In the final part of my chat with Jason Scott, he talks to us a little bit about the accessibility of archive.org.
Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast you’re listening to episode 38. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. If you’re not a patron and you want to support the show, please visit Patreon.com/Steenhout. A transcript of the show is available on the podcast’s website. This week we’re continuing our chat with Jason Scott, if you have not already listened to the first part, you really should because Jason was saying all kinds of wonderful stuff that’s worth listening to. So, hi again Jason, shall we continue where we left off last week?
Jason: Let’s absolutely do that.
Nic: Wonderful. So, we were finishing with a definition of web accessibility, we were talking a little bit about this, this first moment of realizing it’s not just about you which I think was very important. You said earlier that you became aware of web accessibility and it’s important when people were pinging you about the need for that for one of your websites right?
Jason: So sorry, could you ask that again? For some reason you faded out for a moment.
Jason: That was weird, literally like you went away and then you came back, nothing’s on my side, nothing here technically, go ahead.
Nic: I’m here can you hear me?
Jason: I’m here, can you hear me?
Nic: I can hear you unless you’re a voice in my head.
Jason: Okay good, sorry about that. Just wanted to …
Nic: You were talking about how you became aware of web accessibility when people were telling you about the problems they were having with one of your sites right?
Nic: So, if I were to tell you, Archive.org/web and I were to ask you, how many people do you get that are saying, “Hey I can’t use this site” Would you know?
Jason: I would know somewhat. What I try to do is I’m one of the people who is out there, a person who reaches out to people and interacts with them, and then the archive itself has Info@Archive.org and it has some forums, so people are able to write in, that goes to our front office who then forward it to various people. So that’s how that works.
Nic: Okay, because I have to say I was a bit disappointed to see that there were quite a few accessibility issues on the site, like missing images, empty links … Not missing images but missing alt attribute on images that kind of stuff. I was wondering if the archive as a whole is aware of this and if there’s any plan to get it fixed, obviously you’re not a spokesperson for the archive from that perspective but it’s always interesting to hear the view of the insider.
Jason: Sure, so yeah I knew this would come up. This is a very interesting teaching moment here, which is that the internet archive has this slogan, which is “Universal access to all knowledge” It’s put everywhere, we have it everywhere in our rhetoric and our building and our website, and everything. That is a very meaningful phrase on its face, you hear that and you think “Well that sounds great” It’s like writing free puppies for all or you’ll get a pizza in one hour! It’s this very meaningful phrase but it’s also a promise and it’s also, in many ways, a kind of goal or declaration.
If something about it isn’t happening then it’s really ringing hollow, it’s like somebody being arrested unfairly in front of a sign that says justice for all, it’s this very troubling contrast and so when the archive first started, I think like I said the real way to go is, so the answer to the generalized question is, “Is action being taken?” Well I’ve sat through accessibility meetings, I have watched us discuss it, I have seen us hire a person to work on it, I have seen that person work on it for over a year, I have seen that person end up working for another place, I know that we almost brought them back and so I know, the short answer there is, yes, “Work has been done”.
What’s going on with the archive is that it’s always been kind of done by the seat of its pants because it’s an organization that was created by a person who had basically made a lot of money on the early .com boom and said, “What do I want to do with it?” To be honest in what I think was an amazingly admirable thing, instead of saying “I’m going to fly to an island that is not on any map and I’m going to dine on endangered species and I’m going to have meetings with people you don’t know” He said, I want to be a librarian, which he is, he comes in in the morning, 7am, works on all the different aspects of the archive’s function and projects and stays there at night. I don’t know if I was worth nine figures if I would be sitting in a chair anywhere that people could find me, I just don’t.
It always stuns me that he does this, it’s important to him. He wouldn’t be working on this library if it wasn’t of incredible importance and if its mission wasn’t of incredible importance, of bringing knowledge together. He had done work in knowledge. It matters to him, it all matters to him and as time has gone on, and we have been dealing with various issues, we have thrown engineering at the problem, and we have sometimes really done well with it and in other cases not really done well. I can find lots of pro and con, the fact that for instance I know this sounds like I’m making excuses, but, every day it stays up to me is a miracle. The way that it’s all designed so that everyone can upload stuff and the fact that you can access about 30-40 petabytes of data and still be able to reach it and download everything from it and be able to read a lot of it in some way online, to me is just okay, that’s just a miracle.
It’s less now but we used to have a pallet of hard drives die every month, now it’s something like five or ten die every week, we don’t lose data. Great, you’re in the door. You’ve put your pants on, good job. Then comes the issues of, how do we do the interface? There was a huge wrenching organizational issue trying to get what we used to call the V2 interface, which was just, we wanted to add all of this stuff like the ability to work on mobile phones, and the ability to have it … I’m always forgetting this term, I use liquid, but it’s not, it’s the thing where you can move it at different widths and it’ll do the right thing.
Jason: Yeah responsiveness, there were a bunch of those things that got in there and accessibility didn’t quite get what it should have deserved, I think that was just that branch, that branch. Not enough pain and so I will say, again this is why I’m the guy with the low blood sugar who’s always off on the ranch is the more people make noise, the more it becomes an audience issue which I think any organization understands, it’s like the red square metaphor, if we just think of it as “Oh yeah we’re supposed to put a red square in there” As opposed to “The red square people are on us again today and they’re really unhappy about it” I saw some people making a stink in our forums and elsewhere and I was cheering them on because the work is there and I think that we just need to have a dedicated person to it again and push it through as a high priority. I know it’s there.
Again, it’s not a huge organization, it’s under 100 people for everything with the exception of contractors who are doing scanning, it’s very easy to jam up our pipes with an issue if something comes down and then we put other priorities away. I can tell in terms of internally, in terms of in my heart, I am bothered that we don’t have it, and I wish we did and I wish we would move towards it. We do a pretty good job once we focus on an issue but we can easily get our focus pulled away because we’re such a small organization compared to a place that can throw 20 people at a problem, we can’t do that. We have a handful of people for any given situation, that’s where that’s coming from.
I love my place that I work for but I’ll never act like this is a fully acceptable situation, we didn’t earn the right to not be accessible, no matter how nice our mission is and how much good we do, it wouldn’t be that further along to do it and I would love to see us move on it. I would say, for your people who are listening, sending in cohesive well written letters that say, “Hi, here’s all the ways I can’t use your site” And just letting those build up pushes the needle, it stops being a slight problem in the back that we should get around to and it becomes the most important thing in the world, a bug. A bug/exploit.
The fact that it moves from, “Yeah people like well rounded corners” “People like it when you’re able to press a button and do a save as, won’t that be nice?” To “Our system isn’t functioning, we have a bug” and I think that’s what people need to do. I’m a fan of activism, I’m a fan of being in a face, while I know I’ll have somebody angry at me for getting their schedule filled with something, I know we want to do it. I know we do. Nobody is sitting around saying “Why not?” It’s just we keep getting pulled away to other things. So either that sounds like a bunch of hooey or it doesn’t. I’ll answer to both of your reactions, whichever one.
Nic: It doesn’t sound like hooey, I think it sounds like real life. We have priorities and we work on them, if we are lacking that awareness we’re not going to put effort into what’s happening. One of the calls I really remember vividly from one of my earlier guests is Sina Bahram was saying, we don’t have an accessibility problem, we have an awareness problem. I think perhaps that’s a little bit the situation here. I might just manage to wrangle a couple people to say, “Hey, these are the ways we have problems with this site and we’d love to be able to use it more easily”
Jason: Yeah I mean absolutely, again, I actually ran a blanksucks.com site, actually got sued for it back in the 2000s, I had all sorts of tricks, one of them was to refer to myself in the plural and to be funny and have fun about it. Nobody wants to get a bunch of invective in their mailbox, we get lots of that, but for someone to go, “Here’s this cohesive problem and it’s obvious and you know it, what can I do to help, Do you people just not have enough folks, do you need to get connected with a group? Do you want me to round up volunteers for you? What’s going on here, what can I do to help as opposed to falling into the sea of you lack a thing, give me the thing”
Jason: It’s how you phrase it but it’s also being persistent and not saying, well they didn’t respond so forget them. I think that’s the style. I guess I’m giving insider points here.
Nic: It’s important, I think I see you a little bit as the internal accessibility advocate but without the external feedback your voice is a little bit, sounds like you’re crying wolf, nothing’s happening and nobody is gonna take that internal advocacy seriously. This really applies I think all over organization not just the internet archives, it’s always this situation where there’s likely to be one person that is more aware than the organization about the needs for accessibility but until users are actually saying, “Hey we need this” It’s not going to happen.
Jason: Yeah we’re pretty reactive when it comes to being concerned about a problem but we don’t have a lot of funding to be able to do pilot groups, and again, obviously accessibility isn’t a pilot thing but it’s more if we think of it as, “We should really try to be this” as opposed to “This is really bad” I’ve said that before, I’ve definitely much, much, much less in this organization but in previous companies I’ve worked for that were more corporate, I loved writing smoking gun letters, that was my favorite thing in the world, that memo that would inevitably come out in the news, I worked for a place that I quit because I realized they were taking payments for backups they weren’t doing because they couldn’t get it working, and so they were just like, “That department is still getting paid for it but we haven’t figured out the problem and it’s now been a few months”
I’m like, “Hi, we are committing felony.” I would love writing that stuff. We’re committing a felony here! The archive is not committing any felony but the archive obviously can be directed towards what’s needed if there’s a problem. I’ll give you a good example of one that people never saw was we bought a whole range of hard drives that we were using, they were dying but dying in a real bad way, they were dying and they were still acting like they were still plugged in and working but they weren’t writing data, that was six months of various people’s lives to diagnose the problem, figure out how to replace it, everything. The end result of that mountain of work was, everything still works. Nobody say it on the outside it was just this devastating flaw and we have a bowing and scraping hard drive company that we deal with, “We’re so sorry, we’re so sorry!” But for me accessibility is something fundamentally important and I really like the idea of people sending in letters and being visible, even it’s a freak …
Just because I think that’s how you get it done anywhere, I guess I’m just another person who’s like yeah, I’m the loud voice out making arrangements with people and doing the ingestion of data, working on software, giving speeches about why saving the web is important. My ability as a person to actually code it, if I could code it I would. It is that important to me. I’ve seen writings, there’s lots of stuff in there. My hope is that we’re just going to pick up those pieces on the work bench and get back to it. Yeah, do it. Cool. Make noise.
Nic: Okay I just might. Jason, what would you say would be your greatest frustrations in terms of web accessibility?
Jason: So, the funny thing about the web was we came up with the very generalized ideas about information and it was done somewhat by committee and it was done with this weird consensus approach, and then we dropped it into the world and said, “Okay, here you go” And for a lot of people that was great, to them it was, “I can do anything I want” They would sometimes write bad code or they would put things together weird, other people wrote clients. It was this beautiful growing ecosystem and then at some point, really like I want to say late 95 early 96, we get people saying “Well, what we really want to do here is make a ton of money, what can we do? How do you make a ton of money?” First you enforce standards to ensure that money gets from once place to another, you put in the ability of people to give you money and you ensure that none of this money making is interrupted by the noise of the radical or the unfamiliar or the weird.
And so you see that strange approach of controlling what domains there are and what’s on them and different meetings and rule sets to add features that make things easy to program and so on, XKCD really captured when they say, “Go to Google.com, do a view source in your browser and come see what insanity lives there” It really truly is terrifying what’s on the Google page right? Google was supposed to be when it first started out a refreshing breath of air that would show you a clean web that just did what you needed to. It’s ugly as hell and so for me that move, you would think would move us towards, “Well gotta sell to everybody, there are people who can’t see, there are people who can’t hear, there are people who can’t type. Let’s make it easy for them” The answer seems to have been mostly you’re there, but not with that fundamental feel that you would expect.
To me the weirdest thing has been how much in life the businesses. When I talk about what I said about the push and people making that branching statement, you would think the companies would have made that branch long ago. Our audience is 100,000 people, 10,000 of them can’t see what’s on the screen, let’s make it that all of them can see what’s on the screen in some way. You would think that branch would have been boom, first meeting or first six meetings. It’s surprising to me, really surprising how weirdly they screw it up. How you can see that someone shoved it off in a corner and then they don’t update it except for once every year or something. It’s like they paid all the money for the ramp and then they never maintained the ramp again, the job is done and meanwhile people are using the ramp to bring in carts of things, look people are using it for all these things, it’s obviously important and let’s just maintain it, then they don’t. That to me has been surprising, how many companies don’t understand their own business.
We changed the whole web so that these companies could sachet in and sell their stuff and so many of them, they feel like just stumbling around making it up as they go along. If it sounds complicated, it is complicated. I liked that early web, I get why people wanted to move away from it but I miss it, there have been attempts to do small scale versions of that early web. I’ve enjoyed them, I played around with them. I get why they’re not universal. I just wish that we had taken in some of that joy and humor and we didn’t just push everything into monolithic silos.
Jason: That’s the part that makes me … I understand why people did it but we know it could have gone another way, I wish it would. Who knows? As somebody who works in archiving, the archiving of the web, I get to walk among a lot of ruins of a lot of companies that people thought were going to be around forever and so sometimes people fall into that weird case, they think that there’ll never be a world without a Facebook, there’s always been a Facebook, eh there’s been a Facebook for about 10 years. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back, Kmart was Kresge Mart for 10 years before it became K Mart.
Nic: Where’s AOL? Where’s Geocities? Where’s Kodak even?
Jason: Right, where’s Fortune City, all of these firms that people think “They’re here forever so we can’t make any changes” And I’m like, no, they’ll just be a pile of stones that we build the next thing on and maybe if we internalize some of what was there, it’ll just be part of the new thing. We will build it from the ground up with all these other lessons that we learned that were hard to push up the hill. Places like the archive, trying to survive for a century or more, the way we’re doing it is by trying to make everything as open as possible, open by that I mean source wise, making it easy to get to the originals.
One of the things that’s important to me, there’s an ethic that’s not obvious. If you upload a .mp4 or a .AVI to a lot of places, they then convert it into a “web friendly version” and that’s what people get, with the archive we always make that original AVI downloadable immediately and then we generate some variations to make them easy to view under certain technical standards but you can always say, no, just take the AVI back. Just grab the AVI, do the right thing.
That ethic seems so weirdly rare that it’s kind of weird to describe it that way, but it is, it’s this complete weird rarity for a content place to say, “Yeah here’s the original video, the original audio” I’d love to have some more of those ethics stick around, let’s not make every generation wreck all of our audio and video history and our written history by adding all sorts of codes and special one offs to it that have to be stripped out later. When we stop thinking we die, when we stop questioning who we are, what we do and why we’re doing it, that’s when we’re dead. That’s when we’re really dead and so in the same way, I’ll say the archive does things that nobody else in the internet does. There are also things we could be standing to do, I don’t think we have gotten to the point of saying, we can’t do it.
It’s more just priorities and noise and focus and every once in a while a new feature pops up on the archive, we just added full text search which uses the OCR which isn’t 100% fantastic but pretty good, and you’re able to type in a phrase and it’ll tell you if any text digitized on the archive has that word in it.
Jason: That’s to me more accessibility, there is a command line interface to the archive that we’ve had one guy working on for years. I have internally been just cheerleading him, this is our most important thing because whatever clients people write or whatever sets, they can use our command line to interact with the archive, that’s an incredible wedge to bring in a whole bunch of data and frankly it’s how I do 99% of my work with the archive is through this command line because to me that is the way and so it’s a matter of keeping the noise up and being a voice for things, it’s just continuing. I promise you I’ll keep being a voice about accessibility.
Nic: I appreciate that, thank you Jason. Let’s wrap up this show with one last question for you. What’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility?
Jason: The one thing people should remember about accessibility is it’s not just about you. You alone are the worst lab for the experiment of whether or not something is working. If you make it about just yourself, If you say “When I use it, it’s great, when I play with it, it does what I want it to, when I check it, it makes sense to me.” You have failed, at whatever you’re doing frankly, you’re writing, you’re coding your website, if you don’t acknowledge that something you’re making and you’re pretending it’s for anyone else, I mean I totally get it. If you want to write a big screed, a letter and then burn it, yeah that’s just for you. If you honestly think that letter is going to leave and be read by somebody else, you have to think about the other.
I think that websites are these creations that are meant to be shared by the human race and that if you don’t acknowledge that the human race is not a monolithic mirror of you, you’re going to create a terrible website. For me accessibility is such an easy, brilliant way to get out of that mindset and go, “Wait a minute, there’s somebody who interprets the world different than me” Here is a strict way of showing it, this person can’t see, this person doesn’t see colors the way I do, this person can’t look at images, this person whatever. How can I make it so they can?
Jason: That’s I think, that’s what should drive you in the morning when you’re proudly talking about something you’ve made and getting it out to folks. The joy of knowing that somebody who didn’t have a chance of being able to interact with your work now has it, I think that’s really what I want people to think about.
Nic: Thank you. Jason, it’s been awesome talking to you and hearing your thoughts, thank you. Is there any last parting thoughts you want to share with us?
Jason: It was and is a pleasure to get to know you, to follow you on twitter and to see somebody who is driven in what he believes and making it about just people being aware of the life you live, and just presenting it on a consistent basis to show people honestly and truly what your life is like, I think that’s something that more people could stand to do in this world, “This is what my life is like, this is what is going on” and I would like it to be a little better, maybe you can help me.
Nic: Thank you.
Nic: To everyone out there, thanks for listening. Until next week, that’s all folks. Before I go I want to thank my patrons once again and remember that if you need a hand in ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca