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.”).
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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.”