Lamenting Twitter’s and WCAG’s potential

Twitter was and is (for now) an integral part of my web presence. Since March 2007 I have tweeted over 72 thousand times. That’s roughly 13 messages a day. I found community and friendship there. And the love of my life.

Twitter was (is?) important to me.

Seeing it change over the years made me sometimes tired of it, but in the end it just felt like a net positive place for me to be. Of course, this has changed this week. The place was attacked, but not from random people, but by someone who is – for all intents and purposes – almighty on the platform. There is nothing we can do.

Being powerless in the face of a tsunami of uncertainty and populism is what really irks me about the situation. Twitter was never really run extremely well, but it looked like it improved successively over the last couple of years. Especially, accessibility features got better and better, and the team really hit their stride lately. Until they got fired.

Twitter has lost its way for me. At least, I’m unable to fully trust it anymore. Maybe it will get better, but I have currently little desire to post on there.

In addition, I am trying to give up helping to improve WCAG from the outside.

Over the last few months, requests for clarification and simplicity have been either ignored or actively argued against. The standard as it might be published sometime next year is half-baked. The Working Group has not even looked at many of the existing issues.

Simple typos or editorial changes get no acknowledgement, and only few people of the Working Group seem to care for any of the discussions. It feels like they have all moved on.

WCAG is important, and I’m sure that does not make easier creating updates for it. But the reality is that the Working Group does not have enough support (or they wouldn’t be as behind). What starts as simple clarification questions (“What does visible in SC 2.4.7 Focus Visible actually mean?”) often ends up as a hard to understand and complicated new Success Criterion in an attempt to please everyone. Adding “a change of x CSS Pixels with at least a contrast of 3:1 to its background” would probably have covered most use cases for basic accessibility.

And then there are several places where the language and the actual interpretation of the guidelines do not match. For example, SC 1.4.1 Use of Color reads:

Color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.

If you think color is not allowed to “convey information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element” based on the text, you would be mistaken. Color can be used as long as you change the lightness of the color. From the Understanding document1 :

If content is conveyed through the use of colors that differ not only in their hue, but that also have a significant difference in lightness, then this counts as an additional visual distinction, as long as the difference in relative luminance between the colors leads to a contrast ratio of 3:1 or greater. For example, a light green and a dark red differ both by color (hue) and by lightness, so they would pass if the contrast ratio is at least 3:1. Similarly, if content is distinguished by inverting an element's foreground and background colors, this would pass (again, assuming that the foreground and background colors have a sufficient contrast).

Changing the word in the success criterion to “hue” instead of “color” would clarify this right in the Success Criterion text. But that seems too easy.2

Now, I don’t want to dig up those discussions again, and I certainly don’t want to throw shade at the WCAG WG. It does what it is chartered to do and has put these rules on itself. But it also means it is at odds with my personal goals, which has always been to make WCAG and related resources as easy to understand and as practically useful as possible. I did that inside W3C, and I tried to keep it up from outside.

However, over the last few weeks since the WCAG 2.2 Candidate Snapshot release, it became even more clear that there is no interest for this work. Minor requests to clarify wording draw outsized discussions. And not because the clarification would change the definition, but because “this is understandable enough if you read it right”.

I’m exhausted and sad. Because both Twitter and WCAG WG are squandering the potential to make the world a better place. Or at least make their own product the best it can be. At Twitter, one person wreaks havoc by making reckless changes. At WCAG WG, the self-imposed rules make it hard to adapt to the modern web. And early WCAG 3 drafts also show similar issues because of that mindset.

Anyway, I think the demise of Twitter has me realize at which places I spend my time and which give me joy. So I’m stepping back from commenting on WCAG 2. I already made that decision for WCAG 3 earlier this year due to a hostile environment. Instead, I will focus on teaching accessibility in simple, understandable, and clear terms. Accessibility for everyone.

If you want to read updates from me, see my microblog which largely had replaced Twitter for me over the last months anyway. You can even follow me through Mastodon or on micro.blog. There is a newsletter where I send the occasional email, and a way to support my work.

  1. Or, as I started to call them, the “well, actually document”
  2. One argument against those changes is “backwards compatibility”. But backwards compatibility for me is not making things unchangeable. Such clarifications would only introduce minor changes from the previous version, often not requiring a change to websites at all. Many would be more precise than before, so a subset of the previous broader rule. And even if SCs get more strict over time, that is a good thing, it is also why new SCs are added. To make the web more accessible.

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