This story is part of a series on how we watch stuff—from the emotional tug of Facebook video series to the delight of Netflix randomness.
If you rely on YouTube’s captions, good luck. In a recent random sample, the common phrase “You’re on your own” was captioned “You won you’re wrong.” “Ethan has to leave” came out “ether nice to leave.” “Met” became “wet”—and “wedding,” somehow, “lady”—until finally the videos collapsed into unintelligibility. In this bizarre and silent version of YouTube, people don’t ask you to “subscribe and turn on notifications.” They ask you to “subscribe and turn on other patients.” It’s dark.
For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, making sense of videos online can be deeply frustrating, even if the video is captioned, which is now the norm (if not the law) on most platforms. YouTube’s captions are often garbled, because, unless YouTubers themselves intervene and manually type out the correct words, they’re auto-generated, the best efforts of a closed-captioning algorithm the company has been tweaking for years. Appreciative of the effort but unconvinced by the results, activists have dubbed them “craptions.”
One activist is Rikki Poynter, who runs a “No More CRAPtions” social media campaign. Poynter started really losing her hearing a year after she graduated from high school, in 2010, back when she was routinely uploading beauty tutorials to YouTube. “Even with earphones in, it was becoming a struggle to understand what was being said,” Poynter says. The auto-generated captions weren’t a huge help. “‘Zebra’ would be said instead of ‘concealer,’” she says. She began leaving messages on other beauty YouTubers’ channels, imploring them to add correct captions to their videos.
Even after celebrity YouTuber Tyler Oakley gave her a shout-out—the YouTube equivalent of being one of Oprah’s favorite things—Poynter got little sustained response from her online community. “It hurts to be ignored,” she says. YouTubers would promise to prioritize captioning and then fall off after a few videos, letting the algorithm resume the work. “‘Craptions’ isn’t a new term by any means,” Poynter says. “The deaf community has been coming together on this for a long time now—though it seems I’ve had the most success, and I’m the one still constantly pushing on it.”
Caption experts are quick to point out that even those with perfect hearing can benefit from using captions. They assist English language learners, of course, but also native speakers struggling to understand, say, a thick Scottish brogue. And when you’re scrolling through your feed with the sound off, they’re a necessity. James Rath, a YouTuber and filmmaker, says captions can expand a video’s reach and performance, since search engines may pull keywords from the transcript.
For businesses, failing to provide adequate captions can result in a lawsuit, which has proved troublesome for streaming services like Netflix, along with major broadcasters like CNN. Individual social media content creators, by contrast, are unlikely to be found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nor do the platforms themselves enforce stringent requirements. As a general rule, the deaf community tends to see Facebook’s system (and auto-captions) as pretty good, while Twitter and Instagram can prove kludgy and awkward. YouTube falls somewhere in the middle—but is unquestionably the internet’s video behemoth. A boycott is simply impractical, and even the auto-captioning system’s sharpest detractors, like Poynter, admit it’s gotten better. “The inaccuracies used to be way worse,” she says. YouTube won’t offer specifics but acknowledged that the algorithm still needs improvement, which is why the company encourages creators to edit the captions or add their own.
Manual captioners likely wouldn’t make mistakes on par with zebra/concealer, but they’re not infallible either. YouTube gives you captioning options: If you don’t want to use the auto-generated ones, you can upload your own, or allow your viewers to write and upload their versions. The audience-generated captions can be great, depending on the community—often, they are foreign-language translations. They can also be confusing. “A lot of us find that community contributions are not legible,” Poynter says. “The worst offender has been actual paragraphs written as captions. I’m talking a caption block that takes up half the video screen! You actually can’t see what you’re supposed to be seeing because it’s covered by words.” Deaf YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has videos dedicated to explaining the etiquette around captioning. Another faux pas: using the captions as a place to add jokey commentary. “Jokes in the captions drive me up the damn wall,” reads the video’s top comment. “Like, I didn’t come to this Youtuber’s video to be subjected to a random captioner’s personal stand-up night.”