Autoplay videos on Facebook: won't somebody think of the accessibility?

  • Author: Chris Pycroft
  • Date: 19 Dec 2012

It's not just users who dislike autoplay videos that will be affected by the newly proposed addition to Facebook's advertising. It has serious accessibility implications.

I can't think of a time in the past couple of years where significant changes to functionality at Facebook hasn't drawn criticism from at least some of its users. The implementation of timeline, the change of display of wall posts prior to 2009 that brought scepticism of private messages being shared, the launch of relationship pages; negative comments have been shared across an array of social networking platforms when something has changed, regardless of whether those changes have been positive or not. But today's news of a future 'enhancement' takes the cake.

In a move that drew immediate criticism far and wide, murmurs are growing louder that Facebook will introduce autoplay video advertisements from April 2013. There is no shortage of those, including yours truly, who dislike anything playing on the screen without first being asked. But it's not my first world problem that I'm concerned about in this case — it is those who's navigation and overall experience of using Facebook will be significantly affected by such a rollout.

Facebook is finally starting to make some much-needed progress when it comes to providing a positive user experience for those who use assistive technologies on the platform. Recognition that more than one million Facebook users (although I personally suspect that figure is higher) use such technologies to assist their experience, and the recent implementation of a team dedicated to accessibility are steps in the right direction. The implementation of video advertisements that play automatically on the hand could potentially be a case of two steps forward, ten steps back.

To provide just one theoretical scenario, what does a Facebook user who uses a screen reader do when they start to read information on their news feed, and mid-sentence, is completely interrupted to be told about that new shirt that's available for purchase that won't fit them, that the latest album from that artist they really hate is now available to download, or that particular car is now just $14,990 drive away, instead of being able to hear what's happened to a close friend or loved one? Is this the idyllic user experience? I'm not so sure it is.

If Facebook is to implement such advertising in the future, it needs to make sure its members who use assistive technologies are recognised and appropriate provisions are put in place. Success Criterion 1.4.2 of WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0) stipulates that if any audio auto-plays on a webpage and its duration is more than three seconds, a mechanism is available to pause or stop the audio, or that a separate mechanism is available to control the volume of the audio that is different from the volume controls of the system being used to view the page. Not catering for this, simply put, is an accessibility epic fail.

Having a screen reader compete with auto-playing audio is not useful to any user, and certainly wouldn't do any favours to any website that's in the process of attempting to boost its accessibility credentials. Should such advertising be implemented, interference must be avoided by allowing for a stop/pause button to be accessed before the audio starts. Something as simple as a pause button that is one of the first navigation points on a webpage would do, but a screen reader user needs sufficient time to pause or stop audio from auto-playing before a user hears conflicting audio.

Is ostracising millions of users in order to make a quick buck worth it? I don't think so. And I really do hope it doesn't happen. Facebook should be an open platform for all, and not have participation levels dictated by whether audio will auto-play or not. I hope you've thought this one through Mark Zuckerberg, because you could be opening a greater can of worms than you realise.