April 14, 2010

It started with a simple thought…

I follow a lot of people on twitter. Honestly, some of the people I follow are not necessarily “web accessibiity” people, although most have some level of tech savvy. Some of the people I follow are people whom I follow simply to help me understand the perspective of people with disabilities. Blind users. Deaf users. People with various mobility disabilites (one who’s promised blog post from me is being delayed by this posting). All so that I can better do what it is I do; to understand, to teach, to bridge.

One such user posted a tweet about the twitter hash-tag #a11y. He echo’d something I’d heard often before: people were unclear what that meant (the 11 represents the letters between the A and Y in the word accessibility), many did not understood the relationship between a11y and accessibility (although they learned somehow that they were linked, so they used that hash-tag too) and many others activley disliked that numeronym as being either elitist or techie. Yet still, many of us find it useful to tag our tweets with metadata – metadata being useful sometimes – and so in twitter we use hash-tags; and currently, for lack of anything better, we’ve been using #a11y for topics about accessibility.

…for lack of anything better…

And so, in the nature of spontaneous blurts that is very much part of twitter culture, I suggested #AxS. I checked, it wasn’t already being used somewhere. It had the happy advantage of being read aloud by screen readers as “access” when written as UPPERCASE lowercase UPPERCASE and was phonetic to those who vocalized it. It was easier to type on mobile devices. It was a sum total of 4 characters, down one from the 5 of #a11y – and in a world that lives and dies in 140 characters, every character counts. So I figured, why not – almost everybody was unhappy with #a11y and we had a problem. So rather than complain about a problem, I figured lets try and fix it, and I pushed the conversation a little harder – laughingly in twitter itself, at 140 character blursts. It started to pick up some resonance. Yes, there were cons to the conversation as well as pros, but I got a sense that there might be something here.

Three days later, the conversation has continued on twitter. A lot has already been said, but in my assessment, more good than bad over-all. And so, I pose the question again, “could #AxS be the next #a11y?”

A few people have tweeted me that yes I should continue, to which I can only reply, it’s not up to me. This is a decision of our community, and the only way to vote is with your feet. If you think that #AxS is a suitable replacement for #a11y, then just start using it. In many ways, that is how #a11y emerged – there was no board room meeting or pronouncement from Twitter HQ that we had to use that hash-tag, our tribe just adopted it as our own. So if we want, we can adopt another one. Many have expressed support of the #AxS hashtag. Some have already started to tentatively use #AxS, paired with #a11y, while others jumped in with both feet. That’s cool!

So that’s what I’m going to do, I’m just going to start using it. People interested in me because of my activity within the accessibility field will likely not stop following me because I’m using a hashtag they don’t recognize or use; they may in fact pick it up as well. And if they don’t, there’s no harm, no foul – it’s just a piece of metadata I’ve attached to my tweet that anyone can freely use or not use. In fact, the tag is in many ways even less than metadata, it’s a token that represents an idea. The idea of universal access, and accessibility, and everything we tweet about in our tribe related to those ideas. It’s not about the semantic correctness of ‘Access’, it’s not going to solve any real problems, it’s just about the human experience and inclusiveness that we are talking about, and using a little token to link our thoughts as such. And I think that #AxS as a hashtag has more merit than #a11y.

What do you think?


  1. #1 by Gary Miller on April 14, 2010 - 2:17 am


    Sometimes all it takes is for one person to pick up the ball and run with it.

    I’m behind you all the way on #AxS!

  2. #2 by Denis Boudreau on April 14, 2010 - 6:45 am

    I was initially reluctant, but the more I think about it, the more I find the idea interesting. IT does sound phonetically correct when read aloud, it does get interpreted explicitly on VoiceOver, it does save us a character in the ever going 140 character battle, it is easier to type on a cellphone, it does, overall, leave a better taste in my mouth.

    In other words, I’m sold too. John, you had me at “numeronym”… ;p

    Between #a11y and #AxS, frankly, I’d much rather use #AxS. It may not have the proper semantics, but it still closer than #a11y ever was or ever will be. As @catroy stated, access and accessibility do not mean the same thing, but again, #AxS is closer to what we mean to define than #a11y ever was or ever will be.

    I already stated more than once that to me, #a11y was against two simple WCAG 2.0 lvl AAA understanding-related rules, which is way I tended not to use it. Those are 3.1.4 and 3.1.6:

    3.1.4 Abbreviations: A mechanism for identifying the expanded form or meaning of abbreviations is available. (Level AAA)

    3.1.6 Pronunciation: A mechanism is available for identifying specific pronunciation of words where meaning of the words, in context, is ambiguous without knowing the pronunciation. (Level AAA).

    Which is why I tended not to use #a11y so much, hence “suffered” from a 11-character hashtag. #AxS still breaks those rules, but not as much. So it’s a better choice for me. Not perfect, but probably as close as we ever will get to it with all things considered.

    I feel that as #accessibilty advocates, we need to be exemplary, but at some point, I guess we need to let go. Going from a hashtag that counts 11 character to one that only counts 3 as a major win in TwitterLand.

  3. #3 by David Bolter on April 14, 2010 - 9:08 am

    A rose by any other name…

  4. #4 by Cliff Tyllick on April 14, 2010 - 10:08 am

    Well, John, you beat me to it! I have been thinking about starting a blog lately, and was just about to do it for this topic when I saw your post. (Actually, my connection went down first, but I saw this post as soon as I got back online.)

    It’s interesting to me that each of the last few days I have gotten roughly equal counts of these two kinds of tweets:
    Tweets that include the word “accessibility,” are about “accessibility” in this context, and either have no hashtag (the overwhelming majority) or have only “#accessibility” as their hashtag.
    Tweets that include #a11y as a hashtag, with or without the word “accessibility” in the rest of the message. (Very few of those also spell out “accessibility,” and even fewer also mark “accessibility” with a hashtag.)

    In other words, a fair number of people who know a lot about accessibility never use #a11y as a hashtag in their tweets. And it isn’t always, as one of these folks told me, because they will add #a11y except when they don’t have room for both it and “accessibility.” I can tell that because in many cases (even recent ones from that person), the whole tweet was less than 100 characters — and they still didn’t add #a11y!

    I haven’t queried everyone whose tweets fit into that category, but I’m guessing that these members of our community fall into one of these categories:

    Even though they routinely participate in discussions of accessibility, they still haven’t figured out what “#a11y” is all about.
    Because they follow basic principles accessibility, they will never use an abbreviation that is hard for many to figure out.
    They follow basic principles of accessibility, but they see the usefulness of having a short hashtag, no matter how confusing it might be to newcomers. So they spell out “accessibility” and use it as a hashtag and, when they have 6 characters left at the end of their tweet, they will add ” #a11y” — if they remember. And sometimes they do.

    I think we would win more people from each of these classes with a clearer hashtag, and #AxS is clearer. And because the main point of a hashtag is to make it easier to find all tweets on a topic, it is important to have a hashtag that as many people as possible will use.

    And perhaps we should clear up one point: I, for one, feel that “accessibility” should be included in the message when pertinent and possible. And it should be marked as a hashtag when it is. But to conserve space overall, the universal hashtag for tweets about accessibility should be, well, something as short as possible.

    So if we frequently use the full word in the message itself and “AxS” mainly as a hashtag — and as an abbreviation only when really pressed for space — I think we meet AAA compliance about as well as is possible in the TwitterVerse. Not perfect, but close enough.

    And certainly closer than we ever got with “a11y.” Take my own experience with “a11y” as a case in point. At first, I misread it as “ally” — A-L-L-Y. If you search for tweets tagged with #ally,” you will see just how confusing that conclusion can be. Eventually I kind of got that it was shorthand for “accessibility.” I might have even started using it — it being “ally” — as a hashtag. Then someone tweeted that it was a numeronym, and the “11” represented the 11 missing letters between “a” and “y.”

    Numeronyms are common on the Web, a follow-up tweet said. Like i18n for “internationalization.” And l10n for “localization.” And, I’ll be d4d, so t2y a1e! A1d so e2y to u8d! U3g n8s m3s so m2h s3e t2t we s4d do it a1l t1e t2e! J2t t3k of h1w m2h m2e i9n we c3d p2k i2o o1r t3ts!

    If you got all of that, you might never understand what I mean when I say that n8ms are like s4t p6ds — until their m5e is r6d to you, you are e6d from the c7y and its d9s.

    And if you had trouble getting my comments two paragraphs above, you will probably agree with me that numeronyms are like secret passwords — until their meaning is revealed to you, you are excluded from the community and its discussions.

    And I don’t think that’s the result we want, even as an unintended consequence, from the behavior of anyone in this particular community.

    “AxS” sounds like “access” when read by at least some screen readers and would be vocalized by most people as “access” when they read it in context. And “access” is a major part of “accessibility.”

    “A11y” looks like either “ally” or “a-eleven-y,” so there is no telling how a person who sees it will vocalize it. (Do you seem to hear words as you read them silently? I do. And when I run across “a11y,” what I seem to hear is either “alley” — I’m not sure why — or “a-eleven-y.” How about you? So I, and perhaps you, have to stop and think for a microsecond to decode it. And I hear that making people think is not a good thing.) And “a11y” probably is pronounced by screen readers as “a-eleven-y” (can someone with access to a number of screen readers confirm this?). But whereas “a” and “y” are the beginning and end of “accessibility” (so it would be overachieving to cover accessibility from A to Z), I still can’t figure out how “eleven” fits in.

    On so many levels, #AxS is simpler. If being simpler gets more folks to adopt it, then we will have a better tool for indexing all tweets related to accessibility — even those where “accessibility” itself is not an integral part of the message.

    And for those of you still wondering, here’s what my tongue-in-cheek plaudits for numeronyms said: “And, I’ll be darned, so they are! And so easy to understand! Using numeronyms makes so much sense that we should do it all the time! Just think of how much more information we could pack into our tweets!”

    So, John, I agree: Just do it!

  5. #5 by Jared Smith on April 14, 2010 - 10:59 am

    I agree with Denis. I like AxS a bit more than a11y. I’m still a bit reluctant to use it in content, just as I would be using any other less-known acronym, colloquialism, jargon, etc. It’s just fine as a searchable element or hashtag outside of the core content of a tweet – little is lost if someone doesn’t know what it means.

    I guess it really depends on context. If I’m responding to @johnfoliot, I have no reservations using it. If I’m marketing the “WebAIM AxS training”, for example, it’s not happening because the target audience is much less likely to understand it. And I don’t see this changing even if AxS becomes more commonplace, something I do think would be a good thing.

  6. #6 by Steve Grobschmidt on April 14, 2010 - 1:24 pm

    I’ve been pondering this for the past day, since noticing the conversations on Twitter.

    I think the arguments make perfect sense. I don’t know that I’ll wholesale switch over immediately — though it certainly defeats the ‘saving 1 character’ argument, I may use both for the short term, provided I can fit my original message.

    I always struggled with #a11y, even after having somebody explain it to me. I got used to it and it’s a habit now, but it’s not particularly intuitive. #AxS just makes sense, like #ux for user experience.

    For what it’s worth, I’ll support the idea and start using it!

  7. #7 by Jon Gibbins on April 15, 2010 - 10:17 am

    It’s a nice idea, John. Phonetically, it’s quite elegant. But I’m not sold, I’m afraid.

    Jared made a good point. I’d be happy using “AxS” when speaking to you. But then, I’d be happy using “a11y” in much the same context. So, I don’t see that it solves the problem it’s meant to.

    Generally, I’d much rather use plain language like “access” or “accessibility”. Plain language is far more accessible than any abstractions we care to come up with.

  8. #8 by Denis Boudreau on April 15, 2010 - 12:02 pm

    This actually proves the point of using the right tools for the right job. If you want to define an accessibility training session, you might as well make sure people will understand you, so use #accessibility.

    Jared, I doubt you would use “#a11y training session” either. The only real option is being descriptive, so #accessibility it would be in those cases.

    However, if my hashtag is merely for annotation, description, search, tagging purposes or whatever, then #AxS or #a11y can do equally well, depending on where you’re standing regarding this.

    As Marshall McLuhan said himself, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

    What will we be shaped into if #accesibility is not an option? #AxS or #a11y? All in all, it’s a question of taste, and ultimately of religious belief.

    So, what will it be peeps? :)

  9. #9 by Jon Gibbins on April 16, 2010 - 2:55 am

    John, I’m sorry if my tweets about using #AxS came across as at all acerbic. To be clear, I’m not trying to defend the use of the a11y abbreviation. I’m concerned about using any contrived abbreviations.

    What I can’t grasp is why plain language can’t be the default position here, e.g. #access as a hashtag is descriptive and short enough for use in a tweet.

    Outside of the accessibility community, tech heads use and understand numeronyms, so I’m comfortable using them in that context, particularly when written. You won’t catch me saying aye-eleven-why in a conversation! However, I rarely use numeronyms in writing either, because I think they’re nasty! I even affectionately call the @a11y Twitter account Ally if I’m discussing it with somebody.

    If I had to vote for one or the other of #AxS and #a11y, I’d go for #AxS for the reasons people have stated. But only for use within the accessibility community, only on Twitter, and only when there is not enough space for something like #access (three characters difference).

  10. #10 by John on April 16, 2010 - 10:11 pm

    Jon, when you are unrepentant, you build up a thick skin. No offense taken – 140 chars suck (a problem this seeks to redress).

    “Access” (the word) has deep rooted connotations within the disabled community, and not all of them are positive. As I was recently reminded, Access can also apply to Broadband coverage, yet that is not what we are talking about, and we want to be very clear about that. I must respect that (and I do, very personally), and to be clear I seek not to re-open or redefine the difference between access and accessibility, only to solve a much smaller problem: using #a11y as a hash-tag kinda sucks too.

    You stated that you “…rarely use numeronyms in writing…” and this is one sentiment that you are not alone in. So let’s stop using a11y.

    Hash-tags are less than metadata in many ways, as we do not want to actually define anything with them, we simply want to tag tweets with an identifier (shared) so that others can use and find those tweets too. If I had suggested to replace #a11y with #qzp would that be any more or less meaningful, if, by unanimous agreement we all understood that when we tagged a tweet with that token, we would know that it meant accessibility, and technology and accessibility? That the tweet didn’t relate just to #pwd (people with disabilities) specifically, of just web accessibility as I practice it, or notices of a PBS special about the day in the life of a guide dog? Rather just the general notion that if any of the above might interest you, by following or searching on that small token you might discover interesting new bits of information, all via a small token; this is to me the real value of hash-tags.

    So I proposed a string, a short one, as a possible replacement to the 4 character string “a11y”. It was cutesy clever, and one *could* read the slightest of meaning into it (because access *is* the root of accessibility, but in a specific way) for those who might come across it for the first time – as all have noted however, you *learn* what a hash-tag means, sometimes quickly (like at a conference) or over time (by seeing it used by people who interest you on twitter) – but you learn that a small string ‘tags’ info you are interested in. Honestly however, any string of characters that we agreed to would have worked.

    Earlier this week Twitter announced that tweeters could “Add Any Metadata To Any Tweet Starting Next Quarter” so perhaps in many ways this conversation is too late. Hopefully we will as a community come up with richer but equally easy means of attaching better metadata to tweets than we’ve been afforded to date. I suspect that hash-tags will fade from sight in due time.

    It’s been an interesting conversation for me. It’s opened up some thought to how we agree as a community to interact with each other, and has given me yet another insight to our world. Thanks to all that participated (and keep using #AxS if you want to; why not?)

  11. #11 by Web Axe on April 16, 2010 - 11:38 pm

    This is a good debate, at least until the metadata implementation is worked out. So for now, I like #AXS in theory, but in practice I’m using #A11Y. Don’t want to confuse users and don’t want to write two tags.

  12. #12 by Cliff Tyllick on April 17, 2010 - 4:24 am

    Web Axe, in practice I’m switching to #AxS because I want to be as welcoming as possible to new participants in this discussion. The cryptic “#a-binary-three/hexadecimal-seventeen-y” is a heavy door slightly ajar. Most will be stuck outside until they can slip in as someone else opens the door wide enough for them; a few will be able to open it themselves.

    Which brings up an interesting point: If we’re truly interested in shortening long words for use as hashtags, why aren’t we using hexadecimal notation in our numeronyms? Lowercase letters should designate letters from the original word; uppercase letters would designate hexadecimal values. And, of course, case would not be absolutely required; we could tell that the first and last letters came from the original word and all in between was a hex value. So instead of #a11y, we could use #aBy. Same concept, but using a more compact system of notation enables us to save that crucial character.

    Of course, I’m saying this with tongue in cheek. Of course #a11y works better. Those ones *look* like “ells,” and the next-to-last letter in “accessibility” is an “ell,” and they’re simple vertical strokes, as are so many of the letters in, well, in the second half of “accessibility.” So there’s a *visual* cue that makes #a11y work better.

    Unless you’ve never seen the shape of numbers and letters. Then it makes no sense at all. In Twitter, to conserve characters we should count in a system that makes numeronyms as compact as possible, without regard for vague cues that only some can detect.

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