Why Do All These 20-Somethings Have Closed Captions Turned On? | Kanebridge News
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Why Do All These 20-Somethings Have Closed Captions Turned On?

As automatic captioning on TikTok and creative audio descriptions on Netflix go mainstream, so does accessibility

By By Cordilia James
Tue, Sep 20, 2022 8:38amGrey Clock 4 min

Closed captions are cool now. Just ask anyone under 40.

More viewers, especially younger ones, are using tools that transcribe dialogue in the content they’re watching online, from Netflix movies to TikTok videos. This isn’t just about watching “Squid Game” drama in Korean with English subtitles.

Closed captions—which display text in the same language as the original audio—have been crucial for a long time for many people with hearing loss. They’re now a must-have for plenty of people without hearing loss, too, helping them better understand the audio or allowing them to multitask.

Recent surveys suggest that younger generations are viewing content with captions more than older generations, despite reporting fewer hearing problems.

In a May survey of about 1,200 Americans, 70% of adult Gen Z respondents (ages 18 to 25) and 53% of millennial respondents (up to age 41) said they watch content with text most of the time. That’s compared with slightly more than a third of older respondents, according to the report commissioned by language-teaching app Preply.

“I can’t think of a time in the past couple of months or years that I haven’t had subtitles or captions on,” says 23-year-old Ayem Kpenkaan, who also creates his own comedy videos. While he doesn’t have any hearing issues, he says it helps him focus on what’s happening on-screen, even with the sound on.

In recent years, Apple, Google and other tech companies expanded on-device auto-captioning options, while Netflix found creative ways to describe audio (not just dialogue) to viewers who are deaf and hard of hearing. The innovations—as well as the rising popularity of captions on social media—have helped eliminate some of the stigma associated with hearing loss, advocates say.

“People are hesitant to ask for accommodations in the workplace because they don’t want to stand out or make waves,” says Barbara Kelley, executive director of nonprofit Hearing Loss Association of America. As more people adopt captions, she adds, it becomes easier to ask for those aids.

Caption Popularity

Netflix now provides more colourful play-by-plays. Its new vampire slayer film “Day Shift” added colourful subtitles at certain parts of the movie. In the latest season of “Stranger Things,” subtitles amused viewers with rich descriptions such as “tentacles squelching wetly.” The number of people accessing captions and subtitles has more than doubled since 2017, a Netflix spokeswoman says.

People turn on subtitles and captions for many reasons—to learn a language, perhaps, or decipher a heavy accent or muttered dialogue. A lot of people complain about background music making it harder to hear dialogue. Captions can also facilitate multitasking and allow people to watch content in shared spaces without disturbing others.

Rachael Knoth, a 23-year-old artist in Dothan, Ala., says she has used captions for as long as she can remember. She says she hasn’t been diagnosed with hearing loss. Still, she finds it so hard to view anything without captions that if a video doesn’t have them, she won’t watch it.

“In class, when they play videos and they don’t have the captions on, I have to pay really close attention,” Ms. Knoth says. If she doesn’t, it’s common for her to misunderstand the speakers for a minute or two, she adds.

Improving Accessibility

The National Captioning Institute, a nonprofit that provides captioning services, introduced the first prerecorded closed captions in 1980. A decoder box was needed to view the captions until the 1990s when the U.S. government required electronics companies to build the technology into their TVs. Since then, efforts by people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing have led to the passage of legislation that ensures captions are available for videos online.

Initially, people had to manually transcribe a video’s audio. More recently, artificial intelligence has helped put automatic captions in apps such as YouTube and Facebook. TikTok launched its auto-generated captions last year, while Instagram followed earlier this year.

Scarlet May, a deaf content creator with 6.5 million followers on TikTok, says when she first joined, she could only watch content from creators who used sign language. Now, captions have exposed her to a whole new world of content.

“I can enjoy the app like everyone else,” says Ms. May, 21.

Many creators filled the accessibility gap by adding their own captions manually. Mr. Kpenkaan, who makes comedy videos, is among those who still do. These are “open captions”—they can’t be turned off. He sees inclusivity as a way to reach more viewers, and believes the open captions help more people get his jokes.

Mr. Kpenkaan plays around with placement, emojis and other features to add humour to some of his videos and engage more viewers. “Captioning is just another medium to be creative,” he says. The first TikTok he made with captions—a funny clip of him and a friend on a romantic swan-boat ride—remains his most popular TikTok video with more than 36.6 million views.

Turning On Captions

For those looking for captions to help them in their everyday lives, such as when you’re having trouble hearing your device in a noisy environment, one of the latest technologies comes from Apple.

Its Live Captions feature, available with MacOS Ventura and iOS 16 on the iPhone 11 and newer, lets users turn on a live transcript for any audio, whether it’s during FaceTime calls, in a streaming-video app or just picked up by the device’s microphone. Live Captions uses machine learning and keeps everything on your device, rather than sending it to Apple’s servers for processing. You can find it under Settings > Accessibility.

Google has a similar app for its Pixel phones, and this year’s Samsung TVs can automatically place captions on the screen in locations that won’t disrupt the view.

Social-media apps such as Instagram generate captions on uploaded videos by default, and make them available to turn on within the videos. (Creators can choose not to have captions, or to add their own open captions instead.) Snapchat users can turn on auto-generated subtitles for the app’s Discover page, and as of last year they can also use auto captions in their own recorded snaps.


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What’s still keeping American workers out of the office?

At a time when restaurants, planes and concert arenas are packed to the rafters, office buildings remain half full. Thinly populated cubicles and hallways are straining downtown economies and, bosses say, fragmenting corporate cultures as workers lose a sense of engagement.

Yet workers say high costs, caregiving duties, long commutes and days still scheduled full of Zooms are keeping them at home at least part of the time, along with a lingering sense that they’re able to do their jobs competently from anywhere. More than a dozen workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they can’t envision returning to a five-day office routine, even if they’re missing career development or winding up on the company layoff list.

Managers say they will renew the push to get employees back into offices later this year. The share of companies planning to keep office attendance voluntary, rather than mandatory, is dropping, according to a survey released in May of more than 200 corporate real-estate executives conducted by property-services firm CBRE, one of the largest managers of U.S. office space.

A battle of wills could be ahead. The gap between what employees and bosses want remains wide, with bosses expecting in-person collaboration and workers loath to forgo flexibility, according to monthly surveys of worker sentiment maintained by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University economist who studies remote work.

Escalating expenses

One reason workers say they’re reluctant to return is money. Some who have lost remote-work privileges said they are spending hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars each month on meals, commutes and child care.

One supercommuter who treks to her Manhattan job from her home in Philadelphia negotiated a two-day-a-week limit to her New York office time this year. Otherwise, she said she could easily spend $10,000 a year on Amtrak tickets if she commuted five days a week.

Christos Berger, a 25-year-old mortgage-loan assistant who lives outside Washington, D.C., estimates she spends $2,100 on child care and $450 on gas monthly now that she is working up to three days a week in the office.

Berger and her husband juggled parenting duties when they were fully remote. The cost of office life has her contemplating a big ask: clearance to work from home full time.

“Companies are pushing you to be available at night, be available on weekends,” she said, adding that she feels employers aren’t taking into account parents’ need for family time.

Rachel Cottam, a 31-year-old head of content for a tech company, works full time from her home near Salt Lake City, making the occasional out-of-town trip to headquarters. She used to be a high-school teacher, spending weekdays in the classroom. Back then, she and her husband spent $100 a week on child care and $70 a week on gas. Now they save that money. She even let her car insurance company know she no longer commutes and they knocked $5 a month off the bill.

Friends who have been recalled to offices tell Cottam about the added cost of coffee, lunch and beauty supplies. They also talk about the emotional cost they feel from losing work flexibility.

“For them, it feels like this great ‘future of work’ they’ve been gifted is suddenly ripped away,” she said.

Parent trade-offs

If pandemic-era flexible schedules go away, a huge number of parents will drop out of the workforce, workers say.

When Meghan Skornia, a 36-year-old urban planner and married mother of an 18-month-old son, was looking for a new job last year, she weeded out job openings with strict in-office policies. Were she given such mandates, she said, she would consider becoming an independent consultant.

The firm in Portland, Ore., where Skornia now works requests one day a week in the office, but doesn’t dictate which day. The arrangement lets her spend time with her son and juggle her job duties, she said. “If I were in the office five days a week, I wouldn’t really ever see my son, except for weekends.”

Emotional labor

For some, coming into the office means donning a mask to fit in.

Kenneth Thomas, 42, said he left his investment-firm job in the summer of 2021 when the company insisted that workers return to the office full time. Thomas, who describes himself as a 6-foot-2 Black man, said managing how he was perceived—not slipping into slang or inadvertently appearing threatening through body language—made the office workday exhausting. He said that other professionals of colour have told him they feel similarly isolated at work.

“When I was working from home, it freed up so much of my mental bandwidth,” he said. His current job, treasurer of a green-energy company, allows him to work remotely two or three days a week.

Lost productivity

The longer the commute, the less likely workers are to return to offices.

Ryan Koch, a Berkeley, Calif., resident, went to his San Francisco office two days a week as required late last year, but then he let his attendance slide, because commuting to an office felt pointless. “I’m doing the same video calls that I can be doing at home,” he said.

Koch, who works in sales, said his nonattendance wasn’t noted so long as his numbers were good. When Koch and other colleagues were unable to meet sales quotas in recent weeks, they were laid off. Ignoring the in-office requirement probably didn’t help, he said, adding he hopes to land a new hybrid role where he goes in one or two days.

Jess Goodwin, a 36-year-old media-marketing professional, turned down an offer to go from freelance to full time earlier this year because the role required office time and no change in pay.

Goodwin said a manager “made it really clear that this is what they’re mandating right now and it could change in the future to ‘you have to be back in five days a week.’”

Goodwin, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., calculated that subway commutes to Midtown Manhattan would consume more than 150 hours annually, in addition to time spent getting ready for work.

Goodwin’s holding out for a better offer. She said she would consider a hybrid position if it came with a generous package and good commute, adding: “And I would also probably need something in my contract being like, ‘We’re not going to increase the number of days you have to come in.’”


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