Nov 19, 2020

Twitter is finally thinking about accessibility first

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Even if Twitter calls for people to talk instead of type, everyone should be able to understand.

There’s been a lot of talk this week about new Twitter features, mostly disappearing tweets. But Twitter also announced Tuesday that it’s planning voice-only chat rooms called Spaces where you talk instead of type. Earlier this summer, Twitter experimented with letting people send audio-only tweets, but didn’t allow for captioning those tweets, so they were inaccessible to the deaf community.

Twitter put that feature on pause and has now created two new teams — one to make Twitter a more accessible place to work and another to vet product ideas for accessibility. And, according to Twitter, accessibility has been “top of mind when developing Spaces.” I spoke with Dalana Brand, vice president and head of inclusion and diversity at Twitter. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A photo of Dalana Brand, Vice President of people experience and head of inclusion and diversity at Twitter.
Dalana Brand (Photo courtesy Twitter)

Dalana Brand: The process in the past has been very decentralized, so each team that had some accountability for accessibility really was driving their own processes and decision-making. Typical example: our accommodations being handled by our policy standards and benefits teams, or facilities requests being handled by a real estate and workplace team, etc. And what we realize is while there’s always power and flexibility, our decentralized approach has some gaps. We can even be more effective by bringing the structure to it. There really wasn’t anyone looking across in the past and trying to bring the silos together, and that’s exactly what we’re going to remediate with this new organization.

Molly Wood: How much power will these teams have? Could they pump the brakes on a feature rollout if it’s not accessible?

Brand: I mean, that’s where the power of the approach is. It’s for the folks that have the experience, that have the expertise, to absolutely call out where we have missed the mark or where we are at risk or where there are potential gaps and surface that to the leadership team. We are making investments and putting these teams in place because we want them to be empowered to challenge appropriately.

Wood: A common theme whenever you talk about the tech industry is that if the industry were more diverse, and in this case, more people with disabilities worked at Twitter or any other company, that their products would be better. Are there any steps that you’ve identified about trying to improve the diversity and hiring and accessibility of Twitter as a company?

Brand: Yeah. It’s a part of the focus, and you called it out. I mean, you can shore up these gaps and remediate these issues when you have people who are experienced either in the accessibility space or themselves are from the disabled community, because they have the insight and have the lived experience to be able to call these things out. So it is absolutely a priority and focus, literally now as we’re building out these teams. There are several folks that we have been interviewing that come from the disability community or are resident experts in the space, maybe leading some external organizations that we’ve partnered with in the past to gain insights, if you will. So we’re pretty excited about the approach that we’re taking. Again, lots of room to grow and improve, but we acknowledge that and are really excited to be digging in.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Let’s talk a little more about Spaces, which is most similar to Clubhouse, the invite-only, audio-only chat platform that’s mostly tech people and venture capitalists, but apparently recently became a hit on the music scene, too, according to Billboard. It’s had its controversies. Exclusivity breeds, well, exclusivity for one thing, but there are regular complaints about rooms that devolve into racism, anti-Semitic comments, harassment — you know, all the things people cannot seem to stop themselves from doing on social media.

Twitter says it’ll roll out its product slightly differently. First, unlike on Clubhouse, you’ll be able to see who’s speaking and who’s in a room at any given time. Clubhouse is kind of more like an ambient party that you wander into and maybe get yelled at. And whoever creates a room in Spaces can moderate it and invite and disinvite people. And, most notably, Twitter is rolling out Spaces first to women and people of color, or from marginalized backgrounds, as in populations most likely to experience abuse and harassment and who might appreciate a nice, quiet place to hang out and not get yelled at. Like an opposite Parler, I guess.

On another note, earlier this week we talked to Kim Zetter about CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in charge of securing critical infrastructure, currently under attack by President Donald Trump. A day after we interviewed her, Trump did indeed fire its director, Chris Krebs, which Wired called “perhaps the most upsetting moment for democracy,” since the president’s refusal to accept his election loss two weeks ago. Mainly, because the agency’s job increasingly became trying to protect the idea of democracy and fight disinformation — literally in direct opposition to the president himself. Even after his firing, Krebs tweeted that people should visit the Department of Homeland Security’s Rumor Control website for accurate information about the U.S. election. And, of course, dismantling the agency in charge of securing critical infrastructure as an act of revenge for pointing out that the U.S. election was held and counted fairly — facts which no evidence has emerged to dispute — is not encouraging for either democracy or national security.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer