Anti-social Networking: Web 2.0 and Social Exclusion


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This research from 2009, presented at IADIS 2009 conference in Portugal looks at Web 2.0 accessibility challenges by examining the social networking site experiences of a group of users with visual impairments compared with a group of sighted users. Note that since 2009, things have improved considerably but you may like to replicate approach and update findings.

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Anti-social Networking: Web 2.0 and Social Exclusion

  1. 1. ANTI-SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES: WEB 2.0 ANDSOCIAL EXCLUSIONDenise LeahyTrinity College Dublin,IrelandUltan Ó BroinTrinity College Dublin,IrelandABSTRACTThe European Union (EU) promotes the concept of eInclusion as part of the i2010 initiative (European Commission,2005). This includes areas such as eAccessibility, Digital Literacy and eGovernment – all to “improve people’s quality oflife”. Internet-based economic opportunity and political engagement are also part of the socially driven Web 2.0 conceptsof participation and collaboration. Increasingly, Web 2.0 technologies are adopted by enterprises to integrate with thecollective intelligence of the community at large, for example using social networking sites for sales opportunities(McKinsey, 2007).If accessibility is not built into these systems, people with disabilities may be excluded from social interaction, politicalorganization, economic, and other opportunities. Despite the widely accepted claims about Web 2.0’s inclusiveness basedon participative patterns of usage (O’Reilly, 2004), (Madden and Fox, 2006), is the lack of accessibility support withinWeb 2.0 technology itself actually creating social exclusion? This research looks at Web 2.0 accessibility challenges byexamining the social networking site experiences of a group of users with visual impairments compared with a group ofsighted users.KEYWORDSAccessibility, social networking, Web 2.01. INTRODUCTIONThe Internet now plays an important part in the lives of many. However, those without access to theInternet may be missing opportunities to participate fully in the Information Society. Research by Nielsen(2006a) and the Worldwide Web Consortium (1999) show how disability can negatively impact Internetparticipation. Concern about this impact on society is reflected by the emergence of the policy concept ofeInclusion and the following of web accessibility guidelines to enable equal opportunity through the Internet- “It is essential that the Web be accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to peoplewith disabilities” (Henry, 2007).The eEurope vision is of an Information Society that releases human and economic potential to improveproductivity and the quality of life for the citizens of Europe (ETSI, 2003). The European Commission citesthe main causes of social exclusion as unemployment and the lack of access to resources and training(European Commission, 2002). As people increasingly adopt what is called “Web 2.0” to interact withothers, is this creating a new kind of digital social exclusion of persons with a disability?This research examines the use of social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc) by Irish usersas a good indicator of social inclusion, as such sites “allow individuals to present themselves, articulate theirsocial networks, and establish or maintain connections with others” (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe, 2007).
  2. 2. 2. HOW IS WEB 2.0 BEING USED?2.1 Social networkingSocial networking sites are a people based concept that can be work-related, (such as LinkedIn),romantically oriented (Friendster), or shared interest and social relationships (Bebo, MySpace, Facebook andothers). Facebook had 123.9 million unique visitors in May 2008, MySpace 114.6 million, and Bebo 25.1million (Schonfeld, 2008), and the uptake is increasing globally. The use of these social networking sitesrepresents the very essence of user collaboration and participation on a mass scale. These sites allow users topost and share content, links, images, video, music, join and create online groups of common interest, engagein online debate and other exchanges, mail and instant message each other.Social inclusion, or eInclusion, is an area of increasing interest for academics, practitioners, and policymakers. The centrality of Internet technology to everyday lives and its potential to provide opportunity toalleviate disadvantage is recognized. For example the eEurope “Information Society” (European Council,2005) aims to improve productivity and quality of life for the citizens of Europe (ETSI, 2003) throughmodern online public services; including e-government, e-learning, and e-health for citizens working in an e-business environment.However, not everybody has access to online environments and there are different reasons for theadoption of technology across different groups of users in the community (Venkatesh, et al, 2003). Peoplewith disability face barriers when using websites and services simply because the online technology andcontent do not support how they use the web. To address these issues there are a wide variety of guidelinesand regulations, best known of which is the voluntary guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)(1999), supported by local, national, and international legislation and aspirations.Notwithstanding the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (2003) claim that Internettechnology is an opportunity “for disabled groups and other vulnerable groups to gain equality of access toparticipation in society not just as another means by which they are to be disenfranchised or excluded”,Shawn Henry (Thatcher, et al, 2006) argues that although web accessibility is essential for equal opportunitywe constantly need to work to ensure “the Web be accessible in order to provide equal access and equalopportunity to people with disabilities”.2.2 User created contentThe OECD’s (2007) report “Participative Web and User-Created Content: Web 2.0, Wikis, and SocialNetworking” also recognizes the social, cultural economic opportunities and impacts of participative content,referred to as user-created content (UCC). This they define as: “Content made publicly available over theInternet which reflects a certain amount of creative effort”, and which is created outside professional routinesand practices. It is this creation of content that has major social implications because it has “altered theeconomics of information production, increased the democratisation of media production, and led to changesin the nature of communications and social relationships.” Such content has great potential to increase userparticipation and diversity and the volume is rapidly expanding, with a minimum of 130 million pieces ofcontent under Creative Commons licences alone by mid-2008 (Creative Commons, 2008).Web 2.0 is perceived as mainly a social phenomenon, changing the patterns of “who communicates withwhom, under what conditions, and at whose discretion” (Benkler, 2006). Tapscott and Williams (2006) state“the new web is fundamentally different in both its architecture and its applications… Whether people arecreating, sharing, or socializing, the new Web is principally about participating rather than about passivelyreceiving information”. Lessig’s work (2005) reveals how participatory web empowers a participatoryculture in societyAn AbilityNet (2008) survey found that the most popular social networking websites on the Internet todayare “either difficult or impossible for disabled people to use – in many cases a user is not even able to registerwith the website.” Zajicek (2007) defines accessibility in a way of particular interested to participation on theweb - “A community web site is accessible if it includes the user in its group and the user wants to beincluded. If you are excluded from a service, then it is not accessible to you”. Raman (2009) says, “Asignificant portion of our social interaction increasingly happens via the Web”. So, who is using Web 2.0 andis the lack of accessibility within Web 2.0 technology creating social exclusion?
  3. 3. 3. RESULTS OF THE SURVEYThe survey was distributed to visually impaired users using announcements sent to the Irish-basedVisually Impaired Computer Society (VICS) forum (, as well as to other private andpublic groups working in the area of visual impairment. The research was broad, but only the parts that relateuse of social networking are discussed in this paper.Despite user pre-testing and checking against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (1999), someusers with visual impairments experienced difficulty and did not complete all survey questions. This wasaddressed by relabeling some options, rewriting instructions, and adding details of switching into Formsmode in JAWS. The problem was caused by the different assistive technologies’ handling of web forms andthe varying user expertise with the same assistive technology (Thatcher et al, 2006). This needs to be bornein mind for all researchers in the area.Respondents were asked if their usage of these web sites was passive - such as merely having an account,or activities like viewing or reading; or more active - such as editing, contribution, posting. The researchliterature indicates most usage is largely passive (Nielsen, 2006a).Respondents were asked about the challenges to their usage of the sites and services and the seriousnessof these challenges on a number of areas (age, social circle, privacy fears, content mistrust, and so on), andthen to give their opinion on the best approach to achieving the desired accessibility. Open-ended questionswere asked and the respondents were invited to comment on how users who have visual impairments couldbest influence web site development or others users who create content or relationships to deliver anaccessible user experience for all (for example, by providing feedback, leveraging legal, political, socialprocesses, and so on).3.1 Profile of the respondents20 sighted users and 29 users with visual impairments completed the survey. More than two thirds of therespondents with visual impairments were completely blind, with low vision making up the second mostcommon visual impairment. JAWS, Windows-Eyes and other screen readers were reported as the mostcommon assistive technology used (79.3%).Most respondents were in the 25-35 age range; 35% of those with visual impairments and 60% of sightedrespondents were in this group. Most of the other sighted respondents were aged between 35 and 45, whilethe remaining 65 % of respondents with visual impairments were evenly spread across all age groups.3.2 The use of social networksFor sighted respondents, there was almost universal usage of Wikipedia (94.7%), followed by YouTubewith the next highest usage (89.5%), followed by Amazon (73.7%), and then social networking sites (63.2%)and EBay (63.2%). For visually impaired respondents, the pattern is different. Although Wikipedia is themost widely used site or service (75%), it was closely followed by Amazon (71.4%), while no other categoryof site or service that could be considered “Web 2.0” made it past the 50% mark.Sighted respondents expressed very strong or strong reasons for using social networking sites likeFacebook, Bebo and MySpace and such services as: being part of social groups of common interest (52.9%);obtaining opinions on goods and services by real users (strong and very strong reasons were both 29.4%);finding out information about jobs and career development (58.8%); wanting to find out more information(55.6%); and making new friends or linking up with new ones (44.4%). Visually impaired respondentsshowed less interest in using such technology to make new friends and link up with old ones (34.8%), and aconflicted equally strong and neutral reason for being part of social groups of common interest (26.1%).Using the technology for career development was a very weak interest (30.4%). Using web sites and servicesto obtain opinions on goods and services by real people and finding out more information was recorded as astrong reason (50%) and very strong reason respectively (56.5%). Making input to debates and reading theopinions and recommendations of others were also strong (40.9% and 45.5%).We can conclude that although all respondents were interested in using Web 2.0 for individual reasons(shopping, finding out information, and so on), with visually impaired users this is less to do with social
  4. 4. networking or employment networking, which may have implications for inclusion and building socialcapital across the community as a whole.3.3 Challenges to Information Sharing and CollaborationThe major issue reported by most respondents was the use of an inaccessible Captcha (CompletelyAutomated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) at sign-up time (94.7%). Other majorchallenges included: the inability of screen readers to detect changes on dynamic page (70%); badly designedonline forms for data entry (70%); lack of ability to determine content of visual elements (65%); and noability to control interactive elements such as audio and video players (63.2%). These, and the remainingchallenges are all well known by accessibility practitioners and users of assistive technology alike, andwidely acknowledged by accessibility guidelines as serious areas for redress, but yet they remain present.Of the top five accessibility challenges, the most serious, the use of inaccessible Captchas (Figure 1)precludes any further involvement with social networking sites (unless visually impaired users obtain helpfrom another person to proceed.) The next most serious challenge, badly designed forms, prevents users fromcollaborating and participating, as online forms are widely used to enter data, submit comments andfeedback; while the inability of assistive technology to determine dynamic changes indicates that the widelyused technologies (notably Asynchronous JavaScript and XML [AJAX]) used for Web 2.0’s rich userexperience is a problem. Visually-impaired users also experienced problems with the highly graphical,multimedia, and user-created content that make up a very significant percentage of Web 2.0 content,represented by the fourth and fifth most serious challenges recorded.Figure 1. Inaccessible Captcha example from Bebo.comThe survey also explored the other concerns users had when using Web 2.0 sites and services. For bothgroups, major issues identified were privacy fears and content mistrust. However, for visually impairedrespondents, the major challenge was the lack of accessibility support in the technology itself (80%).These respondents were asked to rank the seriousness of the different types of accessibility issue theyexperienced using the sites and services mentioned. The details of these challenges are shown in Table 1“Accessibility challenges of users with visual impairments to using Web 2.0 sites and services.”
  5. 5. Major Issue Slight Issue Neutral Issue Not an IssueUse of inaccessible Captcha on sign-up 18 (94.7%) 0 (0%) 1 (5.3%) 0 (0%)Badly designed online forms for dataentry 14 (70%) 5 (25%) 0 (0%) 1 (5%)Inability of screen readers to detectchanges on dynamic page 14 (70%) 5 (25%) 0 (0%) 1 (5%)No ability to determine visual contentwith text (e.g. no Caption, Title orAlternative on images) 13 (65%) 4 (20%) 1 (5%) 2 (10%)No ability to control interactiveelements such as audio and videoplayers 12 (63.2%) 2 (10.5%) 4 (21.1%) 1 (5.3%)Videos with no soundtrack or texttranscript alternative 9 (45%) 8 (40%) 2 (10%) 1 (5%)Use of specific colours to indicatefunctionality 7 (35%) 5 (25%) 6 (33.3%) 2 (10%)Requirements to add plug-ins beforethe content can be accessed. 7 (35%) 4 (20%) 7 (35%) 2 (10%)Complex tables used for illogicallayout 6 (31.6%) 3 (15.8%) 7 (36.8%) 3 (15.8%)Inability to expand links or showhidden text 6 (31.6%) 4 (21.1%) 5 (26.3%) 4 (21.1%)Complicated, wrongly marked up datatables that confuse screen readers 6 (31.6%) 8 (42.1%) 4 (21.1%) 1 (5.3%)Unclear text-speak language andabbreviations in content 6 (30%) 5 (25%) 5 (25%) 4 (20%)No ability to Navigate 6 (30%) 5 (25%) 3 (15%) 6 (30%)Colour-combinations on text orbackgrounds 4 (20%) 1 (5%) 4 (20%) 11 (55%)No keyboard support on keys, links,hot-keys, shortcut keys etc. 4 (20%) 6 (30%) 4 (20%) 6 (30%)Inability to control text size oncontent 2 (11.1%) 1 (5.6%) 5 (27.8%) 10 (55.6%)Table 1. Accessibility challenges of users with visual impairments to using Web 2.0 sites and services (rankedby number of respondents and percentage of total)3.4 Active and passive use of Web 2.0The figures for passive usage of the web sites and services show that for sighted respondents the strongestusage is looking up information on Wikipedia followed by reading comments feedback and ratings andhaving accounts on social or employment related sites. Visually impaired respondents also expressed a strongpreference for Wikipedia, but with a lower score for reading comments, feedback, and ratings. However,having accounts on social or employment related sites recorded a much lower score than sighted users,though the figure for reading blogs is higher (60%). Here, we can also conclude there are implications forsocial inclusion given the potential of social networking sites for community or political organization andeconomic opportunity.In terms of active participation, we can expect lower figures than for passive (Nielsen, 2006b). From thesurvey, we find that for sighted respondents, posting images on photo sharing sites was the top activity(77.8%), followed by submitting feedback, comments, reviews, or ratings to a site (55.6%) and posting blogarticles (50%). For visually impaired respondents, the top activities were submitting feedback, comments,reviews or ratings to a site (55%), posting a blog article (40%), and editing a Wikipedia article (36%). Notsurprisingly, posting images to photo sharing sites records a much lower score (5%). “None of theseactivities” recorded 32%. The implications for social inclusion here are clearly in line with the AbilityNet
  6. 6. report (2008), but also indicate that the concerns expressed over the ability of existing guidelines to deliveran accessible web are valid (Kelly, et al, 2007), (Burnett, 2006).4. HOW CAN THIS BE ADDRESSED?All respondents were asked how to best achieve accessibility in Web 2.0 sites and services. Visuallyimpaired respondents were very specific and discussed areas of education, lobbying, and the technical issues,which should be addressed. The most common sentiment was to “lobby government agencies, European andUN agencies. Educate web developers. Support all regulatory organizations such as W3C, etc.”Sighted respondents identified the provision of development tools with built in accessibility for contentcreation, the following of coding standards, and information for content developers and beta testing as veryimportant. The employment of usability experts with accessibility expertise and offering free screen readerswas seen as somewhat important, with a neutral opinion on the policing of sites for non-accessible content.Visually impaired respondents were unanimous in stating the importance of following the widelyaccepted web accessibility guidelines, the provision of development tools that build in accessibility supportwhen content is created, accessibility information for content developers, beta testing before rollout andemployment of usability experts with accessibility expertise. The provision of free screen readers wasrecorded as of “neutral” importance and the policing of non-accessible content was very important. Allrespondents said that coding standards and the accessibility guidelines were important.Respondents were also asked about their agreement with statements about the strategic direction ofaccessibility. Sighted respondents somewhat agreed that web accessibility is becoming more about theflexibility of assistive technology with alternative versions of web sites becoming the norm, and completelyagreed that user generated content was always likely to offer poor accessibility. Respondents with visualimpairments completely agreed with the statement about the flexibility of assistive technology. However,they completely disagreed that alternative accessible versions of web sites will become the norm, andsomewhat agreed with the likelihood that user-generated content would always offer poor accessibility. Fromthis we can see recognition of the challenge of user-generated content in terms of accessibility, but also therecognition that web accessibility guidelines alone are not providing accessibility. Visually impairedrespondents reflected their “overall” usability and wider stakeholder participation concerns by indicating that“alternative” sites and services are not acceptable (Horton, 2005).Comments about accessibility of current web sites included:• “As a person, who is totally blind, I cannot, at this time, sign myself on a My Space, Plaxo orLinkedIn account independently because I get stuck in all of the boxes. So I have to have someonehelp me, which is very disheartening since I need to be a part of these networking sites for myprofession. I’m feeling that, in my career, I am not able to keep up with my colleagues, which is alittle scary.• “So-called accessible versions of websites have been disastrous up to now, and are less of an answerthan properly structured web sites. Tesco in the UK came adrift with this one. The ‘accessible’ sitewas never kept up to date, didn’t have special offers, and anyway formed a kind of ‘ghetto’ fordisabled people. Special provision for disabled people could cause resentment from other users andthose who have to build the services on the sites, not to mention the disabled people themselves.”• “When major players such as Yahoo and MySpace won’t even reply to e-mail about theirinaccessible Captcha systems, there is still quite a long way to go in breaking down barriers. On theother hand, Google, Twitter and others have been amenable to changing their systems. Technically,however, audio Captcha are going to be easy to crack with speech recognition, so seems the future isuncertain here.”The technical issues identified by the users were:• “Need a way of making screen readers tell us how we can use all the new types of link and controlbuilding into coding so they can speak them like tutor messages, and need screen readers toautomatically read new text on existing pages.”• “I’ve heard of WYSIWYG web development tools which prompt for ALT tags... but we all knowmost people just ignore those!”
  7. 7. • “The increasing prevalence of AJAX poses a great problem to the goal of a more accessibleInternet. It is important that the tools used to generate web content incorporate accessibility bydefault. These days anybody in the world can create a website. We can’t expect everybody to havean understanding of the requirements needed to create accessible content. Therefore, it must bemade as easy as possible by building it into the tools used.”5. CONCLUSIONThe survey results and comments support the wide recognition of the importance of the collaborative andparticipative features of Web 2.0 sites and services. In their use of the Web 2.0 technology, respondents withvisual impairments showed similar patterns to sighted respondents in their looking up of information, readingblogs and comments, feedback and ratings on sites like Amazon and eBay. However, there is a markeddifference in usage when it comes to using social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace LinkedIn andBebo, which have come to define the very collaborative and participative nature of Web 2.0 and are verywidely used (Schonfeld 2008). These findings have serious implications for social inclusion. Visuallyimpaired respondents recognized the learning, social, lobbying and employment potential of such sites, but inusing such sites they are presented with some very serious accessibility challenges. As a result therespondents mentioned being “disheartened”, “unable to keep up with colleagues” and “banished” from thesesites.When questioned on the challenges presented to using the sites and services mentioned in the survey, it isshown that accessibility is by far the greatest challenge to the visually impaired user. The top fiveaccessibility challenges alone identified by respondents are all synonymous with the technology used toprovide Web 2.0’s rich user experience.Although there are other issues of concern to all; issues like privacy, content trust worthiness and issueslike age, occupation, and social circle are similar between visually impaired and sighted users, it is clear thatsocial networking sites are to a large extent inaccessible and therefore the visually impaired user must beconsidered as being socially excluded. This is contrary to not only well-known accessibility guidelines suchas the WCAG but also the claims of Web 2.0 thought leaders, and the aspirations of the EU and other publicpolicy bodies. This exclusion has serious implications on a community and individual level, as visuallyimpaired users can be excluded from social interactions, and also political processes and economicopportunity.What is of major concern about these findings is that none of the top ten accessibility challengesidentified is an unknown quantity from the accessibility guidelines and usability viewpoint. Even the more“recent” accessibility issues relating to key Web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX are currently beingaddressed through WAI-ARIA (Worldwide Web Consortium, 2008) or other guidelines (Gibson, 2006).What is lacking is the willingness to apply these guidelines. Given that the more straightforward issues liketables, images or links were not addressed in our research it is hard to see how more complex, newer, oneswill be.This is an area of great potential for further research, using more extensive survey techniques, largerrespondent pools, and exploring impacts of factors such as other disabilities (age, for example) and otherreasons for uptake of technology by respondents.If lessons are not heeded by policy-makers and technology innovators, the likelihood for dealing withaccessibility challenges in other important and emerging, and sometimes Web 2.0 related computingplatforms such as mobile (Hartley, 2008), (Abrahams, 2008) is not very promising, thus increasing socialexclusion further.REFERENCESAbilityNet. 2008, 19 August 2008, State of the eNation Reports: Social networking sites lock out disabled users. Online,Available from: (accessed 19thFebruary 2009)Abrahams, P. 2008. Why not make the iPhone more Accessible? Available from: (accessed 19th Feb 2009)
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