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Here's What It Is Like To Use Social Media When You Are Totally Blind

Rob recently went viral for making millions of users aware of a simple feature that can give him, and others in the blind community, access to a wealth of silly memes and influential images.

Posted on January 10, 2018, at 11:12 a.m. ET

Rob Long is a 30-year-old Brazilian jiujitsu competitor in London. He's also a veteran who was injured during combat in Afghanistan, which caused him to lose both eyes.

Rob Long

While stationed in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010, Long and his patrol were hit by an improvised explosive device.

One of his good friends died in the attack. Long survived, but immediately lost his left eye.

Long told BuzzFeed News the blast had caused enough nerve damage in his right eye that it was also removed, leaving his sight "in pitch black." He was then equipped with two prosthetic eyes.

While becoming blind dramatically changed his life, he's embraced technology and learned new ways to adapt. He's now a passionate Brazilian jiujitsu competitor and has won many championships in the UK.

Long is also an avid user of social media. Last week, he made millions of Twitter users aware of one small feature that makes a world of a difference for blind people navigating the social platform.

I’m a blind twitter user. There are a lot of us out there. Increase your ability to reach us and help us interact w…

By enabling the "compose image description" feature in their settings, users are able to write descriptions for any images they tweet. Blind users will be able to "see" that image based on the unique description transcribed aloud to them.

Long said he'd only learned about this feature a month ago.

His one tweet has been seen by 24 million people, and many of them are amplifying the message with a retweet and are now turning on and using image captioning.

He noted and laughed about the irony of conveying this PSA with visual instructions.

For anyone who's enabled the feature, you must also write your caption for each image. Long said he's read some "fantastic descriptions" of images and memes so far.

Over the last few years, Long said technology — specifically his smart phone — has "raised my standard of living." He's now able to consume and engage with online content, even on the most text-heavy and visual-heavy platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Rob Long

"At the moment I scroll through Twitter and Facebook and I don't feel blind," he said. "I know I don't get exactly what everyone else is getting but I don't feel like I'm missing out or I don't understand the context of a post."

With image captioning on Twitter, for example, Long is able to image the full context of political commentary, silly jokes, or powerful anecdotes.

"It helps normalize social media use," he added.

On Facebook specifically, Long notes that there are bots and AI features to help interpret images. While he is appreciative of the technology, he says it isn't perfect.

He joked that all of his friend's workout photos at the gym have recently been interpreted to him as "basketball courts" and he knows his buddies do not enjoy basketball that much.

Most of the time, however, these automated descriptions have been extremely helpful in "bridging the gap."

For selfies, Long said that descriptions are as mundane and straightforward as "man with beard and glasses." Landscape photos are even described as simply as "a landscape."

With customizable image captioning and with more people using it, Long hopes that those emotional and powerful photos on social media that have shaped our world can also be experienced and "felt" by blind social media users.

Rob Long

"Over the last decades there have been some powerful images of events that have changed the world. Everyone gets to see them and feel their emotions," he said.

"With bare facts it's hard to fill that emotion. If you can convey a powerful image to me, it's so much more impactful. It brings me into the zeitgeist. In that moment, we're all feeling something — as one nation, as one race."

According to Long, the one massively popular app that does not have additional features for the visually impaired is Instagram. "I can't really use it," he said.

Long says that there is no image-captioning capabilities nor AI captioning. That's a big problem, because Instagram's interface is so photocentric.

"Instagram is so visual that it's just a nightmare," he said. "It's really, really hard.

"I'm hoping AI bots can help with this. If Facebook can do it, I'm sure Instagram can do it," he added.

BuzzFeed News has reached out to Instagram about possible AI technologies or other user-friendly features for the blind community that may be in the works or in the pipeline.

Overall, Long said he is "so happy and so surprised" that blind people are able to use and engage with these modern tools to share and socialize. It was not something he gave a thought about before becoming blind, he admits.

Rob Long

"Before I lost my sight I didn't even think about [this] but technology has moved so much," he said. "It's all very intuitive. All my communication is through my phone."

The image-captioning capability, at least on Twitter, has only been introduced and available for a few years. Prior to this, Long said he'd ask his partner to read out every tweet and meme and describe the image to him.

It's now given him tremendous "independence" as far as enjoying and engaging with the social online world.

It seems others were as happy and surprised to know about these simple and accessible tools — all thanks to Long.

I hadn't realized: it's easy to add captions to images for blind Twitter users. Takes a few seconds to enable (wish…

I had no idea this was an option. Great information:

Long said some people have expressed to him that they're unsure or nervous of how to caption these images and what to convey. To that, he wants to personally let everyone know: "Don't worry about how we're going to critique the image; just worry about getting the message out."

Do this. Now. Cannot imagine why twitter would not make accessibility option on the default.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.