The Text Behind the Text

At the time of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, access to the Internet was becoming more common outside of academic settings, and many people used the official event website to keep track of the news.

One such user, Bruce Lindsay Maguire, won a court case against the organising committee because that website wasn’t accessible to him. One point of complaint was that no alt-text had been provided for images, so his Braille display wasn’t able to tell him what the images represented. The Australian Human Rights Commission website features a summary of the case.

With 22 years now passed, it’s easy to imagine this problem was confined to the early and more experimental years of the Web, but that’s not always the case.

Let’s use Instagram as an example, which employs software to try to identify what’s in a picture. A typical caption is ‘May be a picture of two people’ or ‘May be cars on a road’. However, it’s not easy to find the option to type your own alt-text. On the Android app, you need to click a small ‘Advanced settings’ link just before posting the picture, then head to ‘Write alt text’. There seems to be no good reason not to provide this box in plain sight.

A good piece of alt-text is one that fills in any important details that aren’t conveyed by the image caption or any other context. It doesn’t need to contain every detail, just enough to help someone understand the scene if they can’t see it.

One exception is purely decorative images. On this page, I often use headers created from fractals; these are generated by software as a copyright-free source of images. It’s not important to know that the image has dots and swirls of blue or pink, so these are typically labelled as simply ‘Fractal’.

Using Fractals as Illustrations

Regular readers will probably have spotted that each of these blog entries has a pattern as its featured image. Specifically, these are fractals, each generated by a mathematical formula.

It’s long been known that visual content appeals more to users than plain text. However, licencing pictures can be expensive and appropriate public domain images are hard to find. My content is all about writing, which – by its nature – is often plain text.

Instead, I use a program called Xaos for generating these patterns. As I’m not mathematically-minded, I simply use the random image generator, cycling through them until an interesting one appears.

What’s more, it rarely takes more than a couple of minutes. This helps me a lot, as I commonly write or edit my entries up to the last minute.

The main cover picture is my own work, though. A few years ago, I would attend writing classes in the grounds of Barry Mill, a former watermill in Angus, and I captured this wonderful shot of a light over the doorway. I’m unlikely to replace that with a fractal any time soon.