Public Access, Everywhere, Always.

During most of the nineteen-nineties, I lived in Iowa City, Iowa (or as a local t-shirt had it, “Idaho City, Ohio”), population 60,000 when the University of Iowa was in session. It wasn’t exactly the center of the universe, but since I’d grown up in rural Indiana at a time when the only alternative to broadcast television was a “big ugly dish,” it was the first time in my life that I’d had the opportunity to have cable TV. Though it was cool to have access to channels like Comedy Central and IFC, what was really a new concept to me was the Iowa City public access cable channel, where any resident could arrange to put on their own show for free.

There was a sketch-comedy show done entirely by high school students, a call-in guitar show in which a guitar virtuoso displayed his talents and took calls and questions from the viewing audience, local sports commentary, local religious programming, and an unpredictable show starring a man named Ken who interviewed friends and acquaintances (or just read aloud from a library book) in front of apparently arbitrary green-screen footage.

Pretty much everyone who showed up on this channel was someone you might see around town, having eggs and coffee at the Hamburg Inn or sitting at the bar at the Deadwood watching Simpsons reruns. Tuning into public access had a lot in common with a stroll downtown, or hanging around the city’s pedestrian mall. If you tired of the network offerings, you could conduct a little people watching from your own sofa.

Now, of course, seeing your friends and neighbors on video is commonplace. There’s no need to book time at the local studio; you can just upload your video to Facebook or YouTube and share it with your network or with everyone in the world.

But a new generation of apps—most notably Meerkat and Periscope—are taking public video to an entirely new level, giving anyone with a phone the ability to broadcast live around the world. Live streaming apps are touted as being to television what blogging was to print journalism. They allow not only the transmission of live video to all app users, but also the feedback of real-time comments. It’s a concept with a lot of power and potential. But for what?

Just now, on Periscope, I watched a guy in Cambridge, Mass pick out pants for a disco party while dozens of users watched and gave input. “The blue pants are terrible,” one viewer remarked. On other broadcasts, I viewed a walk around Brooklyn, a pet rabbit just sitting and breathing, and two tech reporters from CNN talking about ApplePay in a stairwell. Oh, and I saw Jim Gaffigan get his hair colored by his stylist.

Except for the tech talk, and the helpful pants comment, the chat bubbling up the screen ranged from dull to rude. “Hello from Paris.” “Hello from Ghana.” One user was broadcasting footage of costumed characters in Times Square. “Punch him,” someone commented. “Kick him.”

Harassment, especially of female users, has been an early problem, though I didn’t witness much of this, so perhaps the recently installed filters are working.

Is this “real” people being “real?” At best, it feels a step above reality TV. The stakes feel lower, which lets people be more relaxed. Still, the level of self-consciousness is pretty high. As it gains in currency and decreases in novelty, the potential for truly candid live streaming will increase, with results, I’m sure, that will be both fascinating and horrifying.

Like YouTube, there will be a lot of random gunk. Others will figure out how to use it in creative or productive ways: conduct tours of local landmarks to create interest in their neighborhoods or cities. Do improv with friends for an audience of thousands. Read a library book aloud on the bus.

These apps also mean that anyone, anywhere can be on thousands of screens around the world in an instant. Which does make me a bit nervous. There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public space, but it feels like a new development when a seemingly quiet street could harbor thousands of remote viewers without one’s knowledge.

Your close-up could come at any time. Better make sure you’re showing your good side.