“A combined breed. Principally white and darkish brown fur. Quick-haired cat with gentle blue eyes. She has a naturally furrowed forehead and frown, making her seem grumpy. She’s laying in somebody’s lap, stomach up, and her head is cradled within the particular person’s hand. And it appears to be like like she’s wanting up at her proprietor, completely pissed.”
Most of us have in all probability by no means needed to so vividly describe the looks of Grumpy Cat, the superstar feline (née Tardar Sauce), who grew to become an web sensation and the topic of among the most iconic memes in historical past. However for blind and visually impaired people, lots of whom received’t instinctively know the visible particulars of Grumpy Cat, descriptions are important to permit them to get pleasure from memes. These viral photographs have change into such necessary cultural touchpoints—however they’re a extremely visible medium, leaving some members of society excluded.
“I actually, deeply consider that memes are necessary, and that blind people ought to have the ability to get pleasure from them and use them to boost their social and cultural credibility,” says Will Butler, VP of neighborhood at Be My Eyes, an organization that connects blind people with sighted volunteers once they want visible help. “That is how people talk.”
To that finish, Butler has began a brand new podcast, Say My Meme, which accurately describes among the web’s most well-known memes for a blind viewers. On the present, his cohost, Caroline Desrosiers, describes them to Butler, who’s legally blind, that means he will get the identical expertise because the viewers in listening to about lots of them for the primary time. “Tens of millions and tens of millions of blind people and people with low imaginative and prescient [are] simply not collaborating on this complete cultural expression,” Butler says. “So, when she describes it to me, I really feel like I’m being let in on an entire new slice of tradition.” He says that, only a few weeks into the present, he’s been capable of have extra dynamic conversations with mates as a result of can now reference memes.
The podcast episodes, which air each week, are themed: To date, the hosts have delved into cat memes, sassy memes, and ’90s memes. The problem for blind people is mostly not in being unaware of cultural references; those that grew up within the ’90s know the T. rex from Jurassic Park, Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys, and Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction. “Blind people nonetheless perceive that salmon is pink, and sky is blue,” Butler says, “and that the Toy Story dinosaur is goofy, and faculty pictures are awkward.” They’ve the identical cultural reference factors however want a extra textual solution to entry the photographs.
Butler has averted memes up to now just because they’re a trouble to entry—and that’s due to the often-missing “alt tag.” That’s textual content that web site makers can add to explain the photographs they place on their websites. Throughout their on-line entry, many blind people use screen readers, which learn textual content aloud to them; because the display reader comes throughout an alt-tagged picture, it reads the outline. However the majority of memes lack alt tags, so display readers simply utter “picture” once they get to them. Creating memes with out tags, Butler says, is like creating “web darkish matter.”
Memes are mainly user-generated, and there’s little consciousness amongst customers of the advantages of alt-tagging. (One other big profit for website homeowners is search engine optimisation: As a result of “Google is blind,” alt tags make photographs extra searchable.) Butler hopes that, in addition to describing memes for the blind, his present may also increase consciousness among the many sighted concerning the significance of alt-tagging, to finally make it as mainstream as placing a caption on an Instagram photograph or a YouTube video.
So, how ought to alt-taggers describe memes? It’s a cautious steadiness between being overly descriptive, and thus dropping the “punch” of the meme, and being so sparing of particulars that it’s not informative sufficient. On the present, Butler and Desrosiers (who’s the CEO and founding father of Scribely, which writes optimized alt textual content for companies) supply a “fast and informal description,” in addition to a extra technical description that’s nearer to conventional alt textual content. Take the condescending Willy Wonka meme, which is used to painting somebody who has no real interest in what one other particular person is doing or saying. For some people, “sarcastic Gene Wilder” could also be sufficient. Others might choose to know the minute particulars of Wilder’s facial features.
It’s not a precise science. To get a greater really feel for customers’ preferences, the hosts have launched a crowdsourced factor of the present, during which listeners submit their favourite memes together with their very own descriptions of them. For Butler, memes are “like folks artwork” in that they’re open to interpretation—so the descriptions must be simply as subjective. “It must be simply as numerous a pool of people describing them as it’s making them,” he says. He suggests they may even begin a leaderboard for the perfect person descriptions, an incentive to assist the descriptions preserve evolving for the higher.
Say My Meme is successfully exposing the truth that memes, like literary texts, are open to interpretation and continually being refashioned as they’re utilized in numerous contexts. In that method, the podcast is pleasurable for all audiences, together with sighted people who dissect memes themselves. In the end, memes—and the podcast—replicate the shared expertise of humor, which Butler calls a civil proper. “I hope we are able to carry collectively those that care deeply about accessibility with those that have by no means heard of it,” Butler says, “over laughter and enjoyable.”
Butler has one other enjoyable concept, for one other, meta layer of humor: to attempt to get celebrities on the present to take part within the tagging. “What if Chuck Norris desires to return on and describe his personal memes for the blind neighborhood?”