Across Reddit, often buried inside the comments section, you’ll find elaborate descriptions of image posts and videos, social media screenshots and memes.
In one post on the subreddit r/hmmm, a user comments with a description of an image of a man with a chopping board attached to his back (“Attached to the cutting board with zip ties are a piece of meat, one piece of sausage, one loaf of bread, a knife, disposable cups, and a glass bottle of transparent liquid.”).
In r/CasualUK, another person comments with a description of someone’s attempt at a soft boiled egg (“There are eight strips of pale buttered toast artfully arranged around the eggs”). In r/DnDGreentext, one user spends hours transcribing 82,000 characters of text from screenshots of a Dungeons and Dragons roleplay game.
Below each of these comments are the words “I’m a human volunteer content transcriber for Reddit and you could be too.”
These volunteers are from a little subreddit called r/TranscribersOfReddit, who voluntarily type out extremely detailed descriptions of various content so that visually impaired people can access it. The band of noble souls have the goal of making Reddit, and the internet as a whole, a more accessible place. If you travel to one of r/TranscribersOfReddit’s 72 partner subreddits, like r/thatHappened or r/me_irl, there’s a chance you could stumble upon one of the group’s elaborate transcriptions.
“It’s always very nice to volunteer for Transcribers of Reddit, because while it’s easy for me to do, it helps a lot of people,” says Jake, a 17-year-old student from the US, who’s one of the subreddit’s earliest transcribers. “I’ve transcribed quite a few videos in the r/Blind community. They take a bit of time, but in the end it’s always nothing but positive replies.”
Back in 2017, Jake made a 900-word description of a YouTube video posted to r/Blind, describing extremely complicated footage of a tactile optical illusion, just so visually impaired people could understand it. “This video really did need the description. So, thanks so much,” a Reddit user said in reply.
Since the subreddit launched three years ago, r/TranscribersOfReddit’s 3,186 volunteer transcribers have completed almost 100,000 transcriptions and descriptions of content across the site. Volunteers hail from all nine continents, including far-flung bases in Antarctica. The subreddit, however, didn’t initially begin with accessibility in mind. Joe Kaufeld and James Coe, two guys who met on Reddit by chance after they spotted each other both transcribing Reddit content, started the subreddit because they simply enjoyed typing.
Kaufeld, a 29-year-old teacher, who was a programmer at the time, explains that he had a “really crappy phone” that couldn’t blow up screenshots of text to a readable size. So, in 2014, he decided to just sit down and type out everything he could find. “I thought that eventually, someone who wasn’t me would probably have some kind of use for it,” he says. “Before we actually formed everything, I started to hear that this was really helpful to all sorts of people. Way more than I originally imagined.”
There were 30 volunteers by the end of the day when the subreddit first launched on April 1, 2017, and 100 volunteers by the end of the month. “It took off,” Kaufeld says. On the day the subreddit was created, the lead moderator of the r/Blind subreddit reached out to Kaufeld to tell him the impact r/TranscribersOfReddit could make to visually impaired people’s lives.
It wasn’t until then that Kaufeld realised what he’d just created. “He sat us down and explained that the kinds of things that we were just doing to pass the time, actually meant things to people who didn’t have access to the same kinds of content that we did, the same ability to join in a conversation,” he recalls. “That actually kind of set the tone for everything that we did moving forward.”
There are three subreddits which make up r/TranscribersOfReddit. The r/TranscribersOfReddit subreddit acts as a job board for the volunteers, where a bot links to all the image or video-related content that gets posted to the subreddit’s 72 partner subreddits. If a volunteer feels they want to transcribe it, they claim the post by commenting underneath.
Once the transcription has been completed, and the volunteer has placed the transcription in the comment section of the media post, it gets cross-posted to r/ToR_Archive. The archive provides visually impaired users with a place to go, one where they know that there will always be accessible content available. Then there’s r/DescriptionPlease, a subreddit for people to request help from volunteers in describing any content they like. Kaufeld remembers typing up hundreds of words about the cover of the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban illustrated edition when it first came out.
Every volunteer on r/TranscribersOfReddit has a different reason for joining the community. Take 22-year-old Rebekah Ginsburg who currently works for a non-profit in the US, and is also one of the subreddit’s volunteer staff members. She says that her initial interest in becoming a transcriber was because she was passionate about accessibility. “I’m not visually impaired, but I’m physically disabled,” she says. “And being a part of some kind of movement towards accessibility was really meaningful for me. I felt like I could give back to members of my community.”
Another volunteer from Australia had lost her job and was going through a depressive episode, Kaufeld says. “For about a year – every day – she would just sit in her spare time and volunteer with us because it was something that she could do from the comfort of her own home,” he remembers. “Now I’m happy to say she’s better. She doesn’t volunteer with us anymore because for her, her motivation was that she needed to get better, and she did.”
Jodie, a 23-year-old student from Scotland, joined the subreddit in 2018 after spotting a fellow transcriber post a description on a Reddit post. She says she had a similar reason for joining the group after being signed off from work for a long time. “I genuinely just needed something to kind of fill the days, and that is exactly what I did with it,” she recollects. “I just thought it was an interesting, weird little community on Reddit and I wanted to be part of it. Everybody was so nice and welcoming”.
And the job itself sometimes requires a lot of background knowledge in order to write an accurate transcription that visually impaired people can rely on, a transcription that allows them to join in on the conversation. The r/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns subreddit, for example, has memes that no one else would understand unless they’re a part of the community. (The subreddit describes itself as: “Trans people making fun of themselves, others, and the situations they find themselves in with memes, gifs, and videos”). The transcribers have to take that into account. “You have to get familiar with the sort of mood of that subreddit, and I think that’s a really interesting and unique challenge,” Jodie adds.
As a community, the group is only able to transcribe around two per cent of the content posted on the r/TranscribersOfReddit job board. That might sound low, but it means that the two r/TranscribersOfReddit bots consistently rank in the top 20 Reddit accounts in terms of comments and submissions per second, so it’s not feasible for all of r/TranscribersOfReddit’s volunteers to describe everything. And this is still only a tiny fraction of all the content posted to Reddit.
Jodie says that she thinks everyone should be able to access entertainment, and Reddit provides a place for that kind of internet entertainment. “Just because somebody isn’t able to see or isn’t able to hear, they should still be able to access just random internet nonsense.”
Usually, r/TranscribersOfReddit makes requests to partner with other subreddits because it doesn’t want to send transcribers into a place when they aren’t wanted there. As Ginsburg says, they want to be “good neighbours”.
The trickier part is when the subreddits aren’t onboard. Transcribers have sometimes faced a small amount of hostility from Reddit users they say – some subreddits have turned r/TranscribersOfReddit’s request for partnership down, because they fear the transcriptions will clutter up the subreddit, or it will increase the moderators’ workload, or they just don’t see the benefit. Ginsburg stresses that if the moderators don’t want them, then it’s likely that the community won’t want them either. “And we don’t want our transcribers to be on the receiving end of that,” she adds.
Kaufeld says that one day, he hopes to expand out into the rest of the internet. The subreddit officially registered to become a not-for-profit back in late 2018 under the name Grafeas Group, the Greek word for scribe. At the end of the day, Kaufeld says that the volunteers on r/TranscribersOfReddit are just people doing this in their spare time for a good cause. “All you have to do is sit at your computer for a little bit and you can help make the world a better place,” he points out. “How can you say no to that?”
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Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL