Why are web forums so unpopular with the blindness community?

Last week, David Tenser, Kadir Topal, and I received an e-mail from Dirk, a moderator at www.BLINDzeln.net, a mostly German-speaking community which uses mailing lists exclusively to promote exchange between their members. These mailing lists vary in topics from cooking and gardening to some pretty advanced computer science, psychology and others. Dirk asked whether it would be possible to create German-speaking mailing lists pertaining to accessibility to give those who have switched to Firefox and/or Thunderbird, or those willing to do so, a common place to go. He also said that he and other moderators thought about doing this at BLINDzeln, but didn’t do it because they wouldn’t want to create an isolated island, but encourage end-user exchange by asking Mozilla to do it on our servers instead.

In the e-mail exchange that ensued, two positions became apparent:

  • On the one hand, it was stated that blind people prefer the exchange through mailing lists highly over any other means of exchange possible on the net today, and that this is the easiest to access medium. This has a lot of merrit, since to subscribe to most e-mail lists, you don’t even need a web browser. If you know the mailing list address, you can send a subscribe request and acknowledge that by only knowing how you compose and reply to e-mails in your favorite e-mail program. Forums, on the other hand, are often secured against spam bots by CAPTCHAs, and the display is considered by many to be highly inefficient for reading. Newsgroups are somewhere in the middle, with the strict insisting on the netiquette by “usenet cops” being what drives new users away from this medium mostly.
  • On the other hand, David and Kadir advocated for Sumo and the German firefox-browser.de community forum respectively, stating that support personell and volunteers and most community members frequent Sumo and other forums highly, but hardly any mailing lists. On IRC, Kadir and I talked about this as well, and others who chimed in even used words as strong as “hate” when it came to the topic of mailing lists.

I did some research, and found quite some diversity in who uses which medium. For example, among Mozillians, mailing lists, which are mirrored to newsgroups and Google Groups, are the most frequented way of doing development planning discussions, project-specific exchange etc. With mailing lists on one hand, and an almost forum-like display at Google Groups on the other, this is a very cross-over way of offering access to the groups. But one does not see many end users here. There are support-like newsgroups, but compared to the number of users we now have, the traffic is comparably low. The MozillaZine forums enjoy very high traffic by comparison.

In other areas, I found the same picture. The more end-user, the lesser techy, the more popular web forums are. The more techy, the more things take place in mailing lists rather than forums. Granted, most mailing lists have a web-accessible archive nowadays. But even that’s controversial: In the above mentioned IRC discussion, one person I’d consider to be rather technically versed mentioned that he hates mailing lists and the typical Mailman archive format on the web because it shows only one post at a time, requiring him to click constantly to read through a thread.

Interestingly enough, in the recent screen reader survey results published by Webaim, web forums were not mentioned in either list of web sites, neither particularly accessible nor particularly inaccessible.

So, what is it that makes so many blind people go to mailing lists instead of web forums, sort of contrary to most of the main stream on the internet today? Are web forums inherently inaccessible? Or, is this one of those things that sticks around while the actual picture has changed, but the blindness community simply has failed to notice?

Provocative questions, I know. One of the things that drives blind people away, and which also drove me away from forums for a long time, is the spaghetti-ish nature in which many, especially older, forum software displays threads. It is very hard to find the beginnings of posts, making it difficult to skip over a reply that is of no interest. As blind people cannot visually skim forum topics like sighted people can, this is essential to efficiently navigate and participate in forums.

Here are some examples of forum post views that may give some clue as to where this resistance to use web forums amongst the blindness community may come from, and where it may also no longer be justified:

  • In this thread on the MozillaZine forums, each reply starts at a new item in the definition list that is used to display the topic. With the other lists inserted to encapsulate the “Reply…” and other info/action possibilities, simply jumping from list item to list item, as one would first expect, does not really get you quickly to the start of the next post within the thread.
  • This thread on the phpBB community forum shows a nice way to do things: Each reply starts at an HTML heading element, making it very easy to skip forward if one doesn’t want to read the rest of the current reply. Since both phpBB.com and MozillaZine use phpBB, this seems to be a question of theming the forum.
  • Also based on phpBB, but on an older version, is this example from the German DelphiPraxis community forums. This is what I referred to as the spaghetti view earlier that drives me and others away from forums. It’s a tabular layout, done with HTML table and descendant elements, and each post within the thread simply gets its own new row. Most screen readers do offer a way to navigate tables by row, but the keystrokes for doing so are much more cumbersome, requiring usually both hands to execute them than is good for casual reading or browsing. Table navigation is made for consciously interacting with data tables. I have seen similar table-based constructs in both VBulletin-based forums as well as the Carookee.com forum service.The German firefox-browser.de community forum uses a similar display right now, however this will probably change once they upgrade to phpBB3.
  • Looking at bbPress, the companion to the WordPress blogging software, they use a similar list-based display style as MozillaZine in terms of markup, but no intermingled lists, allowing to quickly skip ahead to the next post if the current one doesn’t interest me.
  • Lastly, the Sumo forum display shows a series of divs that are used to show the posts within a certain topic, but no special semantic markup to help navigate from one post to the next within an individual thread. It is similarly spaghetti-ish right now, with the difference being that it uses divs instead of layout tables.

Disclaimer: The topics chosen above and the comments made about the quality of the individual display styles is not meant to reflect on the quality of the forums themselves. They’ve merely been chosen for illustration purposes in the accessibility context of this blog.

As the display of the phpBB community forum post shows, there are possibilities to choose really accessible forum themes and create an attractive forum that also blind people might like to use. However, there’s also still a lot of forum software out in the wild that does not conform to any modern accessibility standards and thus offers a rather unattractive accessibility experience.

Also, one thing that I briefly mentioned are CAPTCHAs. Fortunately, with Firefox 3 and WebVisum, these are solvable for blind users. Or audio CAPTCHAs are spreading more and more, making this a barrier that is possible to deal with given the proper tools.

And now, I’d like to hear YOUR opinion on this topic! Do you prefer forums over newsgroups or mailing lists? Do you prefer to read on the web or in your e-mail client, in your RSS reader? Do you easily keep up with where you left off reading in a certain thread? What are the challenges you’ve faced dealing with forum software in the past or present?

On the other hand, if you’re a forum user and don’t like/use mailing lists, why is that? What do you find more attractive about forums that makes you not like mailing lists, or even hate them?

Welcoming your comments!