The discussion over what should be the best tag to use for technology and accessibility related content on social media sites like Twitter and Delicious continues apace, with a number of different suggestions – with the merits of the abbreviation ‘a11y’ at the centre of most debate. Alternatives such as ‘access’ and ‘axs’ have been proposed.
Here are my thoughts.
A tag is a useful piece of metadata – i.e. a description of some content. Tagging allows us to refind the content, and allows others to find it more easily. Tagging also allows us to find other related content. Aggregation works in many ways – I can describe a resource using more than one tag, I can describe lots of related resources using the same tag. And so can others people.
Tags can be abbreviations, and therefore provide meaningful information and at the same time saving space when there isn’t much available (like in a tweet). I think that the particular restrictions provided by Twitter, and the growing use of hashtags, have brought the issues of a suitable abbreviated accessibility tag to the fore (hence why in this post I use the Twitter hashtag notation when I quote a tag).
A tag for accessibility
There are lots of problems with using ‘accessibility’ as a tag, as a single word description of content.
- It’s a long word – 13 characters, almost 10% of a tweet.
- It’s hard to spell correctly (google for ‘accessability’ or ‘accesibility’ or ‘acessiblity’ to see what I mean’).
- The term accessibility means lots of things to lots of people. I use it to mean “something related to disabled people and the web or other ICT“. Others might use it to describe what I would call ‘availability’ or ‘affordability’.
So when we need to tag something as being related to accessibility, and space is tight, it would be good to have a short tag that we can all agree on to represent accessibility as “something to do with disabled people and the web or ICT“.
‘a11y’ versus other options
#a11y has been used as a tag to mean accessibility for a while. It has benefits:
- It’s short.
- It follows an ICT-oriented convention of shortening long words by using a format AnnB where A is the first letter of the word, B is the last letter of the word, and nn is the number of letters between the first and last letter. So we have a11y for accessibility, i18n for internationalisation, and l10n for localisation.
- It’s used by lots of people in the accessibility community, so a search for ‘a11y’ finds useful and relevant content.
It also has shortcomings:
- It uses a rather geeky convention, so lots of people don’t know what it means.
- It’s awkward to type (for example on an iPhone, switching between alphabetical and numerical key screens)
- It’s easy to misspell, mistaking the ’11’ for ‘ll’. I’ve tagged more than one tweet as ‘ally’ (as in Sheedy or McCoist)…
- It may not sound meaningful when spoken by a screen reader.
So some alternatives have been proposed:
- #access – in comparison to #a11y, it’s longer, and only marginally more recognisable as relating to the concept of accessibility we want to define.
- #axs or #AxS – this has been proposed recently as an alternative, and is shorter than #a11y, and less prone to mis-spelling (although are we supposed to use the capital letters or not? It shouldn’t matter, but may confuse some people) or mis-pronunciation. But I’d argue it is no more recognisable as representing ‘accessibility’ to a newcomer, and less recognisable for those who already use #a11y.
- #ax – this could represent ‘accessible experience’ in the same way that ‘ux’ is reasonably well recognised as ‘user experience’. But I’d argue it’s almost too short to be useful, and (stating the obvious to US readers), it’s already a word – an implement for cutting down trees.
And, for me the biggest problem – none of the above are in widespread use right now. So if we were to adopt one as the new tag for accessibility, it would then make it that mcuh more awkward to find useful existing content already tagged with #a11y? None of the above options have compelling advantages over #a11y.
The question of whether a tag should be understandable and recognisable to people is interesting, as I’d argue that when we tag in Twitter, the primary purpose of the tag is to be machine readable, not human-understandable. A hashtag in Twitter is useful because a Twitter client can automatically do useful things with it:
- a Twitter feed can be set up to retrieve all tweets with a particular hashtag;
- A hashtag could be displayed as a hyperlink to the results of a search query for all tweets with the hashtag.
Ah, you say, but how would you know to use #a11y in your searches? My answer is that I learnt about the term by reading tweets from people I follow who talk about accessibility, and who used #a11y to tag their tweets. Think about how you build up a subject-specific network in Twitter. You start by following people you know provide interesting tweets on that subject. Then you follow people they retweet, or mention. Then, you might start to search for tweets on a specific subject, by which time you should have got a sense of which tags are used by your network.
And let’s not forget about hashtag definition sites like ‘what the hashtag‘, which do provide a way to store definitions of tags.
So, in my opinion:
- Longer, descriptive tags are best when space is not constrained, and certainly more human-friendly.
- If space is constrained, #a11y is currently the best (or least worst) option for an abbreviated tag for accessibility.
- Let’s not make already-tagged content harder to find by trying to find and promote a ‘better’ accessibility tag.
- But it would be much, much better, for Twitter at least, if we could tag tweets outside the 140 character limit, as Jared Smith suggested. Tags, after all, are metadata, and not content.