Social Networking is Becoming a Way of Life
Much has been said about the influence of social networking and its effect on the way people live their lives. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube have shifted the paradigm from a world of static web pages to a world of interactivity. No longer are our social networks limited to just family, friends, and co-workers.
AccessWorld has published articles on the accessibility of these sites, but how do we really use them? Do people with vision loss use them differently than our sighted peers? Is there anything unique to our methods? This article will begin to explore the many ways the author uses these social networking tools at work and in his personal life.
In the second half of the 1990's, a whole new form of communication was gripping the nation. The World Wide Web was making the front pages of America's newspapers. E-mail and instant messaging were all the rage. With endless numbers of web sites to navigate, one might have thought we had reached the top of the technological mountain. Fast forward to the middle of the next decade and the beginnings of web 2.0 . The tell-tale signs of a 2.0 web site include the ability for users to interact with other users or change the content. This is contrasted by the static non-interactive web sites that allow visitors to only view the content that is provided to them. Some examples of this new technology include: blogs and micro-blogs like Twitter; web-based communities like Second Life; open source knowledge web sites called wikis like Wikipedia; video and photo-sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr; social news aggregators that consolidate news stories like Digg and Delicious; and social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Many of these new developments represent a fundamental shift where working on the internet would replace working on our own desktops. Applications would be made available through the web browser giving the public even greater computing possibilities. Content would no longer be controlled by the few. Anybody with access to the internet would be capable of writing a multi-page thesis on the philosophical significance of Star Wars characters or post videos of their cat playing chopsticks on the piano.
While this was moving along at light speed, the folks at the World Wide Web Consortium, the organization responsible for many of the guidelines and standards for information technology based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the browser makers such as Microsoft, the Mozilla Foundation, Opera, and assistive technology companies were working diligently to ensure that people with disabilities would be able to participate in the new web 2.0. However, it has been and continues to be an uphill struggle to make sure people with disabilities have the same access. New technology such as Ajax makes it possible for content to change onscreen without having to reload the web page. Flash makes it possible to have audio and video alongside standard HTML web pages. At the onset, many people believed that these new technologies were not accessible to people using assistive technology. However, due to the hard work of the people mentioned above, better authoring tools, and more attention being focused on accessibility by end users, web 2.0 sites have improved accessibility and become mainstream staples in our lives. It is really important to remember that many of these web sites and applications are still not 100% accessible and it is vital to be familiar with your assistive technology and be persistent to learn all of the tricks to navigating these sites.
AccessWorld has published quite a number of articles about the accessibility of these new types of web sites including reviews of Facebook and Twitter. In this article I will share some insights of how I actually engage these web sites.
I first started using LinkedIn about five years ago when a friend of mine sent me an invitation to join him as a connection. I gladly accepted the invitation and created a user profile. After that I was unsure what to do with the web site and while I entered the names of some friends and colleagues, I did not find any matches. For a couple of years, I only had a handful of connections. The concept behind LinkedIn is based on the idea that each of us is linked to one another by "six degrees of separation." Individuals all have a social network of colleagues, friends, and family that work in various positions. Why not harness the power of web 2.0 to help each other find the connections we are seeking by taking a look at their virtual rolodexes. As an accessibility specialist for AFB Consulting, I find myself constantly trying to contact people at different companies to discuss accessibility issues. For example, if I would like to speak with someone who works in the field of accessibility, I could enter the term into the search field and find everybody in my vast network that has put that search term in their user profile. Moreover, the search results will be sorted by the number of degrees they are separated from me. If the person is your connection, you are able to send them a message. If the person is two or three degrees from you, it is possible to ask your connection to put you in touch with the intended person. It is possible to search for former classmates and work colleagues by entering in your school and workplace information. As LinkedIn grew bigger, they have added modules to help people to connect in groups, share recommendations of colleagues, invite people to business events, and post job opportunities. Using this social network, I can find all varieties of articles on important topics. I can ask questions of my own connections of people who are members of the groups I belong to. I can help out others who are looking for answers to topics that I am also interested in such as accessibility. Recently, I have noticed that LinkedIn is migrating towards some of the features found on other sites, such as posting photographs and status updates but I feel that the real power behind LinkedIn is the quality of the connections you add to your network. While it may not be as fun as some other sites, I feel it is the best tool for business relationships.
While most people just enjoy saying the words "Twitter" and "tweet," there actually are compelling reasons to use Twitter to stay connected. Additionally, Twitter adds a new twist by allowing users to use Twitter through a variety of clients other than its web site. People tweet from their note-takers, iPhones, smart phones, or even using specialized clients such as Qwitter or Accessible Twitter. Many people choose these clients because they are optimized for accessibility and give full access to all of the features that might not be available to assistive technology on the Twitter web site. It is probably safe to say there are two types of people on Twitter -- those who tweet and those who listen. The key to Twitter is being selective about who you follow. Since there is a limited amount of real estate on any web page, if you follow too many people and those people tweet all day, you'll have to spend a lot of time filtering through the tweets. Sometimes you might be interested in what your friend had for lunch but other times you are looking for more important information. By having a carefully screened list of people I follow on Twitter, I can learn about a lot of new articles on accessibility. Additionally, when I find an interesting article or news related to AFB, I can also post it to Twitter for people to follow. If I want to discover what people are saying about a particular subject, I can use the search field to type in a search term such as accessibility. Often, people will add a "hash tag" or the number sign to a search term in their tweet to make it easier for people to search for. Because Twitter limits messages to only 140 characters, there is a lot of shorthand used on the site. Most of it is pretty self-explanatory but be prepared to find a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes.
Not everything needs to be about work all the time. For an old-fashioned diversion delivered in a new package, I turn to Facebook. Now there are a million different ways to use Facebook to connect to other people and thus build a social network. Many companies have recently launched customer loyalty Facebook groups and fan pages. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs have tried their hand at creating Facebook applications to entice people into spending even more time away from their actual work. Despite all of this effort by folks, all I want to really do is see what happened to my old friends from high school and college. I suppose there could be many people who are just dying to see photographs of me to compare my hairline "then and now" or to see if I got fat or both. When I do log into Facebook, it is usually to hear the status reports of my friends or check in on some of the groups I belong to. I am still not sure how I am going to use Facebook for purposes other than personal entertainment. It does not seem to have some of the business and professional network features found on LinkedIn. To be honest, perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Many of us spend eight hours or more at our desks planted on our fannies with our hands attached to our keyboards. From time to time, it feels good to crack a smile when you read that your best friend from college just ordered a double cheeseburger, large fries, and of course, a diet soda.
I can just imagine everybody asking why the person with vision loss might be interested in YouTube. All kidding aside, this site embodies the concept of user generated content in the best and worst scenarios. There are a whole host of accessibility challenges ranging from captioning for hearing impaired visitors to the lack of descriptive audio for videos but YouTube does plan to address many of its accessibility issues including captioning. With the spread of imbedded YouTube videos all over the Internet, there is a huge problem. Webmasters who embed the video player from YouTube are unaware that they have forgotten to label the controls making it virtually impossible for screen reader users to control the videos from their site. In these instances, I try to find the video on the YouTube site which has an easier interface for playing videos with a screen reader. If you navigate to YouTube and search for videos about assistive technology, one can find a variety of homemade and professional videos showing how it is possible to use different types of technology. Google has even created its own channel and posted videos describing its efforts to build and support accessible mobile products. It is no problem to search for videos of people explaining how to use a variety of gizmos and gadgets.
The AFB Experience
You may be asking yourself what the American Foundation for the Blind is doing to keep current with web 2.0? Many of AFB's staff use LinkedIn to communicate with others in the field, the communications department has posted videos to YouTube, and there are a couple of different Twitter accounts. We have the AFB blog (http://www.afb.org/Blog/) where readers are encouraged to post comments to articles we post. All of the AFB web sites including AFB.org, Senior Site, Family Connect, and Career Connect have message boards where readers are invited to ask and respond to questions. Career Connect has its own social network where mentors and mentees are able to communicate to learn about a particular career path. Coming soon in 2010, there will be a variety of new features found on all of the AFB web sites that expand the possibility of getting in touch with others whose lives are affected by vision loss.
The internet is constantly changing, and what is popular today may be yesterday's news in the near future. All of these sites represent a departure from traditional media outlets that create content and allow the end users to do the "heavy lifting." While each of these applications may appear to have specific usage, I fully expect them to morph as we see changes to mobile technology and additional bandwidth to allow for larger amounts of data to be transmitted. But before you feel pressure to go and click over to any of these web sites, just remember that your life will go on with or without these sites. However, if you are looking for a new job, new friends, new celebrity gossip, or new laughs, these sites might be just for you.
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