The '58 sound

Is ‘a11y’ our ally? Thoughts on a tag for web accessibility

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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.

Why tags?

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.

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 also has shortcomings:

So some alternatives have been proposed:

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:

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.

Summary

So, in my opinion:

  1. Longer, descriptive tags are best when space is not constrained, and certainly more human-friendly.
  2. If space is constrained, #a11y is currently the best (or least worst) option for an abbreviated tag for accessibility.
  3. Let’s not make already-tagged content harder to find by trying to find and promote a ‘better’ accessibility tag.
  4. 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.
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