Reddit Is Bringing Back the Lo-Fi Glories of Public Access TV
The freewheeling online forum is testing a new livestreaming network that feels like public access TV — but better
Reddit is testing a new live broadcasting feature, called Public Access Network (RPAN). The company has only tested the feature a handful of times with the public, but it has already created a grassroots community of content creators devoid of the coercive incentives of monetization.
On Thursday, August 29, more than 13,700 people watched a livestream that featured a person in a horse mask listening to jazz music and enjoying a hot beverage on RPAN. The random — yet strikingly intimate and ordinary — nature of “Horse Lounge” best exemplifies RPAN’s early content, which has featured someone writing the Bee Movie script by hand, New Yorkers sitting in traffic to the tune of lo-fi music, and a banana running for president.
How do Reddit’s established community frameworks shape its content creators’ performances? More importantly, how can it sustain success beyond a seemingly fleeting test? The platform’s affordances and history shine a light on the potential for its success.
The origins of the RPAN aesthetic
RPAN’s logo and presentation retrieve the look and feel of public access television. Public access emerged in the United States as a noncommercial alternative to highly produced and ad-supported broadcast television. It was meant to promote the potential for the social nature of television. These channels are available for general public use and are operated by either cable providers or a designated third party. Access to broadcasting equipment and the education and training required to utilize the technology is built into the public access promise. The direct contrast to high-budget commercial television productions means that less gets filtered out of a show’s final product. A do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic, ordinariness, and imperfection become core characteristics of public access performances.
RPAN’s signature introduction is rife with public access television aesthetics: The logo’s low-quality audio hook and low-resolution scan lines that overlay its typeface speak to the low-budget production qualities of public access television.
Unlike widescreen television broadcasts, RPAN broadcasts are shot vertically to conform to the conventions of smartphones. Video stream qualities are intentionally reduced in order to mirror public access aesthetics. Reddit’s team also selected an 8-bit font for all text on the broadcast to evoke feelings of originality and nostalgia. As Nathan Jurgenson writes in The Social Photo, tech companies embed digital features that speak to old mediums to connote feelings of nostalgia that we associate with authentic experience.
Free spaces for play can’t exist forever within for-profit technology companies.
Photography and videography used to require expensive equipment and extensive training. New media technologies like smartphones and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram eliminated the barriers of entry to produce and share content as well as all notions of physical scarcity. Platforms like Instagram added filters that were designed to reduce a photograph’s quality to try to retrieve the crinkled edges, fading colors, and feelings of authentic physical photographs and videos. Similarly, RPAN reduces the quality of its users’ broadcasts to recapture the feeling of public access television broadcasts. Borrowing the aesthetics of original public access television performances allows audiences to tap into already existing expectations of the genre’s conventions while allowing those who grew up after its boom to draw a connection to a pre-digital past that is most closely associated with authentic performances and production.
Popularity on RPAN is gauged through Reddit’s established upvote/downvote system. You can upvote a broadcast to push it up the rankings, or downvote a broadcast if you don’t like the content. The arrows on RPAN not only look like 8-bit Nintendo graphics from the Nintendo Entertainment System, they’re also the user’s control pad. Audience feedback serves as a mechanism to gauge a broadcast’s success or failure, though without defined measures for how performances convert to monetary compensation, there’s more room for experimentation. As free a space as RPAN currently is, familiar aesthetics of YouTube performances may still appear in live broadcasts.
Bringing back the “American room”
“Horse Lounge” is set in an “American room” with beige or white walls, at least an eight-foot ceiling, and a camera that points up from a desktop computer or cellphone. It speaks to familiarity with suburban, working-class American populations and induces feelings of digital intimacy that we’ve gotten used to on YouTube. Other broadcasts like the person rewriting Bee Movie by hand or New Yorkers sitting in traffic don’t require the American room, but they do borrow the same low-quality aesthetics of public access television and early YouTube. But unlike original public access television or early YouTube, RPAN intentionally diminishes the quality of its broadcasts, and in attempting to create an authentic experience, it promotes the paradox of mediated authenticity, that mediated performances are only representations of reality and not reality itself. Reddit is a monetized platform temporarily testing a (for now) noncommercial space.
A lack of clear or immediate monetization has led to an open frontier for content creators. People are not creating content to impress brands in order to earn sponsorships, as on YouTube or Instagram. They are willing to be more experimental and playful. This free space for play will only exist for a limited time because Reddit itself is not free of monetization or surveillance
The business and terms of service on RPAN
Reddit’s business model depends on advertising revenue natively generated through its platform and third-party Google ads. It also sells premium memberships (Reddit Gold) to its users so they can opt out of direct advertising. However, during RPAN’s trial phase, content creators have no path toward monetizing their work through either the platform or sponsored content. In fact, there are no present guarantees of RPAN’s future. In a digital media environment where truth is based on identity, someone’s physical identity is not a core feature of Reddit’s platform. The absence of the demand for identity and lack of incentive for monetization creates space for a rebirth of early-internet values — hosting a noncommercial space that’s more about original and quirky expression than the coercive and emotionally provocative tendencies of commercially produced cultural products.
Indeed, when RPAN’s initial trial ended, Reddit users bemoaned the loss of the platform as a space for creative play:
“The individuality, intimacy, and lack of advertising money made it feel like the early days of the web. Just random people doing random things and letting each other in to watch. It felt like real moments of connection with real people. Before social media and influencers and monetization. Just the joy of seeing a little slice of someone else’s happiness,” Reddit user nixiedust wrote of RPAN’s trial run on August 24.
RPAN’s early success is no coincidence. Reddit’s defined and established community guidelines, history of anonymous user participation, democratic process of content success, moderation by Reddit employees who are paid administrators, lack of commercial incentive, and ephemerality work to create its essential aura.
RPAN’s defined community guidelines made clear what the community could and could not produce. Its paid content moderators removed the burden of content enforcement and moderation from Reddit’s users. RPAN’s concise rules include Reddit’s standard content guidelines and promises to keep away not-safe-for-work (NSFW) and illegal content. Although its content guidelines are clear, Reddit will consider real-world circumstances before removing content or punishing creators.
Free spaces for play can’t exist forever within for-profit technology companies. Reddit will need to test new strategies if it wants to value humans over technology. Allowing users to tip content creators with Reddit Gold allows Reddit to expand an existing successful method. Charging broadcasters who wish to exceed a maximum number of minutes is another. Keeping humans at the center of its values is essential as RPAN evolves.
RPAN, performances of the self, and populism
RPAN will inevitably shift toward identity-based performances if the broadcasting service continues. To understand where it will first go, Reddit’s established Ask Me Anything (AMA) feature is the place to start.
Absurdity, randomness, and an escape from the dreadful surveillance reality of identity-based performances is the entire point.
Reddit’s AMAs allow a notable person to verify their identity with a subreddit’s content moderators in order to engage in a question-and-answer session with a community. It’s Reddit’s sole feature that demands physical verification of identity.
On RPAN, Reddit’s core values have thus far been replicated. People opt to broadcast creative and random facets of their life: Walking a dog and setting up a horse on a stick that watches bananas on a live record player are just two popular broadcasts. Performances of the self are shot not in the first-person perspective, which is typical in most livestreaming spaces like Instagram Live, but rather in the third person: Here, a teenager dances to Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” The overwhelming majority of broadcasts did not contain a person. When they did, they were not about the individual. Absurdity, randomness, and an escape from the dreadful surveillance reality of identity-based performances is the entire point.
RPAN also seems to be a medium ripe for populist politicians who deeply prefer social media over television talk shows. Politicians who claim working-class people have been betrayed by elites and promise to restore the sovereignty of the people based on the issues they raise in their campaign can use the platform to forge deeply intimate parasocial relationships with audiences in a digital environment better suited to their politics than traditional broadcast television. The United States has experienced this in recent years with Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of Twitter and Instagram in 2018, and Bernie Sanders’ and Andrew Yang’s emergent social strategies ahead of the 2020 election. RPAN might also see a migration of influencers already famous from other digital platforms like Twitch and YouTube entering the political space. We’ve already seen the first YouTuber announce he’s running for Congress. These politicians and political candidates will leverage existing trust created from their own influencer networks and combine it with the trust created by non-commercially motivated actors on RPAN. Creators will speak directly to the people and engage with audiences in one-to-many communication in real time that grants unprecedented access to national (and local) politicians who have been historically separated from the public because of media, spatial, and temporal boundaries.
RPAN’s successful path forward should value humans over technology
Our digital technologies and social media platforms are designed to atomize and isolate us. Almost half of Americans report feeling always or sometimes alone or left out, and 27% report feeling like other people never understand them.
While social media use by itself is not a predictor of loneliness, those who feel lonely will be drawn to experiences that are comparable to real-life experiences but are not truly them. Thus, 13,000-plus people watch an anonymous human wear a horse head. The performance builds feelings of digital intimacy whereby a person can feel all of the emotions associated with physical intimacy with only the loss of physical space and touch. The platform still allows people to have a space to experience a shared now and construct meaning together — not only with content creators, but also with other users in the chat.
When we’ve become used to loneliness and isolation, the representation of reality — but not reality itself — in digitally mediated spaces substitutes for our communal experiences. It makes us feel more human.
RPAN can sustain the success of its early iterations if it adheres to the conventions of its test run. To avoid being overrun by extremism, political performances, trolls, and unhinged violence, it must work to enforce its community standards via paid content moderators and preserve a strict broadcasting schedule with RPAN’s first test serves as a good model: a strict five-day schedule that allows users to stream for nine hours per day. It must incentivize creativity over corporate-funded influencer culture. It must simultaneously promote transparency with its community while protecting the identity of its creators. Most importantly, it must not introduce algorithms embedded with bias toward the proliferation of capital over human interest.