The Literary Style of Alt-Text

The meditative art of describing images in words

Clive Thompson

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A group of alphabetic dice spelling out the words “ALT TEXT”. They are on a white surface and surrounded on all sides by perhaps two dozen similar dice that have random letters that spell nothing. Each die has a small hole going through the center; they’re the type of dice you see used to make bracelets that spell out messages

See that image above? When I posted it, I wrote some alt-text for it — i.e. a description of what’s in the image.

Here’s what I wrote:

A group of alphabetic dice spelling out the words “ALT TEXT”. They are on a white surface and surrounded on all sides by perhaps two dozen similar dice that have random letters that spell nothing. Each die has a small hole going through the center; they’re the type of dice you see used to make bracelets that spell out messages

This is new behavior for me — but one that has opened some interesting writerly doors.

Lemme unpack this …

For years, I rarely included alt-text when I posted images online.

I knew I was supposed to. There are many excellent things that alt-text does — the chief of which is that it makes images accessible to anyone who’s sight-impaired. If there’s alt-text, then their screen-reader software can tell them what’s going on in the images. If not …

A screenshot of a conversation on Mastodon. The user “Alt Text Hall of Fame “ (whose screen name is @alttexthalloffame) posts the question reading: “A question for blind and visually impaired folks: What is it like to browse social media without properly described images?” Then the user Casey Reeves (whose screen-name is @xogium@tech.lgbt) replies: “Image. Image. Image. Image. Or with auto-generated bad text: picture possibly containing people.”

In the last year, though, I finally began to mend my ways. I now put alt-text in nearly every image when I’m blogging or posting on social media.

What changed? Well, it was mostly the effect of being on Mastodon.

I’d been using Mastodon on and off for years, mostly to hang out in various open-source software communities. But when Elon Musk took over Twitter last fall, I decided — for a whole host of reasons, too many to list here — that I’d be happier moving most of my social-networking over to Mastodon. I liked its vibe; I liked the cool things its decentralization made possible. It seemed full of nerds, techies, and artistic folks, a scene I enjoy. So I joined a friend’s server, saturation.social, and set up my tent there, almost full-time.

The thing is, Mastodon has a really strong ethos of accessibility. I quickly noticed, spending a lot more time there, that the majority of folks added alt-text. If people forgot to include alt-text, other folks would (usually very politely)…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net