NYC Wi-Fi kiosks try to turn video watchers into voters

New York City’s much-touted LinkNYC kiosks were meant to replace public telephones with free Wi-Fi, tablet browsing and calls. But predictably, New Yorkers mostly liked standing in front of them to watch music videos.

Some, reportedly, managed to find a little porn, though as one woman charging her phone at an Eighth Avenue kiosk said Tuesday, the browser wouldn’t even let you get to, let alone porn being easily accessible., a shock site, “let’s you see crazy things,” she explained, acknowledging the street wasn’t really the place for it. She declined to give her name, along with her two companions also charging their phones and sitting on a flipped-over Village Voice distribution container.

The porn/music-video/people-gathering nexus, combined with the particular people who often gathered to use the tablets — mostly homeless people and some mentally ill — resulted in complaints. Then last month, LinkNYC shut down all tablet-based web-browsing. The consortium that manages the kiosks released some preliminary findings since that experiment this week.

To browse, or not to browse is the question

Its numbers suggest that more people could be getting their turn to call, check out maps, look at 311, and the other similarly banal tasks that are left when the internet is shut off. In the 11 days before web-browsing was turned off vs. the 11 days after, browsing sessions increased 12 percent.

Some kiosk users queried on Tuesday didn’t find the lack of browsing too problematic. Gill Diaz, 50, a part-time forklift operator from the Bronx, says he’s tried to make important phone calls from time to time and people “are out here watching videos.”

But others predictably bemoaned the loss, like the three women sharing a Village Voice container and charging station on Eighth Avenue. One, in a poster example of the purposes of accessible browsing, said she looked up sites and info about potential jobs before the switch.

“I don’t understand,” she repeated multiple times when considering the change. “What did they expect?”

It’s a reasonable question. Expanding internet access was one of the (laudable) goals of the kiosk program. While that didn’t necessarily mean physical outposts, the tablets ended up bringing the internet to people who have trouble getting it elsewhere — who are kicked out of Starbucks or McDonald’s for trying to charge their phones, and briefly had surprisingly unfettered access in the one place that was their domain: the street.

That experiment made the streets too chaotic, in the view of some, so the entities that truly own the street — the city and its vocal businesses and citizens, not its homeless and others who spend lots of time on the sidewalk — shut it off.

Turning watchers into voters

Before they did, it was a brief demonstration of internet habits in its own chaos put out in the open.

Perhaps hoping to add a new draw to the kiosks now that the internet is gone, LinkNYC is launching a homepage allowing users to register to vote. Will civic duty be as big a draw as music videos or free porn?

Actually, it’s not such a far-fetched connection. The ever-entrepreneurial website Pornhub recently announced that during the Sept. 26 presidential debate traffic to its website “fell as much as 16% compared to an average Monday in this time period.” The site often tracks porn-viewing fluctuations during live events and sometimes finds similar dips — during the Euro 2016 soccer final in July and the NBA Finals Game 7 in June, for example.

Those NYC free internet users might not be that different from America’s voting populace. But the voters presumably did their browsing at home.


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