Years ago, one of my Friday night rituals was to watch the bizarre public access programs that ran back to back on my local station. To say that the viewer risked “video whiplash” is an understatement. The first program featured two men dressed in Rastafarian garb – Ras Simeon and Ras Joseph were their names – seated in front of an incense burner, reading Marcus Garvey speeches from the 1930s. An Ethiopian flag was set against a window behind them; the venetian blinds behind the flag were always visible.

Following Ras Simeon and Ras Joseph was Tom Metzger‘s “Race and Reason,” as ugly and venal a piece of vicious videotaped hatred as ever there has been. Metzger and his followers were convinced they were the smartest people in the room. There is little more annoying than a stupid person busily telling you how rational he is.

What these public access programs have in common is that the platform of broadcast video lends at least a small amount of credence to individuals who would otherwise never be heard. Few take public broadcast television seriously, but the fact that Ras Simeon, Ras Joseph and Tom Metzger’s names are known to me at all is proof of the power broadcast video has to reach an audience.

What such a broadcast cannot do, however, is strengthen a crackpot’s message in and of itself. When Ras Joseph and Ras Simeon had a parting of the ways, resulting in a show or shows in which only one of them recited incense-obscured speeches, I was struck by how much less credible this already marginalized figure possessed. When an older, balding Metzger spoke smugly and alone into the camera from a chair on his lawn, he seemed much less formidable than the pseudo talk-show host he pretended to be in the years previous.

The social networking revolution has given a public-access broadcast outlet to everyone within reach of a computer. Video-sharing giant YouTube, part of Google’s intergalactic Web empire, is accessible to everyone. Frequently, YouTube is a vast sea of videos most people will never see, often featuring lone crackpots and weirdoes railing into their cameras’ unblinking lenses. Arguably, giving such nuts an outlet does the public a service, for it allows the solitary, frequently housebound losers to vent their spleens while exposing the potential dangers they pose.

Where YouTube truly wields power, however, is when the leverage of public outrage is brought to bear on an issue. No longer is the lone, angry speaker simply the object of ridicule or a harbinger of mental illness. For every YouTube member who films hilarious videos in which he pretends to be a ninja or accuses his political enemies of imagined crimes against him, there is a “viral” video that focuses public attention.

Remember Alexandra Wallace, the pretty blonde who captured national attention for posting a YouTube rant laden with racism toward Asian students? Her video got so much attention and garnered so much hostility that she quit school. What is perhaps most disturbing about her sad tale of self-immolation is how brightly burn the fires of political correctness. It bothers me that UCLA had to decide not to “discipline” Wallace for making her video.

Insensitive and offensive though it may be, it is clearly an expression of free speech. What right does UCLA have to discipline one of its paying students for statements made on a website not affiliated with that school? By what unmitigated gall do they presume to decide she won’t be punished for actions UCLA has no power to govern?

More sobering is the account of a pair of Syracuse University students who recently (and inexplicably) harassed and possibly threatened an Asian student at SU. The student who was harassed posted the video on YouTube, which brought immediate attention to the incident (and also proved that it occurred). He took the video down, however, when one of the students who harassed him apologized and begged him to do so.

“I realized I can ruin his career and family relationships, so I called it off and took it down,” the student was quoted as saying. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Just over an hour west on the New York State Thruway, in Rochester, N.Y., another drama played out on YouTube. In an incident that made national news and kept talk-show hosts from Glenn Beck to Bob Lonsberry occupied for hours, a woman was arrested by the Rochester police for standing on her own front lawn.

Emily Good was taping a traffic stop that occurred in front of her home. A police officer asked her to step back into her house, as she was apparently standing directly behind the officer. When Good refused, she was arrested, and the videotape of the exchange was posted on YouTube. Most likely due to the pressure caused by negative publicity from that video, charges against Good were dropped during her court appearance on Monday. Emily Good is now considering, according to her, suing the police department over the affair.

It was, again, the leverage of public opinion that made a real difference in Emily Good’s case. Video-sharing sites and ubiquitous, inexpensive video cameras have turned every one of us from lone weirdo into potential viral video star. The attention and the outrage our videos elicit may burn us, as in the case of Alexandra Wallace, or they may stoke the fires of public sentiment in our favor, as in the case of Emily Good. As the two accused racists at SU understood only too well, those flames can climb so high they threaten to incinerate your life, your job prospects and your future … all because a single person with a camera put some moving pictures on a public website.

Public video is a lever that can move the world. Your problem is that you can’t know where lies the boulder of public sentiment. Whether uphill or down, great power and great pain may be in the offing. What you’ll have to decide is where you’ll sit … and where you’ll stand.

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