Yesterday, Instagram announced that users could now add alt text and image descriptions to their posts, or have alt text automatically generated for them. While there are many great examples of how to write alt text and image descriptions for personal and product posts, there aren’t very many resources that exist for how to write alt text for memes or funny pictures in general. So today, I will be sharing my tips as a vision impaired user for how to write alt text for memes on Instagram.
This post is broken up into four sections:
- The first section is a basic introduction to assistive technology terms that I’ll be using throughout the post.
- The second section is a style guide for how to write alt text and image descriptions for memes.
- The third section is additional guidelines for how to write alt text for specific types of memes
- The fourth section is how to add alt text and image descriptions to your posts.
This post was adapted from another post I wrote about how to write alt text and image descriptions for Instagram, which is primarily for describing personal photos and business posts. Read more about how to write alt text for Instagram here.
What is alt text?
Alt text tells people what is in an image, such as text or basic essential details. If an image fails to load, alt text will display in its place. Search engines also index alt text information and consider it a factor when determining search engine ratings. This is a short description, usually only 1-2 sentences.
For a photo based app like Instagram, alt text can be written with more detail compared to alt text that is written for an image on a blog, since the picture is the main focus of the post. It is strongly recommended that alt text be 125 characters or less to ensure compatibility for popular screen readers, as well as making sure a user doesn’t get bored from listening to a long alt text message, but this is not a strict limit.
What is an image description?
An image description gives more details than alt text and allows someone to learn more about what is in an image that goes beyond alt text. Alt text gives the user the most important information while image descriptions provide further detail. For example, alt text tells someone that there’s a puddle on the floor, and image description tells someone that the puddle on the floor is in the middle of the floor and it’s orange juice.
Users may choose to add detailed descriptions as the default alt text, or may add descriptions to the end of a caption so people can get more details if they want. Image descriptions can be longer than traditional alt text, but I recommend keeping them the length of a tweet, or about 280 characters.
What is a screen reader?
A screen reader, sometimes referred to as text-to-speech, is a form of assistive technology that allows people with vision impairments such as blindness and low vision to read digital information. Screen readers are built in to almost every smartphone currently on the market so that users can read text messages, make phone calls, interact with apps, and much more. When it comes to mobile users, a majority of blind and low vision users use VoiceOver on their iOS devices- read more about VoiceOver here.
What can screen readers read?
Screen readers can read almost anything that is displayed on a screen. Examples include:
- Text (in any form)- read more about texting with vision impairment here
- Pictures and graphs with alt text
- Emoji- read more about Emoji here
- Keyboards- read more about keyboards and vision impairment here
What can screen readers not read?
As you can tell, screen readers can do a lot of things, but it can’t do everything. Here are some examples of what they can’t read:
- Videos (though audio description does exist- read more about audio description here)
- Pictures or graphs without alt text or image descriptions
- Certain apps that are image-based
- Text in a photo without alt text
Screen readers need a little bit of help in order to be able to read information, so this is where users come in and write out their own alt text and image descriptions so that the screen reader has something to read.
How to write alt text and image descriptions for memes
First, write out any text that is in the image
A lot of memes I encounter have text written on the top half of the picture that provides context for the bottom half of the picture. So it’s important to write out the text verbatim prior to describing the rest of the image. Don’t worry about describing the font it’s written in unless the font is part of the joke- for example, if it’s a decorative cursive font or brightly colored.
Describe who or what is there
Is it a picture of a dog? Is it a picture of SpongeBob? Is it a picture of a gallon of milk? As a screen reader user, I won’t know unless you tell me. Give a brief description of the subject, but don’t go into a large amount of detail, since most people with vision impairments have visual references for objects and characters. If the subject’s appearance has been altered in some way, make sure to note that, like if the dog is a shiba inu with a bow on its head or if SpongeBob has a blurry background around him.
Explain what the subject is doing
So I now know what the text says and what’s in the picture, but what is it doing? Try to describe what’s happening in a sentence or two. For example, the shiba inu with a bow on its head may be smiling at the camera, or the picture of SpongeBob features him looking around a room cautiously while dressed as a caveman. To help with creating alt text for images, imagine a friend just asked you to describe what’s in the picture and you give them a quick reply.
Don’t be afraid to give away the punchline
When there was a viral meme that involved pictures that have descriptions rhyming with song lyrics, I was highly confused because many descriptions were vague and I had no idea how the image of a pile of fruit could be perceived as funny when connected to something simply labeled “song lyrics.” I later found out the image was a lemon on a pear, rhyming with the caption which had lyrics from the song “Livin’ on a Prayer.” For these types of memes, don’t be afraid to share what the joke is, and don’t expect your viewer to guess for themselves.
How to write alt text for different types of memes
Reaction images are often simple and don’t have a lot of text. Here are some examples of how to write alt text for reaction images:
- Ariana Grande holding a notebook horizontally, with text inside the notebook that says “what does that mean?”
- A seven year old boy making a heart shape with his hands and smiling at the camera
- A teenage boy holding a stop sign still attached to the pole who looks like he’s about to hit the adult man standing in front of him
- A black woman looking surprised and happy as she says the name Beyonce
- Lisa from “The Simpsons” listening to music on her earbuds with a relaxed facial expression and her arms extended outwards
These tend to have mostly text on them, so I recommend only writing out the text and ignoring the decorative images that often exist for no purpose. If there is too much text, write out a transcript in the caption of the post that shares everything that is written.
Niche memes tend to have several images and text overlays in one picture. Here is how to write alt text for niche memes:
- Write the title first, i.e “Here’s what I did at the beach today”
- Describe objects in a logical order, since these posts often follow some sort of story
- For objects with a caption next to them, write the caption first followed by the object, i.e “I collected shells, picture of a conch shell”
- Another option is to write out all of the captions first and then describe the objects on the image. So I would write out “Here’s what I did at the beach today. I collected shells, I went in the water, and I made a sandcastle. Pictures include a conch shell, a picture of the ocean’s surface, and a sandcastle.”
I have an entire post about how to write alt text for comics- read more about writing alt text for digital comics here.
Object labeling memes
Another common meme I’ve seen features text overlayed on top of two objects to convey a message. Here’s some examples of how to write alt text for object labeling memes:
- A samoyed puppy with the words “another one” written on its back bites another samoyed puppy that has the words “the dust” written on its back.
- A man with the word “trees” written on his back rolls a bowling ball that has the phrase “so much pollen” written on it. The bowling ball is traveling towards pins that are labeled “my nose and eyeballs”
Adding alt text and image descriptions to Instagram posts
Should I use automatic alt text?
No, don’t use automatic alt text for a meme. While automatic alt text is awesome, it isn’t always the most accurate when it comes to figuring out what’s actually in a picture. For example, automatic alt text once interpreted a picture of my brother standing outside as being a picture of a car. Automatic alt text also doesn’t recognize text, especially text written in a foreign language, so pictures with memes need to have alt text written manually.
Adding alt text to a new post
Right before you publish a new Instagram post, there is an option under “advanced settings” to compose an alt text description for each individual image. You can type out your alt text here, or copy and paste it from another app.
Adding image descriptions to a new post
If you want to add a longer image description, add an open bracket at the end of your caption, add the phrase “image description:” and then type out/copy and paste whatever you want to add. If you have a slideshow of images, I recommend numbering each description, i.e “the first image has a cat sleeping, the second image shows the cat awake.” Make sure to add a closed bracket at the end!
Adding alt text to an existing post
To add alt text to an existing post, click on the three vertical dots at the top of the post, click “edit”, and then tap the “alt text” option that is directly on top of the photo, next to the “tag people” option. From there, you can add your own alt text and it will be saved to the photo.
Adding image descriptions to an existing post
To add a longer image description to an existing post, click on the three vertical dots at the top of the post, click “edit”, and then edit the caption following the same guidelines from the section “Adding Image Descriptions to a New Post.” Make sure to click the check mark afterwards to save your work.
I always enjoy when my friends send me a funny meme that they found, and I find alt text and image descriptions to be highly helpful so that I don’t miss out on the joke. By learning how to write alt text for memes on Instagram, everyone can have the opportunity to laugh over a funny joke or image.