically work the same way. You fill out a profile by answering questions and inputting information. You then verify that you are not a spammer by typing a CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) into an edit box. A CAPTCHA is a randomly generated string of letters and numbers. Once you are registered, you can communicate with friends, join groups, post personal updates, and much more. I indicate where some controls, text and links are when using a screen reader. The location will probably be different for people not using a screen reader--for users with low vision, for example.
Several months ago, Facebook changed its format. The original format was more accessible, and pages had a lot less clutter. Unfortunately, Facebook does not give users the option to use the older format. Some groups that were created on Facebook lodged protests to no avail.
Before you embark on a trip into Facebook, it is essential that you familiarize yourself with your screen reader's search functions, navigation keys, and mouse keys. This knowledge will be critical once you start using Facebook's features. Be prepared to expect some frustration while using this web site. There is a lot to learn and some accessibility issues. As you make more friends and participate in other Facebook offerings, your page will become even more cluttered. I recommend that you move slowly and learn one part of Facebook at a time. The layout of the Facebook page changes, depending on which operation or search you are doing at a particular moment. There are also many advertisements, and they can interfere with how your screen reader presents information. While using the site, if you get overwhelmed or confused, reload your Facebook home page and start again. For this article, I used Windows XP, Window-Eyes 7.01, and Internet Explorer 7.0.
When the Facebook page loads, there is a login form for members, and under that form is the sign-up form. The edit boxes do speak, but, when the Sign-up button is activated, there is a CAPTCHA to enter in an edit box. There is an option for an audio CAPTCHA, but it has a lot of background noise and the numbers are spoken by various, sometimes hard-to-understand, voices. With Window-Eyes 7.1 not in Browse mode, there was a link to replay it. The advantage of this link is that the CAPTCHA is played through your audio program, such as Windows Media Player, so it can be replayed many times to ensure that the numbers are correct. MySpace does not offer an audio version of its registration CAPTCHA. The CAPTCHA will be discussed further later in this article.
If a mistake is present on your registration form, there is no way for your screen reader to announce where the problem is. You need to navigate around the page to find the error message, because it isn't always in the same location. Once the registration form is successfully completed and sent, you will receive a confirmation e-mail message to which you must reply in order to activate your registration.
Throughout Facebook, there are times where just activating a link does not do anything. Here's a Window-Eyes trick that can help. You can use this procedure whenever buttons or links do not appear to work.
- Route the mouse pointer to the link or button that you want to activate. This process is not exact, so you may have to spend some time looking for what you want.
- Turn Browse mode off.
- Click the left mouse button.
- Wait for the page to refresh.
- If the page does not refresh, manually turn Browse mode back on.
Another major difficulty with Facebook is that there is so much other clutter on the page. It will be necessary to use your mouse keys frequently. There are advertisements on the page that are constantly changing. When using the mouse keys, you will hear relevant information as well as part of the advertisements. This can be confusing and cumbersome to navigate.
The first time that you log in, there will be a lot of information at the top of the page, including links for applications, photographs, and groups. From now on, your Facebook pages will contain these links. This information is not important now, but will be discussed once your profile is created and you have been in contact with other Facebook members. On the screen, there is a heading that says, "Fill out your profile info." You do not have to fill out all sections, and you can go back and edit your profile. The profile form is straightforward, using a combination of check boxes, combo boxes, and edit boxes. Make sure that you save changes as you go through the profile-completion process. Think carefully about what information you want to make available in cyberspace.
Along with your profile, you will need to fill out information about who can see it and how you want Facebook to communicate with you. The Account Settings link brings you to a series of links where you can make choices regarding where to receive e-mail, how to change a password and join a network, and how Facebook notifies you about various activities and interactions. The advantage of having Facebook send you information through your regular e-mail program is that you do not have to go onto Facebook to view it. This is especially useful if someone sends you a friend request or wants to communicate with you.
The Privacy Settings link brings you to options that allow you to choose who can view the profile and how much information is available. These options are also accessed through a series of links within the Privacy Settings link. Some of the options include how people can search for you, what profile information is available for anyone to read, and what stories about you people can view. There is an Applications Settings link, which will be discussed later in the article.
Now that your profile is set up and you have decided who can view it, it is time to start making friends. The simplest way to get friends on Facebook is to ask people whom you know, who are already using Facebook, to send you a friend request. Depending on how you set up the Account Settings section, Facebook can send you an e-mail message, informing you of the friend request. The message will say, "Facebook," then the name of the person and the words, "has added you as a friend on Facebook." In the e-mail message is a link to go to the confirmation form. For someone to be a Facebook friend, you must confirm that you approve him or her.
If you have not chosen to receive a separate e-mail message, the friend request information will also be on your Facebook page. You can use your screen reader's Find function and look for the word "request." This technique is useful as you start using more of Facebook's functions and making more friends. Another option is to search for the Friend Request link and activate it. Both methods will bring you to the confirmation form.
The confirmation form is toward the bottom of the page. There is a button to confirm the friend request and a button to ignore it. Above the button is a link to view the person's profile. Along with the Confirm and Ignore buttons, there is a link to send the person a message. If this link is activated, an edit box will appear, and you can write a message. Sending a message does not confirm or ignore a friend request.
To confirm the friend, activate the Confirm button. For Window-Eyes, you will need to turn Browse mode back on manually. When you do, instead of hearing the Friend Request buttons, you will hear that you have no more friend requests and that you are now friends with whomever you just approved. If you want to check to make sure that the friend request went through, there is a link on your Facebook page that says, "recently added." Activate this link, and you will be able to find the most recently added friends, including the one you just added. If the friend's name is not present, repeat the friend confirmation process.
Since Facebook is a social networking site, you may receive friend requests from people you do not know. Friends of your friends can see part of your profile. Your name may come up through Facebook's various search options. If you do not recognize the name, you can ignore the request or activate the link for the person's profile. Depending on how your screen reader functions, you may need to use your mouse keys to view some or part of the profile. How much of the profile is available to people who have not been accepted as friends has been determined by the person's decisions in the person's privacy settings. If you decide to accept the friend, activate that button. If not, you can just ignore it or use Facebook's ignore feature.
Locating Old Friends
Facebook is a good way to get in contact with former classmates, coworkers, and old friends. Go to the Find Friends link. From there, you are presented with several search options. You can upload the contacts file from your e-mail program, and friend requests will be sent to the people who are already using Facebook. However, if you are on an e-mail list, everyone who is also a member of Facebook will get the friend request. This could anger some people.
Another option on the page is to search for coworkers and another is to search for former classmates. There is also an edit box for searching by name. If you are using Window-Eyes, you will need to use your mouse keys to view the search results. Route the pointer to any of the search results and activate your screen reader's left mouse button. This operation makes all the search results accessible with standard navigation keys. Once you find the correct person, you can activate his or her link. If you are searching for a friend, you may receive many hits on the same name. You can limit your search results according to where you live.
Toward the bottom of the page there is a button to add the person as a friend. The person will receive notification of your request and has the option to approve or ignore it. Above the buttons is a line that says, "send a personal message." This is not a link or button. Use your mouse navigation keys and click on the words. When the page reloads, an edit box will appear right below the message line. You can then type in your message. Next, activate the Add Friend button.
When the page reloads after activating the Add Friend button, you are presented with a CAPTCHA. As before, there is an option to hear an audio version. Right below that link it says, "Sick of these" and then a link to "verify your account." Activating this link brings up an additional web page where you are instructed to enter your cell phone number, and Facebook will send a text message with a confirmation code to enter into the form. Obviously, this can be a problem if you do not have a cell phone, have a cell phone without either the feature or third-party software to read text messages, or do not have sighted assistance available to read the text message. Once the text is correctly entered, Facebook immediately responds that your account has been verified. If you do not have your account verified, every time you send a friend request, post a comment, or take many other actions on Facebook, you will have to use a CAPTCHA.
Once your friend request has been sent, it is now up to the person whether or not to accept it. If the person has accepted it, you will receive notification on your Facebook page. If you have chosen, in your account settings, to have Facebook notify you about friend requests being approved, then you will also receive an e-mail saying, "Facebook," followed by the name of the person and that he or she has confirmed you as a friend on Facebook.
Facebook has a feature called People You May Know. Check the bottom of your Facebook page periodically, and you will find this feature. Facebook lists people on the basis of your profile and those of your friends. This feature does not appear on every Facebook page that you load, so you will have to look for it. If you find someone you know, there are links to add the person as a friend and to send him or her a message.
Interacting with Friends--Facebook Style
Now that you have some Facebook friends, it is time to communicate with them. Facebook offers many ways to do so. The simplest is to comment on what someone has written about himself or herself or to write something about yourself, and other people can comment on what you have written. As you start having more interactions with friends, you will find their responses listed near the top of the page. A response will say the friend's name and then whatever action the friend took.
To write something for your friends to view, find the edit box for status updates, which is located under your profile link. It will say, "What are you doing right now?" then your name, followed by the word "is." Write your information in the edit box and press Enter. You can change your status as often as you wish. This information is then sent to all your Facebook friends.
To read what your friends have posted, find Friend List Feeds in the middle of the page. You can then arrow down and find the person's name, what the person has written, anybody's comments, and what time the original post was made. If you want to make a comment on what your friend wrote, left click your mouse where it says, "add comment." Doing so will open up an edit box where you can type your response. Under the edit box is a button that says, "Comment." Your response will now be visible to all people who are somehow connected to the original writer, including their friends and your friends.
Each Facebook member has a "wall." The wall is used for writing anything. The subject does not have to be a status update. It can be a happy birthday wish or a quick note. Before you write your first wall post, you may want to view the walls of your Facebook friends, just to get an idea about what to write. To write on someone's wall, you must first access the person's profile. You can do so by activating the link that says, "All Friends." If you recently added the friend whose wall you want to write on, you can activate the link that says, "Recently added."
Once your friend's profile loads, click on the wall. When the page reloads, click where it says, "Write something," which will bring up an edit box. Write your message in the edit box and then activate the Post button.
If someone writes on your wall, this fact will be noted by your friends' responses. You can also have Facebook send you an e-mail message when it occurs. The e-mail message will contain the text of whatever your friend has written.
Like your regular e-mail program, you have an In-box and a Sent box on Facebook. This feature is useful if you want to tell a friend something that you do not want everyone else to read. To send an e-mail message, find the link that says, "Compose New Message." Activate the link, and a form will be loaded. Type in the person's name, the subject, and the message. When you are done, activate the Send button.
To see whether you have e-mail, find the link that says, "In-box." Next to these words, the number of messages in your inbox is displayed. If you do not have any messages, the number zero is displayed. Above each e-mail message is a check box. The boxes control what you do with the e-mail message. You can mark the checked messages as read, unread, or delete. There is a combo box, but it does not offer the delete option. The easiest way to delete a message is to use mouse navigation to find the word, Delete and left click it. Then a Delete and Cancel button is displayed. When you activate the In-box link, there is also a link for sent messages. The same operations work here as with the In-box.
Too Much Information
It is possible that some Facebook friends will inundate you with posts, photographs, and other information. There are ways to control how much information about a particular friend you receive. If you want to remove a person from your friend list, open the friend's profile and activate the Remove from Friends link.
If you do not want to remove a friend but want to limit the kind of information that you do and do not want to receive, activate the Options link within the Newsfeed list. Enter the names of the people you want to receive less information about in the edit box. In the same setting is an edit box to add people who you want to receive more information about.
Another way to control information is to use the links under your status. These links include News Feed, Status Updates, and Notes. Activating these links brings up only the specific area that these links address when you view what information friends have recently entered.
You can send and be sent many virtual things, such as coffee, hugs, snowballs, and fish. These virtual items do not come directly from Facebook, but from separate applications (apps) that you must install on your computer. How Facebook handles each app is controlled by the apps settings, which are under the Account and Privacy settings. Each application functions differently, so some are more accessible than others. If someone sends you a virtual thing, you must install its application before you can receive it. To send a virtual item, you must install the application and then select who you want to receive it. Some applications use check boxes for selecting people, while others use links and others use graphics. Most applications also have an edit box where you can type the friend's name. If you want to block an application that was sent to you by a friend, go to Requests, toward the bottom of the page. Find the link that says "Block This Application" and activate it.
There are many apps from which to choose. Beside using the ones that friends use to send you stuff, you can search for other apps. On the top of the Facebook page, just below the title is the Applications link. Activating this link brings up several search options, including a list of most popular users. Remember that not all applications are accessible. Before you send something to your friends, think about whether they would really like to use the application required to receive your gift.
Under the Account and Privacy settings links is an Applications settings link. These settings are controlled by radio buttons. There is a combo box to choose which applications are displayed for editing. Along with Applications, other Facebook options, such as Special Events and Notes, can also be edited through the Applications settings link.
Finding Special Interest Groups
Another way to meet people on Facebook is to join a group. Facebook has many groups that are related to schools, specific interests, neighborhoods, music, and much more. Any Facebook user can create a group. You can view groups that users' friends have joined, or you can search for a specific group or interest. Toward the top of the page is a link that says, "Groups." Activating that link will bring up a search form and a list of groups that your friends have joined. If you have joined any groups, they will be listed under My Groups. If you use the groups search form, enter key words and review the results. Try to be as specific as possible with your search terms. There is also a form to create a new group.
If you find a group that may be of interest, activate its link. A more detailed description of the group will be presented, along with the names of some of its members. It is possible to view the entire membership. You will also be able to view the group's discussion board and wall. Although many groups are open to the public, some are not. This information is given in the group's description. If you decide that you want to join the group, just activate the Join button. Once you are a member of a group, you will need to visit the group's page to see who else has joined, read and/or post comments, and take part in other group activities. If you have joined a group, but no longer want to be a member, there is a Leave Group option on the group's page.
People can post specific events on Facebook, such as concerts, camp reunions, rallies, and workshops. Other, more generalized events are posted, such as when merchants are giving discounts or when people are celebrating something. As you review your friends' posts, you may find events that they will be attending, either physically or virtually. There is usually a link to take part in the event. Facebook also gives you the option to create your own event.
Universal Search Form
Slightly above the middle of the Facebook page is a Universal Search Form. You can type anything into the form and receive many results. When the search page reloads, you will be given links to narrow the results. For example, my guide dog search query brought up filters to limit the results according to groups, events, networks, and much more. My search brought up more than 500 results. When I did the search with the groups search form, my results were about half the number as with the universal search.
Even if you cannot see photographs, you may want to post some for others to view. Before you begin this process, make sure that you know where the photographs are located on your computer. Activate the link near the top of the page that says, "Photos." From there, go to My Photos. Next is a link to create an album. Once that link is activated, there will be edit boxes to enter information about your photographs and then to activate the Create Album button. A new page will load, offering an Active X control to upload photographs. According to Facebook's instructions, you should see a bar at the top of the window or a pop-up window, neither of which was spoken by Window-Eyes. There is also a Simple Uploader from Facebook, but according to the site, it will not be as easy or as simple to use as the "Active X control." However, I actually found it easier to use. The major difference is that you cannot upload as many photographs at a time, but you can use arrow keys for part of the process. Just click on the Simple Uploader link.
If you want to try the Active X control, click on Active X, and the download will start. Once the control is loaded, your desktop will appear near the bottom of the screen. Find the photographs the same way you would find any other files. The Active X control gives you the option of uploading all the photographs in a folder at the same time.
Once the photographs are uploaded, via either method, they need to be labeled. There are edit boxes to do so. If the photographs contain other Facebook members, there is an option to click on the member and type in his or her name. Sighted assistance is needed, since this task is completely graphical.
In spring 2008, Facebook began offering its own version of instant messaging, called "Chat." These communications are done in real time and are not visible to anyone other than the parties in the conversation. Although Chat is a nice feature, it is difficult for a screen reader user to navigate. However, with patience and practice, it can be done.
Toward the top of your page, it says, "online friends" and then gives a number. This is not the place to activate Chat. Toward the bottom of the page, after Applications, it says, "Online Friends." This information can be accessed only with mouse hot keys. Left clicking on these words opens up a list of friends who are currently online. Activate the link for the person you wish to chat with. You may hear that no one is available to chat, but if there is a list of people who are online, just ignore that message and choose someone from the list.
Toward the top of the page, there will now be two edit boxes. When you use Chat, always type in the bottom edit box. Type your text into the second edit box and press Enter when you are ready to send your message. Facebook, by default, has your computer make a sound when a Chat message is received. To view the message, you can reload your page; use your navigation keys to find the response; or, for Window-Eyes users, find the two edit boxes and turn Browse mode off. Now use the tab and shift tab to read the messages. The person's name will appear before what the person has written. When you are finished chatting, you can clear the Chat history and/or close the Chat window. These options are above the dialogue.
There are other features not covered in this article. Some of them, such as bumper stickers and flair, are completely graphical. It is possible to upload video, write notes, and perform other operations.
The Bottom Line
Although Facebook requires skill and a lot of patience, it is possible to use it. In fact, a lot of skill is required, and some screen reader users will find using Facebook to be too difficult. If you do stick with it, even if you do not use all its features, you can reunite with old friends, meet new people, and join common interest groups. As I said, learn one feature at a time and expect some frustration. Please feel free to visit my Facebook page.
The American Foundation for the Blind is on Facebook. Visit us at http://apps.facebook.com/causes/16290?m=de0957a2.
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