YouTube’s recent decision to remove the community captions feature has received a lot of flak from the deaf community.
YouTube stands by its choice, claiming that this will actually generate more captions, not less. Here’s what we know about YouTube’s community captions and how this decision will affect the deaf community.
What are YouTube Community Captions?
YouTube currently offers three ways to add captions to videos: manual captions uploaded by the creator, YouTube automatic captions, and captions provided by the community. YouTube community captions allow viewers to contribute captions or even translate a video into other languages.
In late April, the YouTube channel Creator Insider aired an episode entitled, “Special Sneak Peek: The Future of Community Captions?” Project manager James Dillard said the community captions feature was rarely used, with less than 0.0001 percent of channels having published community captions in the last month. In other words, less than 0.2 percent of watch time utilized community captions.
Not only that, but creators and viewers have reported problems with this feature, including spam, abuse, and low-quality submissions.
In the video, Dillard mentioned the “pretty significant costs to keeping it,” and a responsibility to make sure they’re investing in the places that will have the most return. He emphasized that the company was still working on captions to ensure the most accessible platform possible.
Feedback from the deaf community
As of publication, the video had 907 comments. One of them is from Amanda Hensley, an educational interpreter in North Carolina.
“We rely heavily upon the community captioning feature during this time of virtual learning for our Deaf students,” Hensley wrote in her comment. “Oftentimes the auto-generated ones are wrong. It is so helpful to have a team of educators to help caption the videos we are making for the Deaf students in our country. If you take away the community captioning feature, we will not be able to provide equal access to the Deaf population.”
“We rely heavily upon the community captioning feature during this time of virtual learning for our Deaf students.”
Deaf YouTuber Rikki Poynter released a video on May 2 titled “YouTube Wants to Get Rid of Captions.” She calls community captions “a really good way to get captions into videos to creators that would never even want to invest in the first place.” They’re also helpful for channels who want to invest but don’t have the money or ability to type the captions themselves.
Poynter calls out YouTube for saying they asked the creators about this feature when they apparently didn’t ask any disabled creators. She adds that the reason people haven’t used the community captions feature is because it not that visible, and people don’t really know how to use it.
There is a petition calling on YouTube to reverse the decision. As of August 3, 322,037 people had signed.
Despite all the negative feedback, YouTube is going ahead with their decision, which will be effective September 28. As YouTube emphasizes, no other captioning tools are going away. Creators will still be able to add their own captions and subtitles, or use YouTube’s built-in automatic captioning feature.
One result of the feedback is that YouTube will be covering the cost of a six-month subscription of Amara.org for all creators who have used the Community Contribution feature for at least three videos in the last 60 days. Eligible creators will be notified through email in the coming weeks.
In a new video, which aired on July 31, Creator Insider addresses the decision. YouTube has new systems and infrastructure. Products were lagging on the old system, like community captions. The company had to decide whether it was worth spending the significant amount of engineering effort to move it over. The feedback caused them to look at third party solutions to bridge the gap from where they are today to what’s planned in the future.
Dillard says he’s working on a new captions editor. If it can be easier to upload captions, there will be more captions. One of the biggest things creators say is how time-consuming it is to add captions. The editor that’s being used today is a little old, so it’s being reimagined with a focus on efficiency. It’ll integrate with automatic captions, which will allow for tweaks here and there instead of having to start from scratch.
YouTube would like to add a permissions role and access level that only allows someone to edit captions or translated tracks. This way, creators will have more control.
One thing Dillard is really excited about is that the new captions editor will integrate with the upload flow. Accessibility will be part of getting a video ready for YouTube, along with adding a title, description, and other features.
At the end of the six months, if YouTube doesn’t have any of these new features in place yet, there’s potential to make the Amara subscription longer. They’ll reevaluate when it gets closer to that point. Dillard points out that YouTube isn’t making money with this Amara deal. They’re paying for Amara’s software to be available to creators using the community caption feature.
As said in the video, “The goal is to make sure there’s more captions on YouTube, not less.”
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.
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