Twitter started supporting alt text for gifs a few years ago, and one of the first questions I received when the feature debuted was about how to write alt text for gifs and where to find alt text on Twitter. I personally love that alt text for gifs is supported since I have low vision and am sensitive to flashing lights, and was happy to learn that this feature is available not only for people using Twitter in their web browser, but for people using the mobile apps as well. Here are my tips for how to write alt text for gifs and how to add alt text to social media.
What is alt text?
Alt text is a text-based description of visual details in an image written primarily for people who are visually impaired (inclusive of blind/low vision). If an image fails to load on a website, alt text will be displayed in its place, and alt text is also used for search engine optimization. Users with vision loss can access alt text by using one of the following options:
- Screen readers will read alt text out loud when available so that users know there is an image/gif and can get a description of what it looks like
- Another option is to enable read aloud/text-to-speech and have the alt text read by a synthesized voice
- Some platforms support “exposed” alt text, which give users the option to read alt text without having a screen reader or text-to-speech enabled
- Alternatively, creators may include alt text in the caption or comments of their post so that anyone can read it- this is also referred to as an image description.
To learn more about alt text and image descriptions, I’ve linked a more in-depth post on the topic below.
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
- File Formats For Low Vision and Print Disabilities
- How To Create High Resolution Images For Low Vision
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
How to add alt text on social media
Adding alt text to a gif is no different than adding alt text on any other social media, though not all social media websites currently support alt text for gifs. As of publishing time, the only two social media sites I could find that support adding alt text for gifs are Twitter and Tumblr.
Here’s an excerpt from my post “How To Add Alt Text On Social Media” on how to add alt text on Twitter and Tumblr:
Twitter supports alt text up to 1,000 characters, though alt text cannot be added or edited once a picture or gif is posted.
TO ADD ALT TEXT TO TWITTER POSTS:
- Create a new tweet and attach an image or gif
- Select “add description” underneath the image
- Type alt text of your choice
- Select “done” when finished
Tumblr supports alt text up to 200 characters, and alt text cannot be added or edited once a picture or gif is posted.
TO ADD ALT TEXT TO NEW TUMBLR POSTS:
- Create a new post and attach an image
- Select on the three vertical dots in the lower right-hand corner of the post
- Tap the “alt text” option
- Add your own alt text and save it to the photo
- How To Add Alt Text On Social Media
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions For Instagram
- How To Make Your Instagram Feed Accessible For Visual Impairment
Why writing alt text for gifs is unique
There are a couple of things that make writing alt text for gifs different than writing alt text for images or writing text descriptions for videos:
- Gifs typically showcase lots of movement or changing emotions
- Unlike videos, gifs are only a couple of seconds long and typically only have one big thing happening
- There is typically contextual information included in the caption or social media post that alludes to what is in the gif, such as an excited “yay!” accompanied by a gif of someone cheering, as opposed to images which are often posted alone
To learn more about writing video descriptions, read my post on how to write video descriptions for TikTok and other short-form video content linked below.
Things to include when writing alt text for gifs
BASIC DESCRIPTIONS OF PEOPLE/SUBJECTS IN THE VIDEO
- If the subject of the video is the person who posted it, use their name or username. For example, if I posted a video where I am the only subject, I would say “Veronica” (my display name) or “@Veron4ica” (my username)
- When names or other identifying info is not available, I would give a basic description such as “yellow lab”, “happy blonde-haired girl”, “Target employee”, or other contextual info that is important for understanding the video
- For celebrities or people with their own Wikipedia page, I would use their name, e.g. “David Bowie” or “Rose from Doctor Who”
- If I knew who was in the video but they didn’t identify themselves, I would not share this information- for example, if I recognized my brother but he was not otherwise identified, I would not mention his name when adding alt text
TIME AND PLACE
- The setting of a gif can provide important contextual info, such as a backyard at night or a sidewalk. However, if the background provides no contextual info, it’s okay to focus on the subject alone
- For gifs that are scenes from a movie or TV show, mention the name of the movie/TV show and give a basic description, such as “the set of iCarly” or “Monica’s apartment from Friends”
- If the location is not tagged but is a place I recognize (like a nearby coffee shop or shopping mall), I do not mention the location of the video unless it is a landmark like the Statue of Liberty
PROPS OR OTHER ITEMS OF SIGNIFICANCE
- What is the subject holding? Is there an item in the background that the subject is focusing on? I wouldn’t need to know that there is a stop sign in the background of a video where a dog is running around, but I would want to know about the stop sign if the dog interacts with it in some way
- At the beginning of one of my favorite YouTube videos, the camera zooms in on a picture of a calendar marked September 21st, which is a significant date for the context of this video. If someone was creating a description for this video, it would be more valuable if they mentioned the calendar had September 21st circled, instead of just mentioning a calendar on the wall
- All on-screen text should be written out verbatim, similar to captions. Since gifs do not have audio, it helps to include this information
- If emoji show up on screen, those should also be mentioned as well, such as “three cake emoji.” If the emoji are covering something, I recommend mentioning what they are covering, i.e a face
MOVEMENT OR SETTING CHANGES
- Mention when the subject moves, changes their expression, or changes locations. For example, “Veronica leaves the kitchen and runs outside”
- If the subject makes different facial expressions that are relevant to the context of the gif, this should also be noted. For example, “Veronica stops smiling and looks confused as she notices a bird on top of the TV”
Things not to include when writing alt text for gifs
When writing alt text for gifs, avoid including the following information:
- Over-describing appearances or what items look like. People with visual impairments have mental models of lots of different items/animals, so no need to describe what a giraffe is
- Using racist, derogatory, or inappropriate ways to describe people or objects in images. However, if there is any text that has this type of language, write it out verbatim and do not censor it
- Any non-relevant information about what someone looks like. Clothes are typically considered irrelevant information, unless they are a costume or part of the main scene
- Random information that has nothing to do with the gif, such as thoughts about a celebrity or what someone had for lunch
Adding content warnings for gifs
I have a medical condition that can be aggravated by strobe or flashing lights, so I do not have auto-play enabled. When posting gifs on social media, I strongly recommend including a content warning/trigger warning such as “flashing lights”, “flashing”, “strobe lights”, or similar, as I have terms like this muted so I don’t accidentally encounter them. Avoid using terms like “epilepsy” or generic terms like “trigger warning”, as these do not provide specific information and users may not have them muted.
- Tips For Using Social Media With Photosensitivity
- How I Watch Concert Videos Without Strobe Lights
- Using Twitter With Vision Impairment
Summary of how to write alt text for gifs
- Alt text and image descriptions provide information about what is in an image for people who may not otherwise be able to see it
- Twitter supports user-generated alt text up to 1,000 characters in length, though alt text cannot be added or edited once a picture or gif is posted.
- Tumblr supports user-generated alt text up to 200 characters, and alt text cannot be added or edited once a picture or gif is posted.
- Image descriptions can be created by adding brackets at the end of the tweet with the phrase “image description” or “ID:” and writing a short description of what is in the image
- Helpful information to include when writing alt text for gifs can be the name of a celebrity or character, descriptions of people or animals, the background/setting, any emotion or relevant movement, transcriptions of captions, and any other visual effects such as animation effects
- Things not to include are overly detailed descriptions of what a person or object looks like, using racist or derogatory language that is not otherwise written in the gif, or personal thoughts on the gif
- If someone is posting a gif with lots of flashing lights, add a trigger warning or “tw” for flashing lights, strobe lights, or photosensitivity so that people do not accidentally open a gif that could harm them.