Stop With the Autoplay Already!

I was researching something the other day and opened a bunch of links in tabs, as I tend to do; I like to spool out a bunch of sources and then pick through them to find what I need. And there I was, merrily opening tabs and listening to a mix from abby jean when suddenly, blammo, very undesirable noises started coming out of my speakers. I was plunged into a state of utter confusion and panic as I tried to figure out where it was coming from, and I finally just started randomly closing tabs to make it go away, thus losing most of the research I’d just done. Because I sure as heck wasn’t going to try to reconstruct it and have the horrible noise happen again.

Guidelines for good web design state, over and over again, that the time for autoplay is over. We’re done with it. It’s over. It doesn’t belong on any website anywhere, ever. Autoplay is unilaterally, universally, bad. Don’t do it. Yet, web designers keep doing it like they think they get some kind of exemption because whatever it is they so desperately want to autoplay is just that great.

Newsflash: It’s not. Autoplay is annoying as all hell and I have yet to run into a single web user who likes it. In fact, every time the topic comes up on Twitter I see a flurry of emphatic retweets voicing strong agreement with whoever is tweeting ‘die, autoplay, DIE’ on that particular day. I think you’d agree that Twitter users are, you know, sort of at the forefront of Internet use in terms of media integration and willingness to try new things, and also sheer amount of time spent online. Which means that when a bunch of people on Twitter are telling you that something you’re doing is obnoxious, you’d probably better rethink.

I hate autoplay with a flaming passion. It’s jarring and extremely annoying for me as a user, and I really do just close the window instead of trying to figure out how to stop it. Hiding the button to make it stop isn’t very nice either, of course, but I’m just pointing out that I can’t be the only person who responds to unwanted noises by closing the browser and going ‘fuck it’ instead of trying to painstakingly track down the source and stop it. And, of course, some sites with autoplay media don’t even bother to put in a stop or pause button.

This also goes for video and audio that start on a timer. Again, I am not the only person who will open a bunch of tabs to look through at leisure. Which means that the timer will expire before I hit that tab, the horrible noise will start, and I will be annoyed. Especially since timed media often doesn’t have a stop button anyway, you have to wait for it to start before you can pause or stop it, which really kind of defeats the point if you ask me. Which maybe you aren’t.

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting approach to autoplay that I’ve seen in a few other places as well; a video will start playing when you load the page, but it’s silent, and you can click a button to activate captions and/or audio if you want to. I admire this approach for people who are going to insist on having autoplay content, so at least it’s relatively unobtrusive and viewers won’t be thrown out of whatever headspace they were just in by an auditory assault.

Except that animated things are an accessibility issue for some people (yes, I am looking at you with your animated ads and ‘blog awards’ and ‘seasonal animations’ that clutter up my screen before I close the tab). And that includes videos, which can create a significant visual distraction. And it’s not as simple as turning the video off to stop the motion, because your brain may already be going off on some strange loop because of the movement, and it will be impossible to focus on what you were trying to read before, because your brain keeps thinking about the movement. For me, when I notice the WSJ video and pause it, I still get ghosts of movement in the corner of my eye and I think things are moving even when they are not, which is not so great when I’m trying to read an article.

Furthermore, autoplay videos like that are a real pain in the ass if you’re on a slow connection. Especially if you’re opening up multiple tabs to load because you know they will take a minute to fully spool up. And then your connection gets even slower and you can’t figure out why until you click over and realise that a streaming video has been eating up all your bandwidth. And then you growl and close the tab, muttering dark things about the assumption that everyone has broadband and delights in autoplay streaming media.

There are browser tools people can use to block autoplay media, like Flash Block and Paused! but these are only useful if you have control over your browser settings, which not everyone does. In the workplace you may need administrator access, for example, and if you are in a library or Internet cafe for Internet access, you are not going to be able to tweak the browser settings. While these extensions can be useful stopgap measures for controlling the display in your browser, it would be better if we didn’t need them at all because web developers were making websites responsibly, and, critically, making the kind of websites users like to visit.

Very, very, very few users want to visit a website with autoplay media, people.