6 Reasons Why Automatic Captions Are a Big Problem

Would you publish an article on your website if it has typos and other errors?

Well, then. Would you publish captions on your website if it has typos and other errors?

That’s what automatic captions are and why I call them autocraptions. Automatic captions are like a person or synthesized voice speaking flatly without inflection or expression.

Captions are a video’s article. Like an article filled with mistakes, autocraptions affect a company’s reputation and brand.

Watching Videos with Automatic Captions

You’ve probably seen all kinds of examples of paragraphs with mixed-up letters or written backward. And people who don’t have reading disabilities may be able to read them with ease. Here’s an example of one. (Apparently, this research never happened. But nonetheless, it makes a good example.)

Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Or perhaps something like this from Live Science:

S1M1L4RLY, Y0UR M1ND 15 R34D1NG 7H15 4U70M471C4LLY W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.

So, wouldn’t it be the same for automatic captions? Definitely not. This is what it’s like for caption-dependent viewers watching autocraptioned videos.

Conversation happens quickly. It only takes one wrong word … one wrong letter in a caption to confuse the viewer.

Before the caption viewer can decipher the wrong captions, the captions will move on to the next lines. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

One wrong word. One wrong letter. It sounds super simple to figure out. But it’s not. Here are five reasons why automatic captions are a big problem.

There are four images that are screenshots of an exchange between two Star Wars characters, Anakin and Padmé. In the first, Anakin is saying, “I’ve added subtitles to make my content accessible.” In the second, Padmé is saying “But not automatically generated ones, right?” In the third, Anakin is not speaking, but has a facial expression that suggests he has added automated subtitles. In the fourth, Padmé is saying “But not or tomato call he gem her eight it ones, write?”
Credit: @philosophequeer

1. Automatic Captions Don’t Make Sense

Try watching any automatic captioned video on YouTube. Its automatic captions often don’t have capitalization or punctuation. We all know commas save lives! I’m sure y’all have seen this:

Let’s eat Grandma. [Ack!]

Let’s eat, Grandma. [That’s more like it.]

Missing capitalization and punctuation make it hard to decode the captions. Two speakers’ lines often blend together. Again, the captions will display the next line before you’ve had a chance to read and decrypt it.

And you may learn from some deaf people who say autocraptions are better than nothing. Be aware there are deaf people who can listen without lipreading. Here’s a true story. In talking with a deaf person who has dual cochlear implants, he said automatic captions are fine. They work.

Then, he shares how he joined Clubhouse, the audio-only social network. I asked him what tools he used to autocaption Clubhouse. It turns out he didn’t need an app because he could follow with his implants. That means he can fill in the gaps from autocraptions. People like me who rely can’t on hearing devices alone to listen can’t fill in the gaps. Verbal dialog is too fast.

Here’s a photo of the captions seen on TV during The Weeknd’s Superbowl 55 Halftime Show.

Football field filled with dancers and captions show "No, I can't sleep until I feach our touch."
Football field filled with dancers and captions show “No, I can’t sleep until I feach our touch” from The Weeknd’s “Blinding Light.”

This captioned song lyric has one wrong word and one wrong letter. The correct lyric is: “No, I can’t sleep until I feel your touch.”

How about this one from one of my videos. Can you begin to fathom what I’m saying?

Still of Meryl's talking head video with captions: "That is the culling and Captain America Videos."
Still of Meryl’s talking head video with captions: “That is the culling and Captain America Videos.”

I know I have an accent, but this is ridiculous. The correct line is: “Thanks for coming and captioning your videos.” How Captain America snuck in there, I’ll never know.

2. Automatic Captions Are Embarrassing

You’ve probably seen some embarrassing screenshots of bad captions. The Daily Mail displays one from a New Zealand talk show that showed up all over Twitter. Hilary Barry, the TV host speaking the line, retweeted the picture and wrote: “SALMON! I LOVE SALMON!”

That speaks volumes! Autocraptions may be good for a few laughs. But it’s not funny when you’re trying to watch the video. Barry’s tweet gives me the impression she felt horrified seeing that photo. If it were me, I would feel this way even though I know I didn’t say it. And most people knew she didn’t say the craptioned word.

I love “Field of Dreams” and will never forget actor James Earl Jones’ powerful lines he delivered as Terrence Mann:

“Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

What do autocraptions do? Combined the two lines. Without capitalization and punctuation, the power is gone:

“people will come ray people most definitely come ray.”

3. Automatic Captions Give Wrong Information

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative’s “Captions/Subtitles” page posts an example of how bad information can be dangerous.

Embers glow wood
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Audio: “Broil on high for 4 to 5 minutes. You should not preheat the oven.”

Automatic captions: “Broil on high for 45 minutes. You should know to preheat the oven.”

The directions between the audio and the automatic captions are nothing alike. The audio says not to preheat the oven and broil for a few minutes. The automatic captions add a preheat and 40 minutes to cooking. That’s going to be one charred item!

“Automatically-generated captions do not meet user needs or accessibility requirements, unless they are confirmed to be fully accurate. Usually they need significant editing,” W3C WAI writes.

For those who may not know, the W3C WAI develops standards and support materials to help people implement accessibility.

Furthermore, National Deaf Center for Postsecondary Outcomes says automatic captions don’t provide equitable access for students.

4. Automatic Captions Hurt Your Brand

When I see autocraptions, it tells me that caption viewers and I don’t matter. We’re not worth the effort to put out high-quality captions.

Accessibility supporters are passionate. They speak loudly and boycott brands. Someone gave a presentation at an accessibility conference. The presentation had a photo of a company with a bad reputation in the accessibility world. That’s because people sued them for lack of accessibility. And the company’s response aggravated the situation.

In this presentation, the presenter used the company as a good example. Several people immediately sent me a message along the lines of “How dare he mention this company in a good light?” After all, it was an accessibility conference. Not only did accessibility supporters dislike the mention of the company, but also the company’s reputation hurt the speaker.

A deaf friend decided to take a course with automatic captions. She had to search online for some things they’ve said because the captions don’t clarify it. Having to do this search has made the experience draining.

Automatic captioning courses will cause a lot of frustration as captions will often get vocabulary wrong. Personally, I’d skip the autocraptioned courses and go find captioned ones or those without video and audio.

5. Automatic Captions Cause Viewers to Stop Watching

Some deaf people say autocraptions are NOT better than nothing.

Some deaf people say automatic captions ARE better than nothing.

Unlike people with hearing, deaf people have nothing to fall back on. All they have is the captions.

Personally, I’d rather see no captions than watch automatic captions. Sure, I’m disappointed there aren’t captions. With no autocraptions, I avoid the painful experience of its notoriously bad captions. Disappointment is small and brief.

Automatic captions use up my time and energy while watching the video. As soon as I discover the captions are automated, it aggravates me. Aggravation is worse than a little disappointment.

If I must know what the video says, I have plenty of transcription tools I can use that work just as well or better than automatic captions. Granted, not everyone knows about these captioning tools for video.

Some who say automatic captions ARE better than nothing. Part of the stems from us being used to having lesser than and taking whatever we can get.

My friend Juana Poareo shares her story.

Imagine you’re a deaf person in a virtual room of hearing people. You’re in a weekly training session via Zoom.

You’ve told the trainer you’re deaf and require live captioning for Zoom sessions.
(You told them this PRIOR to signing up for training.)

The trainer uses automatic captions on the weekly trainings. For two months, the trainer has the captioning enabled every week, without a hitch.

Then the live captioning stops. You’re confused. Befuddled. You remind the trainer in public and private chat to enable the captions.

One time could be a technical problem. But that’s not what happened. The following sessions had no captions.

You’re left in the dark, infuriated and resigned at the same time.

You feel like a BURDEN.

Even though accessibility is a human right, some of us can’t help but feel like a burden and don’t bother. After reading Juana’s story, you can bet I won’t recommend that trainer. If people ask about the trainer, I’ll share this story.

Juana and the other deaf person’s stories are all too common. I’ve experienced my share.

Companies don’t want to make people feel like a burden. When they do, that feeling sticks with them for a long time. Again, it reflects on the business. Instead of speaking up, we quit watching and go find another business to support.

6. Automatic Captions Are Not Equitable

If all this doesn’t convince you, maybe an accessibility lawyer will. In Two accessibility lawyers walk into a festival. Where are the captions? video, Haben Girma reminds us that Harvard and MIT got sued for the lack of captions. They both argued they had captions, referring to the automatic captions. Both settled the lawsuit and agreed to accurately caption their videos.

“Auto-captioning is not equal,” Girma says. “Auto-captioning is not equivalent to accurate, professional captions.”

What Can You Do About Automatic Captions?

Accessibility is a human right. It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s not something you can do when you get around to it. (Never happens.) Besides, the deaf and hard of hearing are not the only ones using captions. Verizon Media says 80 percent of those who use captions are NOT deaf or hard of hearing.

Accessibility features are no longer used by the one disability associated with it. People who are blind or have low vision are not the only ones who use screen readers. People with dyslexia, processing disorders, and other differences use them too.

Many people tell me they use captions. They’re not deaf. They’re not hard of hearing. In fact, they tell me they don’t have a disability. It helps them focus. It lets them watch the video with the sound off. It clarifies what the speakers say.

You can use automatic captions as a starting point. Then edit them. This has gotten easier with the many captioning tools available. You may have to try a few to find the right one for you.

Probably the most common question people asked me: “What’s the best software for captions?

You’ll hate my answer: It depends. Maybe you want to make videos on your phone. A web-based app isn’t going to be the right one for you. Or maybe you create long videos. A mobile app isn’t going to be right for you.

You may already use software that has captioning built-in. Do you use a transcription app for taking notes? Is it fairly accurate for you? Use that to caption your videos. Here’s how it works:

  1. Create your video.
  2. Open your transcription app.
  3. Play the video for the transcription tool.
  4. Upload the video to YouTube.
  5. Copy and paste the transcription into YouTube’s subtitles tool.
  6. Let YouTube assign the timings.

YouTube does a decent job with the timings when the audio quality is good.

Here’s another option to find the right software for you. Make a short video clip. Test it with different apps until you narrow it down. Create a longer video and see how it does with the finalists.

Add Captions to Your Marketing Budget

Captioning recorded videos is easier and cheaper than ever. The most challenging to caption is live video. The cost between automatic captions via automatic speech recognition (ASR) and live captions with humans is notable.

Marketing is responsible for articles and other content including videos. Captions absolutely can be part of content marketing strategy and its budget. Use that budget to ensure you produce high-quality captions.

It may be tax-deductible. Note that I’m not an accountant or a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. Think of captions as an investment into good business.

There are many live captioning services. Shop around. Ask about package deals if you need to use them regularly. Or find a sponsor for your live event.

Don’t focus on the minimum legal requirements for accessibility. If people can’t watch your poorly captioned videos, they have plenty of other high-quality captioned videos they can find to watch instead.

Occasionally, I need the content from a specific video. If it has no captions, I’ll use a transcription tool like those covered in captioning tools for video calls.

If the video has automatic captions, I’ll try watching it. However, most of the time, I end up having to ask someone to help me. Doing that makes me feel like a child. I associate that bad feeling with the company.

The social model of disability states that people aren’t disabled. Rather, it’s bad design that disables people. Accessibility supporters have long memories when it comes to inaccessibility.

Automatic captions make a good starting point for captioning videos. Don’t stop there. Don’t let your company’s autocraptions turn into a meme. The best way to ensure your brand doesn’t fall victim to autocraptions is to edit your captions and follow guidelines to create great captioned videos.

So, would you publish an article on your website if it has typos and other errors?

Well, then. Would you publish captions on your website if it has typos and other errors?

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