What is This?

This is the second in a series of posts that explains how to use Mastodon if you use a screen reader. It is an alternative form of the already existing documentation for Mastodon, subject to my interpretation of concepts. Therefore, I suggest that you use this guide in conjunction with the official documentation, linked to later in this post. I also suggest that you go back and read Chapter One. Once you’ve done that, continue reading this chapter.

What is Covered in This Chapter?

This chapter takes a closer look at what Mastodon is, deals with the concept of instances, explains the differences between Mastodon and other platforms, offers suggestions on choosing an instance, and concludes with a brief description of the signup process. If you’ve already done these things, go on to Chapter Three.

Terms in This Chapter (in order of discussion)

  • Microblog
  • Instance
  • Federation, fedeverse

A Closer Look at Mastodon

You probably have an idea of what Mastodon is by now, or else why would you be reading this? Just to make sure I’m covering my bases, however, let’s take a closer look. Mastodon is a service that offers its users a microblog, a space to share short posts with no title, and the option to attach media such as pictures and videos. Other users can then interact with these posts in a number of ways, discussed in chapters  and Five.

Doesn’t That Already Exist?

It sure does. These days, Twitter is synonymous with microblogging, because it’s the most popular. This is similar to how America Online (AOL) was once the most popular form of Internet access, but it was not the only service like that, and it certainly not the Internet. Just like forms of Internet access, email, and many other services, it is to be expected that different microblogging services would have some features in common. I’ll briefly discuss some of those now.

Common Features Between Twitter and Mastodon

  • The primary form of communication is short statuses. On twitter, this limit is 280 characters, and 500 on Mastodon.
  • The ability reply to, like/favorite, and repost posts. (More on this in chapter Five.)
  • Being able to follow and be followed by other users. (More on this in Chapter Four).
  • The ability to create custom timelines by creating and adding users to lists. (More on this in Chapter Six, coming soon).
  • The ability to filter out unwanted content. (Also discussed in chapter Six.)

With So Many Similarities, Why Not Just Stay on Twitter?

Let me take this opportunity to tell you that I have no special reason for you to leave Twitter if you’re happy there. I mean, we’re in Chapter Two of this guide, clearly there is more to come, and if you’re still reading up to this point, it’s because you’ve already made the decision to at least consider having a presence on Mastodon. With that said, there are plenty of differences between the two services, but we need to take a look at a few concepts before we can discuss them. This is a lot like how when you got your first email address, you probably read the documentation of something like Gmail before you decided to switch providers, or at least that you needed a second email address.

The Argument I Refuse to Make

The most common argument I hear for using mastodon is something to the tune of everybody is so friendly on Mastodon. I’ve never had a bad experience on Mastodon, but the fact of the matter is Mastodon is a place for people, and people have the capacity to be hostile regardless of the platform. The most infamous example of this is the situation concerning Wil Wheaton from last summer, followed immediately by many users’ decision to block one Instance when they found out it was admined by someone who had done work for the FBI. In both cases, people had their own reasons for behaving the way they did, but it was still aggressive behavior. If you’re going to be online, if you’re going to interact with people, there’s a chance you may experience some form of hostility.

Don’t Let Me Scare You off

If you’ve come this far, don’t let me scare you off. If you choose your instance carefully, you can minimize the chance for hostile encounters. As you’ll see in the next section, it’s a lot like picking a neighborhood to live in.

Instances

Before you can find out what an instance is, you need to know how Mastodon works. With a service like Facebook or Twitter, you and I, the users, sign up for an account, managed by one central server, accessed when we open our browser and log on to something like twitter.com. To find a user, you put a slash after the web address, so if you wanted to find me on Twitter, you’d go to twitter.com/changelingmx. From there, you can click the follow button, and if I can verify that you aren’t a porn bot, won’t clog my timeline with Bible quotes, etc., I’ll probably follow you back, and we’re connected. We’re interacting within one ecosystem. This is just fine until the ecosystem dies (looking at you, Google+!), in which case we all die, digitally speaking.

As explained on joinmastodon.org, rather than being one website, the Mastodon network is a collection of websites powered by the mastodon software, which enables them to interact with each other. Each of these websites is called an instance.

You pick your instance the way you choose your email address. In fact, my Mastodon address looks like ChangelingRandy@mastodon.social. If you’re reading this on an iPhone and click that link, you’ll actually launch the device’s Mail client. If you want to find me once you join your chosen instance, click here, or see the H-Card widget in the sidebar of any starshipchangeling.net page, which has every link for every service i actively use. If you don’t want to see all of my Mastodon interactions, but want to follow this blog, you can follow it via Mastodon by typing “changelingmx@www.starshipchangeling.net”, minus the quotations. All of these websites together form the fedeverse, or, as Mastodon calls itself, a decentralized, federated social network. This detail becomes particularly important starting in Chapter Four. For now, what you need to take away is that instances can interact with each other, meaning that some on mastodon.cloud can follow me on mastodon.social. It’s also important to understand that instances can block each other, which happens from time to time since anybody can run a Mastodon instance, regardless of whether or not their opinion is a popular one.

How Do I choose My Instance?

To paraphrase a passage from Ernest Cline’s Armada, this is an objective, rather than a subjective task, so there is no right way to do it. It’s not uncommon for someone to join an instance, realize it’s not a good fit, and change instances. You may go through that process, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Here are some suggestions to guide you.

Choose Based on Interest

Anybody can run a Mastodon instance. This means if you can think of it, there’s probably a community for it. The “Getting Started” section of joinmastodon.org has a form you can fill out to get server suggestions. Parameters include everything from what language you speak, to your hobbies.

Choose Based on How You Feel About Rules

Since anybody can run a Mastodon instance, the code of conduct from instance to instance varies. Theoretically, I could start an instance that requires users to be able to quote every line from Disney’s “Aladdin” upon request. Realistically I’d be the only member of that instance. Seriously, though, pay close attention to the rules of the instance. Each instance has them. Here is the code of conduct for mastodon.social. Please believe me when I tell you that these rules are usually strictly enforced.

Considerations for Screen Reader Users

The following is a list of questions a screen reader user should consider before joining an instance.

  • What version of the Mastodon software does the instance run? Newer versions often have accessibility improvements.
  • Does the instance run beta versions of the mastodon software? If so, make your life easier by considering the following:
    • Have a backup of your data in case you need to leave. (described in Chapter Six).
    • Have a backup account on a stable instance. This will help you troubleshoot any problems you may have by enabling you to distinguish between caused by beta software and bug in a stable release.
  • Do uploaded images appear as links you can click? This will make it easier to download images for further analysis by AI.

Signing Up

If you can fill out a web form, you can sign up for the instance of your choice. Enter your desired username, your email, and your passowrd in the appropriate boxes. Once you’ve confirmed your password, use your screen reader to check the boxes to agree to follow the rules of the instance and privacy policy. Once you submit the infromation and verify your email address, your ready to complete your profile.

Coming Up

In Chapter Three, we’ll be looking at how to complete your profile, as well as send that first post. In the meantime, go ahead and pick your instance and join it, so you will be ready for the next installment.

I’ve come into some unexpected free time this evening, so I’ll probably start drafting that guide to Mastodon for screen reader users I talked about last week. Well, I’ll start drafting the first part, anyway, as putting everything in one post would make it way too long for Internet reading.
I think my best for right now in regard to getting all my content across platforms is to use IFTTT. It seems to require the least amount of struggle for the pay-off.
As a blind person who is a long-time tech user, I can tell you that the software and special equipment I need to be independent is an investment. Sure, I’m saved the expense of a car, auto insurance, and the cost of maintenance and licensing fees, but these costs get replaced with the costs of my screen reader and refreshable braille display. Until recently, a screen reader cost just about as much as the computer I wanted to access, and I had to but upgrades every so often to make sure I could keep accessing new versions of mainstream applications.

With many operating systems including built-in screen readers, it has become more affordable to obtain acccess to computers, so long as you’re the kind of user who can get buy on text-to-speech feedback for the contents displayed on a computer screen. I am not this kind of user, and the cost of a refreshable braille display remains high. The SmartBeetle, the kind of display I owned until recently sold for $1,345, and that was one of the cheapest units, and it now sells for $995. In other words, readers, it’s an investment. Unlike a screen reader that only provides spoken versions of visual elements, the braille display gives me tangible rendenrings of things on the screen. I relied on it to let me check the spelling of people’s names and email addresses, to proofread documents, to privately read communications from friends, family, and coworkers, and engage in other activities where it would not be beneficial to have the contents of my screen spoken. With that said, when a piece of equipment that carries such a huge workload breaks, problems will be had.

Six months ago, the SmartBeetle broke. Specifically, it stopped allowing me to connect to devices via bluetooth, which is essential to it’s functioning. If this were a device that is used by the majority of the population, getting in touch with the company’s technical support team would yield a timely response, and it would not be okay for such communications to go unanswered. But braille displays are not used by a majority of the population, and the SmartBeetle which is manufactured by HIMS Inc. is no exception, and this apparently gives HIMS Inc. the license to have a lax standard of support team responsiveness. I sent several emails, made several phone calls, all of which detailed my problem and got no response.

When I finally did get a response, the first thing that happned was I had to go through all the troubleshooting steps listed in the user guide with the customer service person. This is annoying but standard no matter what, and so I cooperated. The yielded the response that the manufacturer in Korea would need to be contacted to find out what to do. In a company that sells popular devices like computers, I would have been given a support ticket, and this would have allowed me to track the progress of my support request. It also would have, when I reached out, given the next support agent a frame of reference. None of these things happened, there was no follow up from the support department, and I sent several more emails and made more phone calls and left messages that got no response. Meanwhile, all of the activities I described abovee are lessened in quality for me.

Just before this passed thanksgiving, I finally got in touch with a support agent, and it was determined that the bluetooth board had gone out and would need to be replaced. The cost of thee replacement part was $170. Just as a point of reference, you can buy a fairly kickass set of bluetooth headphones for that price. So for the entire repair process, I had to apy $20 to ship the SmartBeetle to the company for repairs, $170 for the bluetooth board, $85 for an hour’s labor, $20 to ship the device back, and $20 to rescue the device from a UPS center when they couldn’t deliver the package to me at my house. This totals $315 for repairs, about a quarter of the original price of $1,345, or a third of the current $995 price for a new SmartBeetle.

Two weeks later, one of the cells in the device stopped functioning. This is kind of like what happens when some of the pixels in your TV screen go out. This time the cost of replacement parts would be $780, and that excludes any labor, shipping, and transportation costs involved. When I told the support agent I had just sent the device in for repairs and paid ovr $300, the response I got was, “Bumber.” It turns out, there is a 90-day warranty, but it only covers the part ttthat was replaced. This means I’m now putting more than the cost of the original unit into fixing thee unit. To any of you car owners, this means the device has been effectively totaled. When I pointed this out, I was encouraged to buy a new unit because it was the better deal, and never mind that this is damage that could have been caused during he repair and shipping process.

If this were an iPhone and if I had gottena customer experience of a quality that compares to Apple, it would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I have six months of no response, ball-dropping, and a company that seems to feel it’s okay to charge more repairs than a replacement unit. The worst part is HIMS Inc. and companies like it have gotten so used to people having to put up with their antics that they don’t even care that I’m less than pleased with them. I’m posting my experience on all of their dealers’ sites, I’ve hit their Facebook page, will probably be targeting their Google Maps page if the have one, and the only result is catharsis for me. HIMS and companies like need to be taken down a notch. They cannot continue to treat people like this. Even if a limited market means a higher price for products, that doesn’t mean you can treat your customers like total shit.

In this case, I found a replacement device for $449 from a company that supports its products. It’s still more money than I wanted to spend, but it’s better than giving these losers any more money. In short, reader, don’t buy a SmartBeeeetle, don’t by from HIMS Inc. The product doesn’t last, and the customer support is lousy.

Yesterday, Instagram announced two new features it was adding to make the platform more accessible to visually impaired users. First, newly uploaded photos would have automatically generated alt (descriptive) text added to them. This feature is powered by the same technology that Facebook added to its platform a few years ago, which attempts to determine and name the objects in posted photos, and make those results available to screen readers so users of the software can benefit from the description. These days, that technology has advanced enough so that a lot of the memes people post and share on both of these platforms can be enjoyed by visually impaired users.

Second, users of Instagram have the option to add alt text to photos they post, potentially providing a more detailed description for their visually impaired followers. This is similar to the way Twitter and Mastodon have decided to handle making images accessible. While this is a huge step forward for the platform, and while I had lots of fun testing the feature on my own Instagram account, there are a couple things that need to be worked out before I adopt it as my main outlet for nurturing my interest in photography.

Complicated Execution

The process for adding custom alt text to photos when you post them on Instagram is somewhat complicated. In addition to the normal steps for posting a photo such as adding filters and captions, you actually have to click the advanced settings at the bottom of the posting screen, add the alt text, then share the photo. To be fair, this is still easier than Twitter’s execution, which requires you to go into the accessibility section of your Twitter settings and enable the option to add alt text before it even becomes available in the tweet posting box. Mastodon offers the option to add a description to photos right out of the box, and that makes it the best, but all three of these platforms are handling the ability to add custom descriptions better than Facebook. Facebook does allow custom alt text to be added to photos. At the time of this writing, this help article explains that this is only possible from a computer. After expressing my displeasure about this, on the Facebook accessibility home page, I arcvd a response that the vthe version of the iOS app released today does allow the editing of alt text, though in an extremely complicated way.

Alt Text Does Not Transfer

My interest in photography is a growing thing, and I want to share the experience with as many people on as many platforms as possible, and I want to make sure it’s an accessible experience. When I found out that Facebook wouldn’t let me edit the alt text of photos, I thought: Hmm. Instagram lets you cross-post to a number of services, including Facebook. I bet if I add the alt text on Instagram and cross-post to Facebook, that’ll solve the problem.

Unfortunately, no. When I went to my Facebook timeline and looked at the photos, I either got the message that no alt text was available, or the automatically generated stuff that Facebook’s been putting out for a few years now. The alt text was also not posted to Twitter. One possible work-around is to configure an IFTTT applet that posts Instagram photos as native Twitter photos, but I haven’t tested this yet. It’s worth noting that if you cross-post from Twitter to Mastodon, the alt text is transferred 98% of the time.

Conclusion

Instagram’s support for automatic alt text and its giving users the ability to add custom alt text to photos is a huge step for accessibility. However, as a blind person who is posting more photos and wants to make sure their posts are accessible on all platforms, the experience is missing a couple of key features I need for it to become my main platform for sharing my experience as I develop my interest in photography. Right now, I’m separately posting to each network, and adding descriptions in the main post section of Facebook. There’s more effort involved, but the end result, to me, is worth the extra energy.

We’ve all been in the position of looking up how to do something with one of our electronics on the Internet. These days, it seems that many search results have the word “hack” in them, as in “Five Amazon Echo Hacks You Didn’t Know About”. I remember a time when a title like that meant you’d be clicking a link to a set of directions to make your device do something the manufacturer hadn’t intended, and may even frown upon. Now, it’s just a way to get people to click on rehashing of the directions that come with the equipment. In other words, these aren’t hacks. The manufactured wanted you to use these features. If anything, they’re lesser known features. Calling an documented feature a hack is like calling mayonnaise a secret sauce when you slap it on a ham sandwich. It doesn’t change anything, and it makes you look pretentious in the bargain.