Twitter/X’s removal of link headlines reduces site accessibility.

Twitter/X's removal of link headlines reduces site accessibility.

Elon Musk’s Design Decisions: Accessibility Sacrificed for Aesthetics

Twitter header image

Once again, Elon Musk has made design decisions for the rebranded X (formerly Twitter) that are isolating users with disabilities. This time, it’s all in the name of “esthetics.” On Wednesday evening, the popular social media platform began rolling out a new preview format for posted links. However, this minimalist change removes all headlines and subheader text from the post, leaving only the article’s header image overlaid with a publication’s watermark.

While Musk and his team may see this as a step towards a sleeker version of the site, it’s important to note the negative impact on users. The stripped-down format removes essential information for users considering clicking on third-party links. It also implies a continued disregard for users with disabilities, limiting accessibility to linked posts for those who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers and VoiceOver.

This move follows Musk’s previous statements about devaluing third-party links on X. He has expressed his intent to prioritize long-form content directly on the platform, under the belief that it optimizes time spent on X. Unfortunately, this approach fails to consider the importance of external sources and the valuable information they provide.

Furthermore, Musk has made other changes that demonstrate a lack of commitment to accessibility. He removed Twitter’s accessibility team (@TwitterA11y) and has implemented paid models that limit access to former Twitter APIs, hindering accessibility advocates’ ability to build a more inclusive site.

Unsurprisingly, by Thursday, users were expressing widespread disdain for the site change. Some users took advantage of the context-less format to circulate memes and misinformation. However, the real issue lies in the negative impact on individuals who rely on assistive technology to navigate the platform.

Developers and users quickly realized that the link functionality was no longer consistent between the mobile and desktop versions of the site. Some blind users, who rely on Apple’s in-house screen reader VoiceOver, were struggling to interact with links altogether. Mobile users reported that screen readers displayed the new link format as simply “link, image,” without providing additional information on where the link directs.

Additionally, the new header images no longer feature X’s “ALT” badge. This badge was crucial for denoting when an image had custom alt text added, enhancing the experience for users who are blind. Many called attention to how X’s design choice may incentivize publications to add headlines or other text directly into header images themselves, just to circumvent the preview limits. However, since interacting with the new images immediately redirects users to the third-party site, those using screen readers will not be able to access any custom alternative text.

“The latest Twitter update to remove headlines from link previews is a telling example of aesthetics over accessibility. That’s what happens when you no longer have a dedicated accessibility team,” wrote disability blogger Holly Tuke.

Users expressing their dismay on Twitter

The decision to prioritize aesthetics over accessibility is not only being criticized by users but also by experts in the field. Alexa Heinrich, the creator of the resource and education hub Accessible Social, told Mother Jones that this decision is “horrible for accessibility and user experience in general.”

However, despite the challenges posed by Musk’s design decisions, users and developers have already started sharing workarounds and advice. Some recommendations include adding context to the written part of posts, making it clear where the links will take users. Others suggest pasting links at the top of posts, even before the written block of text. And in cases where the link appears at the end of a written block of text, pasting it twice can help ensure its accessibility.

Publishers can also adopt a “Summary Card” format instead of the “Summary Card with Large Image” format, which can shrink the image size and allow X to pull summarized article information into the link card itself. Developer @MattEason has even created a tool that will format links in a more accessible manner until X resolves the inaccessibility of large image links.

Moreover, it’s worth considering the bigger picture. Musk’s decision is particularly worrisome when matched with his advocacy for “citizen journalism” and disdain for “legacy news” sites. X’s bid for increased involvement in the upcoming election season raises concerns about who gets to participate in Musk’s new vision of citizen journalism when basic site functionality is being stripped away.

Elon Musk’s tweet encouraging citizen journalism

In conclusion, while Elon Musk’s design decisions may aim for aesthetic improvements, they have inadvertently sacrificed accessibility on X. By removing essential information from link previews and neglecting the needs of users with disabilities, this move has hindered inclusivity and user experience. It’s crucial for the team behind X to reconsider their approach and prioritize accessibility without compromising the site’s aesthetic appeal. True progress requires balancing both form and function, ensuring that everyone can actively participate in the platform’s evolution.