Thursday, April 2, 2015

Worth a thousand words: captioning and editorial subjectivity

(CW: literary prescriptivism, for some definition of ‘literary’)

Adding dry captions(*) to incidental images on Facebook/Tumblr/etc. posts (or: alt text to images on web pages) is as close to a definite ceterus paribus improvement as I can think of. Readers using screenreading software or its accessibility-oriented ilk to browse the web are able to read [sic] those captions, aiding their consumption of the text. For “typical” readers (i.e. those without visual impairments, browsing the web without additional software assistance) the additional text hardly poses a nuisance — in the case of alt text, they don’t even engage with it unless they specifically go looking for it, whilst suitably demarcated image captions are easy to skim past.

A good caption is also generally a good inferential bridge, conveying most of the context the image provides. Sure, a text description of an image might not produce the exact same mental-emotional experience (“affect”, I believe the kids are calling it) as the image itself, but if “same mental-emotional experience” were an end goal we’d be done for anyway given it’s a subjective experience.

A screenshot of a facebook link to an article titled ‘10 Trans Women in Love’, with the caption: Image of a Korean man and woman (Andy Marra and Drew Shives), who are a couple. They are both facing the camera. The woman is resting her chin on the man's shoulder. They're both smiling, happily.

Take, for instance, the screenshot above. The caption swiftly communicates the most important emotional aspects of the image, both the implicit (it’s a couple; they’re happy) and the explicit (they are facing the camera; her chin rests on his shoulder). This provides great insight into the ‘value add’ that the image provides — it’s plenty to go on whether you’re making sense of someone else’s comment on the image (“they are the cutest thing” / “I love their expressions”), or whether you’re just interested in how it complements the piece.

A screenshot of an image in a blog post, captioned: “Photo shows a chain-link fence against a blue sky. One of the sections of the fence has been removed, a hammock strung across the posts, and a person lays relaxing in the hammock.”