I wasn’t expecting this when I first wrote about how to write alt text for memes back in 2018, but this post has been featured in multiple academic papers and is one of the most common posts I get emailed about with people telling me how they use this information in a variety of contexts. Accessible memes are my favorite memes, so here are my tips for how to write alt text for memes, from the perspective of a user with low vision.
LOW VISION ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY DEFINITIONS
WHAT IS ALT TEXT? WHAT IS AN IMAGE DESCRIPTION?
Alt text and image descriptions are text-based descriptions of visual details in an image written primarily for people who are visually impaired (inclusive of blind/low vision). Image descriptions are similar to alt text descriptions that are used by screen readers to recognize images, though there are a few key differences between alt text and image descriptions:
- Location. Alt text is typically attached to an image metadata or added in the “alt text” box on social media. Image descriptions may be in the image caption, in a text post, or otherwise incorporated into a social media post
- Visibility. Alt text is usually only visible to screen readers, which read the alt text out loud or display it on a braille display. Image descriptions are “exposed” and can be read by anyone
- Length of text. While alt text is typically limited to 100-250 characters, image descriptions can be the same length or even longer, since they are included in the photo caption, in a text post, or text link.
- Level of detail. Image descriptions tend to go more in-depth about visual details than alt text due to the larger character limit.
I recommend including both alt text and image descriptions when making digital comics accessible so that everyone can read descriptions of images, not just screen reader users- especially since many users with low vision do not use screen readers when browsing social media, but still might need assistive technology for reading images such as a screen magnifier.
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. The most popular screen readers for mobile devices are VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android.
Some users do not use screen readers full-time and instead use “on demand” screen readers that are activated by a gesture, shortcut, or by pressing a button on their phone. These tools may be referred to as select-to-speak, read aloud, speak text, or similar and are only used to read text or alt text, not navigational buttons or interfaces.
Braille users have the option of having their screen reader display alt text, image descriptions, and other text-based content via a refreshable display.
WHAT CAN SCREEN READERS READ?
Screen readers can read almost anything that is displayed on a screen. Examples include:
- Text (in any form)
- Pictures and graphs with alt text
- Keyboard input
WHAT CAN SCREEN READERS NOT READ?
Screen readers will not recognize the following information:
- Videos (note- some social platforms support alt text for videos, but a screen reader will not read captions in a video)
- Pictures or graphs without alt text or image descriptions
- Certain apps that are image-based
- Text in a photo without alt text
Without alt text or image descriptions, screen readers will not “see” images or other visual content and will skip over the image and not say anything, meaning the user has no idea this content exists.
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
- Seven Myths About Alt Text
- Options For Writing Extended Image Descriptions On Social Media
- How To Use VoiceOver For Beginners
- Ways To Read Webpages Without A Traditional Screen Reader
- App Accessibility Checklist for Low Vision
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Keyboards
- Emoji and Low Vision
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Smartphones
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? Or is it a picture of SpongeBob? Maybe it is 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 loss 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.
In the case of the shiba inu, there is a specific meme called Doge that describes a specific sesame (yellow) shiba inu. In this case it would be okay to write “doge” or “shiba inu.”
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 this image, I would create the following alt text:
“Text caption reading ‘Whoah, we’re halfway there, whoah-oh’, followed by a photo of a lemon on a pear.”
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.”
See “Related Links” at the end of this post for my full list of tips on writing alt text for comics.
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, and some automatic alt text is almost meme-worthy itself; as an example, a photo of my brother standing outside was once identified by automatic alt text as a picture of a car. Automatic alt text may also not accurately convey what is in an image, or get confused over blurry images.
Alt text and image descriptions on social media platforms
Here are the policies for alt text on popular social media platforms, copied from my post on How To Add Alt Text on Social Media.
- Twitter supports alt text up to 1,000 characters, though alt text cannot be added or edited after an image or gif is posted.
- Instagram supports alt text up to 100 characters, and alt text can be added or edited after a picture is posted.
- Facebook supports alt text up to 100 characters, and alt text can be added or edited after a picture is posted.
- Tumblr supports alt text up to 200 characters, and alt text cannot be added or edited after a picture or gif is posted.
- Pinterest supports alt text up to 500 characters, and alt text can be added to static/image or video pins after they are posted.
Image descriptions can be added or edited as captions on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest, or added in the replies of a tweet either in the form of a text-based description or extended image description.
- How To Add Alt Text On Social Media
- Options For Writing Extended Image Descriptions On Social Media
- Tips For Censoring Text With Accessibility In Mind
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions For Instagram
More resources for how to write alt text for memes
- How To Write Alt Text For Digital Comics
- How To Write Alt Text For Gifs
- How To Make ASCII/Emoji Memes Accessible For Visual Impairment
- How To Write Alt Text For Amateur Art
- How To Write Video Descriptions For Animal Videos On Social Media
- How To Write Video Descriptions For TikTok