How to Make the World a Better Place: Caption! Subtitle!

Generally I’m a positive, optimistic guy, but sometimes fellow humans remind me how far we hungry pack animals still have to go before we can all embrace each other with love and respect. Despite all we do to make the our world more accepting, accessible, tolerant, and kind, we occasionally experience resistance.

So what can we do? Well, there are lots of big things we can do, each working in our own way to help improve the world. But there are small things too.

We can offer a smile and a kind word. You never know what somebody’s going through at the moment, and sometimes those seemingly small gestures can make a huge difference in their day, and maybe even their life.

Another thing we can do is: Caption videos! And if we’re multi-lingual, we can subtitle them too! For each closed-minded, frightened, prejudiced, hate-mongering person in the world, there are many more people with open minds, big hearts, and great, inspiring ideas; and we have unprecedented access to these individuals thanks to online video!

By captioning or subtitling video, we can share these individuals’ ideas with people who otherwise don’t have access. An estimated one million people in the United States are functionally deaf, and 10 million are hard of hearing (same source). Not only that, but 5.5 billion people worldwide do not speak, understand or read English.

Arguably, if more of these individuals had access to the great, inspiring ideas that I have access to as a hearing person proficient in English, the world would be a better space. Not only that, but captioning or subtitling also helps us individually. It provides us with an opportunity to more deeply absorb and embody a video’s message. In all of the major religious traditions, monks historically devoted their lives to copying scriptures by hand. This was once the only technology available for producing copies, but it was also respected as a powerful practice that helped the scribes to absorb the teachings at a much deeper level than was otherwise possible. We can do that too, just by setting aside ten minutes a day to do some captioning or subtitling.


I’ve blogged before about free tools for captioning YouTube videos. In that blog I claimed that “Universal Subtitles rocks” and over a year later I’m still standing behind that claim., now operating under a new name Amara, is more than a tool—it’s a community where volunteers can caption and subtitle videos, thereby helping everyone around the world to access important ideas.

The best example of how successful this can be is the TED Open Translation Project, which has produced over 30,000 translations into 89 languages through the dedicated work of over 8000 volunteers.

Another organization that has recently joined the Amara community is the Fetzer Institute, an organization that engages with people around the world to promote love and forgiveness. I’ve recently been helping the Fetzer Institute with accessibility of their website, and I’m even featured one of their recent videos:

Fetzer has produced videos featuring the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and dozens of others sharing their thoughts about the importance of love and forgiveness. These are exactly the sorts of videos I’m talking about – captioning and subtitling them can change the world!

Check out the Fetzer home on Amara. You’ll need to create an account on Amara to participate, then join the Fetzer community.

Also, right now as I’m writing this blog post, the Fetzer Institute is hosting a Global Gathering of Love and Forgiveness in Assisi, Italy, bringing together 500 thought leaders from around the world to share and discuss ideas. I’m keeping a close eye on this event via Twitter #fetzerGG.

Could Higher Education Do This?

With TED’s success at motivating volunteers to caption and subtitle their videos, I’ve often wondered whether higher education institutions could do the same. The benefits for monks described above would certainly be true for students too, and students who I’ve persuaded to caption videos in their chosen field of study have spoken highly of the academic benefits.

I’m skeptical that we could persuade enough students to devote enough time to captioning based solely on the intrinsic rewards, but perhaps we could motivate them with other rewards such as academic credit or work study funds.

Is anyone already trying this? Is anyone optimistic that it might work?

Another possibility is a hybrid approach, utilizing students or volunteers where feasible, but also using professional transcribers. Amara recently announced a partnership with Cogi, the result of which is, which seems to provide a framework that supports this approach.

If you have ideas, great or small, on this topic, please share freely.

One reply on “How to Make the World a Better Place: Caption! Subtitle!”

At Penn State we are using a hybrid approach. In our department we employ someone who captions our videos as her sole duty. She is part time, but she types fast and uses MovieCaptioner to create SRT files for YouTube and transcripts. Best of all, she loves doing the work and says she learns a lot as she captions the videos. For quicker turnaround (if she is too busy) we will send it out to someone to create transcripts, then import these into MovieCaptioner where we synch them easily with the video (it’s just a matter of clicking the Return key as you listen to the video). Or sometimes we will have either 3PlayMedia or Automatic Synch Technologies do it all at once. We are creating a captioning dispatch service of sorts that will work with both inhouse captioning as well as outsourcing to captioning vendors.

BTW, I tried creating an account with oneclicktocaption, but in both Firefox and Safari on my Mac it would not create an account when I clicked the button. Is this not working yet?

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