Is Twitter Trolling Us? Why Voice Tweets Are Already Problematic

Is Twitter Trolling Us? Why Voice Tweets Are Already Problematic

07.09.20
In this photo illustration, the new "voice Tweets" feature of Twitter is displayed on a smartphone screen. (Photo: Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
07.09.20

Twitter announced a new feature earlier this month that lets users record and attach audio clips to their tweets. The seemingly simple tool was immediately met with criticism from disability advocates and content moderation experts, who say the feature is inaccessible to some users and is likely to be vulnerable to abuse.

“There’s a lot that can be left unsaid or uninterpreted using text, so we hope voice Tweeting will create a more human experience for listeners and storytellers alike,” wrote Twitter employees Maya Patterson and Rémy Bourgoin in a company blog post. “Whether it’s #storytime about your encounter with wild geese in your neighborhood, a journalist sharing breaking news, or a first-hand account from a protest, we hope voice Tweeting gives you the ability to share your perspectives quickly and easily with your voice.”

According to the blog post, the feature was made available to “a limited group” of users on June 17, and will be rolled out to all iOS users “in the coming weeks.”

Unlike Snapchat’s new voice-powered virtual assistant, which allows users to search for camera filters with voice commands, Twitter’s “voice Tweets” feature is more akin to an audio text message, posted directly to one’s Timeline. While composing a tweet, users with the feature can record up to 140 seconds of audio, to be posted alongside (or instead of) the usual budget of 280 text characters.

“Have more to say? Keep talking. Once you reach the time limit for a Tweet, a new voice Tweet starts automatically to create a thread,” the blog post explains. “Once you’re done, tap the Done button to end your recording and go back to the composer screen to Tweet.”

Initially, users were enthusiastic about the new format, including a handful of celebrities like Cardi B, Lil Nas X, and Lin Manuel Miranda.

However, the feature’s popularity took a sharp turn shortly after the roll-out began. Here’s what happened:

Within hours of the first voice tweets being posted, deaf and hard-of-hearing users began to criticize the tool, saying that Twitter had failed to provide a way to make the audio clips accessible for anyone who can’t physically hear them. 

Twitter user and hearing-loss activist @NaomiDoesWords argued that Twitter should have employed auto-captioning technology to make sure that deaf users would be able to read the contents of the voice Tweets.

“To not include a captioning system alongside this is highly problematic. Auto-captioning is not a revolutionary concept. Twitter allows alt text for images — a great accessibility step, so why not add similar accessibility aids for the deaf?” she tweeted.

Closed captioning capabilities are already available across several other social media platforms, including Facebook and Snapchat. 

In an effort to get the attention of Twitter’s tech support and accessibility teams, Liam O’Dell, a deaf journalist and accessibility advocate, created a thread in which he provided transcripts of some of the most popular voice tweets at the time.

In a blog post about his reaction to the feature, O’Dell noted that Twitter has a history of treating accessibility for disabled users as an “afterthought.”

“It’s one thing trying to get Twitter users to caption their videos, asking them to caption audio tweets just makes the social media platform even more inaccessible to deaf people like me,” O’Dell wrote.

Meanwhile, others started raising concerns about how the feature could be used to bully and harass other users (ie. posting threats of violence, racial or homophobic slurs, etc.), create a hostile environment on the app (e.g., posting unlabelled or misleading NSFW audio or loud sounds intended to hurt the listener’s ears), or otherwise abuse the platform. Critics also pointed out that Twitter has a long history of turning a blind eye to other forms of harassment and rule-breaking on the app.

Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote a thread explaining the risks of unmoderated voice features in great detail, based on her research of Discord voice channels.

Twitter was quick to address some of the concerns about its new feature. A day after voice Tweets were launched, the @TwitterSupport account tweeted:

“We’re sorry about testing voice Tweets without support for people who are visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing. It was a miss to introduce this experiment without this support.”

“We’re already exploring ideas for how we could support manual and auto transcriptions,” Twitter’s Support team continued in a subsequent post. “We’re also looking at how we can build a dedicated group to focus on accessibility, tooling, and advocacy across all products, in partnership with the @TwitterA11y and @TwitterAble teams.”

And while the company has yet to publicly announce that they are working on any new tools to prevent audio-related harassment or abuse, when asked about the issue, Twitter spokesperson Jessyka Faison wrote in an email:

“Right now, voice Tweeting is available to a limited group of people on iOS. While it’s early in the test, we are working to incorporate additional monitoring systems ahead of bringing this to everyone. We’ll review any reported voice Tweets in line with our rules, and take action, including labeling, as needed.”

At least on this reporter’s timeline, use of the voice Tweets seemed to drop off steeply in the days that followed the widespread criticism, that is, after the initial novelty of the feature had waned. 

But then again, it’s too early to say whether the feature will usher in a shift in the culture on Twitter, or “create a more human experience” on the site.

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