What Gets Lost About Dark Mode

When Github released their dark mode in 2021, there were a lot of hot takes in community-oriented Slack channels I followed. Some of them were exuberant. Some of them were a (tad) mean-spirited. Some of them questioned why Github needed to prioritize such a seemingly frivolous feature ahead of other meaningful improvements: especially when dark mode is so frequently regarded as an immensely difficult thing to bolt-on to an existing product.

There was nothing inherently wrong with debating the value of it, surface-level barbs aside. I mean, people were simply questioning the value of an increasingly popular web industry trend. Which they should! And organizations should prioritize meaningful discussion about the value of a feature like dark mode over asserting the opinions of a select few individuals as indisputable wisdom.

But something that unsettles me lately is the way in which many articles — typically promoted by popular web development blogs and by well-known industry professionals — tend to portray the benefit of dark mode to the disability community.

It's very common to see an article portray dark mode as something that both increases and decreases eye strain, but without consistent attributions to evidence-based research.

And while this is often done in a well-intentioned way, to provide a nuanced list of pros and cons, it typically loses sight of the fact that dark mode is never proposed as a replacement for light mode. It's an addition, for individuals for whom an existing light mode is not already serving.

In contrast to more typical journalism, these articles also don't directly quote industry professionals: for example, neurologists who treat individuals who experience frequent migraines, or developmental vision specialists who treat individuals who have experienced falls or other accidents that lead to concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

And they don't make an obvious effort to involve or interview individuals who personally rely on dark mode to make it easier to cope with challenging health conditions like these.

When Github introduced their dark mode, it was nothing less than life-changing as someone in the early stages of recovery from a traumatic brain injury. I also have astigmatism and binocular vision dysfunction, and I am very familiar with the visual effect known as halation, which articles frequently cite as something that dark mode will make more obvious and more difficult for astigmatic individuals. I don't personally experience this — although that isn't to say the same goes for others.

More or less, my intent here isn't to say that dark mode is universally good for all people. But I do want to encourage folks to be critical of how a good-natured attempt to promote all sides of an argument — without acknowledgment of the ways in which technology already disproportionately caters to non-disabled perspectives — might contribute to decision-making that actively perpetuates the status quo.

And when writing an article about any topic, try to be curious about how your influence and personal platform could be better used to promote marginalized voices and the impact of otherwise invisible disabilities.

Not everyone might have the energy to talk about their experience, and it's of course not their responsibility to do so. But I'd love to see — and it's much more meaningful to me to happen upon — more writing that prioritizes personal stories over anecdotal research.