Twitter OCR Bot: a Failed Proposal

It’s a common practice on Twitter to tweet pictures full of text. Screenshots of email, screenshots of Tumblr threads, screenshots of newspapers, screenshots of a television screen with a scrolling news ticker. Oftentimes the tweet itself has little to no text describing the image contents.

It’s bothered me for a while.

Why?

Because it means that people who rely on screen readers to understand the Internet are completely shut out: for example, people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired.

If I’m remembering correctly, one of the rationales from Twitter when they floated the idea of allowing longer tweets was precisely so that people could add the kind of text to a tweet that you now need to use an image for.

I had an idea about a way to fix or at least help with that, without requiring Twitter itself to make changes.

Too bad it’s a terrible idea.

The idea? Make a bot, e.g. @OCRBot, that when cc’ed on a tweet with an image, would run that image through OCR, and then tweet back to the tweet’s author with the text, split across multiple tweets if necessary.

At first, this seems like a wonderful idea. It doesn’t require the original tweet author to do anything, it doesn’t require Twitter to change its service in any way. The person who wants the text of the image just cc’s it to @OCRBot, and gets a tweet or a couple of tweets in response.

The trouble is, it can easily be weaponized, so that the auto-generated tweets are also directed to a harassment target. After writing up one way to do that, I realized I didn’t want to give lazy harassers any easy ideas. So I’m not going to go into details about it here. (Nor am I interested in people hashing it out in the comments.)

Suffice to say, I don’t think it would work as a third-party service for that reason, and wouldn’t advise anyone to try it.

It could, instead, be built in to Twitter clients, either from Twitter itself or from third-party companies.

Third-party Twitter client companies, however, probably already aren’t making much profit on those clients, and it would be unreasonable for them to shoulder the burden of such a service, which could be easily overloaded.

Twitter itself could handle the cost of such a service.

But, I haven’t see any indication of them heading in this direction.

Has anyone tried such a service that I’m just not aware of, or proposed anything similar?