April 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 4

Social Media

Series: Social Networking for the Blind or Visually Impaired: The What, Why, and How

Part I

For over a decade, we as a society have witnessed the phenomenon of social networking. Belonging to these networks has become the status quo for many of our sighted colleagues and friends, and many of us who are visually impaired have also benefitted greatly by participating. To be sure, there's more to these networks than Facebook and Twitter. Social networks have become the standard by which so many of us communicate within the classroom and workplace and amongst acquaintances and friends with whom we share similar interests. Even educational institutions and places of employment are adopting ingredients of social networks to create their own private networks for the purposes of disseminating information and promoting more optimal communication among their instructors, students, employers, and employees.

However, as with any technological advancement, a great deal of confusion surrounds the accessibility of these networks for many of us who use access technologies. This confusion might be attributed to social networks being rather intimidating to those who have visual impairments and have yet to access them. As a result, it's very easy to mask this confusion with a defense along the lines of not really wanting to be involved with social networks or being too busy to take part. The reality is that social networks have a great deal to offer us. Once the concept is firmly grasped and access obstacles dealt with, social networkingfor people who are visually impaired can be rewarding, fulfilling, and fun.

The first in a series dedicated to removing the mystery of social networking for participants who are visually impaired, this article explores exactly what social networks are, how they work, and why they are important. The second and third articles will discuss strategies for accessing these social networks on desktop and handheld platforms.

The Foundation of Social Networks

Before we can begin to fully comprehend the opportunities that social networks present to us, it's important to identify and grasp two key components without which social networks as we know them today would not exist.

Web 2.0

Most of you may have heard the term Web 2.0, a piece of Internet jargon that has been kicked around for the past 13+ years and is often thrown into lofty, high profile presentations relevant to the continual evolution of the World Wide Web. While this phrase may project the aura of something abstract and hard to grasp, it's actually a fairly straightforward concept. Web 2.0 simply refers to the interactive manner by which web developers and users manage and share content via the World Wide Web. For those of you who have been in the access technology game for 15 years or longer, you can remember the rather static process in the 1990s of launching your web browser and visiting specific websites that did a fantastic job of presenting you with information, but there was little to nothing that you could do with this information once you retrieved it.

Web 2.0 changed that. Now, web developers take their cues from users and offer all sorts of ways to interact with websites.This means that those of us who are not in the business of actually developing websites can have a tremendous impact on the way a website is presented and behaves. Being a much more dynamic and evolving process, Web 2.0 characteristics include but are not limited to:

  • Real-time provision of material by users. Example: a forum where a question is posed and people respond with a variety of helpful answers.
  • Delivery of content via web-based applications to end users. Yes, developers are able to accommodate those who visit today's website driven by Web 2.0 with applications, such as real-time chatting, messaging, and the sharing of multi-media files (including videos).
  • The assembling of groups of users for the dissemination of and interaction with various types of information, such as documents and aforementioned multi-media content.

Web 2.0 really doesn't use any sort of updated or proprietary Internet technology for websites to flourish, but these websites do require a flexible platform for content delivery.

Cloud Computing

The term that best describes this platform is the "cloud," another abstract concept that isn't that difficult to understand if you don't think too hard. The cloud is virtual space where Web 2.0 websites and applications reside. The process of "cloud computing" as we know it allows us all to:

  • Communicate and share information with others in realtime.
  • Access websites and content from a variety of desktop and handheld computers with various operating systems.
  • Store and retrieve information and media without the need for physical storage devices. No more misplacing those memory cards and thumb drives!

With the cloud as our foundation and Web 2.0 firmly positioned as our vehicle for virtual access, we can now move towards a better understanding of online social networks, what they are, how they work, and why they should matter to us.

What Is a Social Network?

The term "social networking" might best be defined as the process by which people interact with online services within virtual, cloud-based communities for the purposes of communication and sharing information. The process of social networking has been in existence for well over 15 years and dates back all the way to the birth of online bulletin boards prevalent during the late 90s. These bulletin boards allowed for information to be posted and for participants to post comments. Bulletin boards evolved into more of an e-mail-based listserve model driven by e-mail posts whereby members of a particular listserve could reply to e-mail threads. Today's social networks take advantage of cloud-based Web 2.0 know-how and have left the bulletin board and listserve predecessors behind. However, the listserve is still a widely used tool throughout the vision impaired community.

There are over 200 social networks in existence today, not including the internal social networks created by organizations to be used by their students, instructors, employees, or members. There are two steps you must take to participate in any of these networks. The first step is to simply sign up for an account. The process is pretty straightforward: you establish a username (usually an existing e-mail address) and a password and provide some basic information.

The second step, creating a profile, is a bit more involved. This profile is for current and future members of the social network to learn more about who you are and to connect with you to communicate via all the features that the social network offers. Remember, the more specific your profile is, the more likely it is that you'll nurture existing relationships and make new personal and professional connections via this online community. Include your personal interests, hobbies, work history, and educational background to find people who have common experiences or histories. Remember that social networks are very public, so be comfortable with the information that you share on any personal social network being available to current and future employers.

Ingredients of Social Networks

Once you have your account and your profile, you're all set to begin your journey into the world of virtual online communication. While specific social networks cater to different groups across educational, professional, and social market segments, many of them are made up of the same functionality. Here are some of the most important actions:

  • The ability to post status updates. (In other words, publicly sharing something significant that may be occurring within your life.) Remember, significance is most definitely in the eye of the beholder! This status update will appear prominently on your "Wall," a space for status updates and other types of information. Depending on your profile settings, either other members with whom you have connected with through a social network will be able to view these status updates, or they may be open to all who browse the virtual community.
  • Instant messaging (to be discussed in the next article) and private messaging other group members.
  • Acquiring news feeds. Many of today's websites provide you with the ability to "Like" the webpage, which is associated with today's most popular online networks. This means that whenever a given website posts either a status update or news feed, it will appear on your wall for you to read, like, comment on, or share with others. Once you "Like" a number of webpages, you can efficiently consolidate various articles and points of information,eliminating the need to visit numerous websites and dig for the information that magically appears on your Wall.
  • Share photos, audio, and video comments with others. This works similarly to posting a status update or sharing a news feed.
  • Create groups. These groups can be either public or closed, depending on your preference. These groups are created by people who share a similar interest with a group of online friends and wish to share information only with the members of that group. Information consists of status updates, files/documents, multimedia, and articles shared on other websites. Group members may like, comment on, and share these updates when applicable. It's a tool used to keep groups organized as well as to disseminate information to specific individuals within your social network. Members may be invited to join a group or, if it is an open group, may join without an invite.
  • Create events. These events may be online events or actual physical events. In either case, an event is created with a description and time and desired online connections are invited to attend. Invitees may "RSVP," "Decline," or select the "Maybe" option on the online invitation.

These are by no means all of the functionality prevalent within social networks, but they do provide you with an idea of the power that they possess.

Non-Visual Obstacles to Accessing These Networks

So, why aren't more of us benefiting from all of the good things that have been said about social networking up until this point? Quite simply, there are definite access concerns to overcome that require a bit of strategizing and improvising. Here are just a few of them:

  • The utilization of various types of web elements to access the types of features listed above. In the next article, we'll cover some strategies for navigating the convoluted online waters of these websites since they aren't for the novice web surfer.
  • Social network developers' insatiable need to constantly make changes and updates to the interface and functionality. The dynamic nature of social networking is one of the main factors that impacts how we as computer users who are visually impaired access these sites. We might develop a strategy for virtual online access only to have the rules of the game changed, generally without much warning. Keep in mind that it only takes a few tweaks to the code of a webpage to throw us a serious curve ball.
  • The emergence of portable touchscreen technologies. These technologies offer us mobile apps, alternatives to visiting a particular web address to access a social network. These apps are also susceptible to updates by developers, thus posing a risk for screenreading technologies to not always work as they did in previous versions of the app.

Conclusion

This article is designed to educate you about the importance of social networks and give you a blueprint for accessing social networks. In the next article, we'll take a tour of desktop access to some of today's most popular social networks and provide you with some strategies for turning your desktop computer into a vehicle for virtual communication.

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