Facebook Is Doing More Than Just Recognizing Faces In Photos
Alt Tags in image metadata may be telling search engines more than you want to them to know
First; what is an “alt” tag? Without being to wonky, an alt tag is basically a way to let a search engine know who, or what is in a photo, or graphic on a web site. I often use alt tags to mark the location of places I do event photography at, or if I’m shooting sports, the team, school, or players in the photo.
A secondary use for alt tags are to help screen readers for the visually impaired. The screen reader could tell a person an image was a click button, business logo, photo of a person, and so on. Although if you’ve ever looked at most alt tags you could quickly tell that no one has been keeping blind people in their thoughts when writing them. For the most part captions, and now days with social media posts, the majority of the context comes in and around the photos anyway.
I’ve been a photographer for over 25 years now and long before Facebook, MySpace, or even digital cameras if you wanted to get your images to potential clients, or editors, you needed to know how to code your own website. Thanks in part to needing to build my own site and currently still having an interest in making sure potential clients can find my work, I’m very aware of how to use words with my photos to make sure search engines find them. Few ways are maybe more important than the “alt” tag.
The original use for an alt tag was kind of a reflection on the speed of the internet back in the beginning. You could set up your web browser to not load photos so a page would load faster. Also, with people like me building their own web sites, you’d often see this image a lot, because one bad keystroke meant a broken link.
So imagine my surprise the other day when my computer switched to the wifi in the back of the house bringing the internet to a crawl and Facebook started posting broken image graphics with the alt tags instead of the actual photos. Here are the actual screen shots of what Facebook was telling me (and any search engine) about the photos of a Facebook friend.
Possibly the alt tag with the most potential ramifications are the ones that end up in your profile photo, or in photos you are “Facebook tagged” in. Especially if they are public posts. I wouldn’t want to go down the list of ways it could be used for bad, or possibly good, but I will go on to say when Facebook launched this feature it looks like they touted it as a way to help the visually impaired, and they are not alone in using this tool. Google, Flickr, Twitter, & others, all use imagine recognition, some with horrible outcomes, like Google tagging two black people as “gorillas.”
Want to know if Facebook is doing you wrong in the “alt” tag? Here’s how you find out.
Remember that photo of me with my kids at Disney on Ice, well here’s how you can find what Facebook tagged for that photo, or any others as. (this was all done on the Chrome browser, but most browsers offer a similar feature).
- Click on the photo to make it show up in the popup window.
- Right click on the image and click “Inspect”
- A window will appear to your right highlighted on the code for that image.
- Look for the code alt= everything between the quote marks that follow it are what Facebook has automatically tagged your photo with
Is this super disturbing? As far as things that Facebook, Google, Apple, Transunion, or any others have done with our personal information. No, not really. Could it be scary in a futuristic Big Brother/1984 kind of way? For sure.
I think at least for now the scariest part is very few people know Facebook is doing this, and even more so there is no way to change, or delete these tags. I have over 700 friends and I will tell you not one of them is visually impaired, so I don’t see these A.I. gathered alt tags doing anything but helping Facebook sell more ads. Worse yet having that A.I. recognition tagging photo and an algorithm that helps use those tags to put more photos of what we like in front of use could lead to things as disturbing as stopping images of people of color from showing up on our walls. Think it can’t happen, it already has in a way. Don’t forget the fact that Facebook use to have photos tagged with female friends showing up on the wall of men more than photos of their male friends, to keep men on Facebook more.