Sparing Harvard (and Facebook) a Bit of Unwanted Crimson

Jun 09, 2017

Article ImageThe commentary has been a bit unkind in the wake of the streamed video captioning snafu at Harvard’s graduation ceremony. There, in case you did not see it, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was receiving a Harvard degree and delivering the commencement address to graduates. But the closed captions accompanying the Facebook Live feed itself were not as polished as Zuckerberg’s speech. Some called the captions “jibberish,” while others opined that the captions were “hilarious.”

To be sure, the real-time captions that appeared on the Facebook Live feed were frequently incomprehensible, which couldn’t be anything but awkward when more than 75 thousand viewers were watching Zuckerberg’s speech, on Zuckerberg’s platform, in real time. You can bet there were executives at Facebook’s headquarters whose faces were turning that particular shade of red known as Harvard crimson.

Trying to Do the Right Thing – Without Compulsion

For the viewing audience to mock the captions that appeared on Facebook Live, however, misses the mark on two separate points.

First, we should be tipping our caps to Harvard and to Facebook: They did try to caption Zuckerberg’s commencement speech in real time. There was a time — not that long ago — when few universities made any effort to enable members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHOH) communities to follow a speaker during graduation. After all, people who can hear without complication all too frequently forget that a good portion of the population cannot hear without complication. In the U.S., the DHOH population numbers close to 50 million individuals. That’s one in seven Americans, approximately 13 percent of the population.

But Harvard and Facebook did not forget the DHOH. They tried to enable access for the members of these communities. It’s also worth pointing out that they were under no obligation to do so. There’s nothing in the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations on captioning that would require Harvard or Facebook to caption their live speakers at a graduation ceremony unless captioning is specifically requested. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

The Complexity Behind the Curtains

That brings me to the second point where the hecklers’ scorn seems misplaced: Captioning a live event presents a number of serious challenges. It requires a skilled stenographer or voice writer who can accurately transform a fast-moving stream of sound into a meaningful stream of letters and punctuation marks — but that’s just the obvious part of captioning. The less obvious but equally critical parts? The network speed and quality, for one. Is there any lag in the audio or video feeds to the captioner? How quickly can captions be pushed back up the wire to the encoding systems that will merge the captions with the audio/video feeds? What kinds of encryption or security precautions are in place to protect the network and to eliminate the risk that a hacker might disrupt the flow of captions to the encoder?

There’s a lot of network management and optimization that takes place behind the curtains to ensure that the captions appear on the screen. Adding Facebook Live to this scenario adds only more complexity. As we understand it, the captioning commencement was being done in real time by a local captioner and the captions themselves being pushed to encoders at Harvard. From those encoders, the signal was being pushed to the LED screens placed throughout Harvard Yard. But that TV signal was also being pushed to Facebook, where another set of encoders transformed Harvard’s feed for presentation over Facebook Live. 

In short, there are quite a number of places where something can go wrong when you are trying to deliver real-time captions. And, in this case, something did. What was the exact problem? Neither Harvard nor Facebook are saying. We’ve heard from those attending the ceremonies at Harvard that the captions appearing on the monitors in the Yard were clear, accurate and comprehensible — which suggests that the captioner was doing a respectable job of capturing Zuckerberg’s speech and converting it into captioned text. So what happened on the way to Facebook Live? Perhaps it was a protocol mismatch between Harvard’s feed and Facebook’s encoders. If the two organizations had not agreed on which encoding protocols would be used during file exchanges, the well-captioned source that Harvard streamed to Facebook could easily have been presented badly by systems on Facebook’s side that were not optimized to accept the encoded content that was being sent.

Without deeper insight into the systems at Harvard and Facebook, it’s unclear where the problem arose. But that’s really the point: Real-time captioning is complicated, and if you want to do it right, you need to pay attention to all the details. If you don’t, then even the most well-intended efforts would be for naught, because the internet tends to be unforgiving, and it will pounce on you in ways you may not deserve.

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