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The Peep Diaries by Hal Niedzviecki

Niedzviecki holds a party for his 700 Facebook followers, but is dismayed when only one person is willing to actually show up.

The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors

Publisher: City Lights
Length: 256 pages
Author: Hal Niedzviecki
Price: $17.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2009-06

It’s an interesting time to be revealing yourself to the world as a reality TV star, a blogger or a TV talk-show guest right now. As I write this, ripped from the headlines, comes news that celebrity blogger Perez Hilton was assaulted by the manager of the Black Eyed Peas following a video awards ceremony in Toronto, Canada. (Not to speak of the fact that gay rights groups are in an uproar that Hilton called one of the member of the Peas a “faggot”, even though Hilton is openly gay himself.)

Then there’s the fact that Jon and Kate Gosselin have been awarded some of the biggest ratings ever for the recent season debut of their reality series Jon and Kate Plus Eight despite, or in spite of, the fact that their marriage is on the verge of a breakdown. (The network responsible for Jon and Kate, TLC, has put the show on hiatus until at least early August, owing to the fact that the pair have publicly announced they are planning to separate and move to different cities.)

Then there’s the perennially successful Survivor, whose Bulgarian spin-off recently saw a contestant, one Moncho Vodnicharov, die after completing a physical challenge. And, finally, after a guest couple on Dr. Phil reported that they had made a living shoplifiting thousands of dollars of merchandise a year to make ends meet, they found themselves the subject of a police investigation.

All of these examples, according to Toronto journalist and novelist Hal Niedzviecki, represent a shift away from a collective pop culture into something more fragmented, something he calls “Peep culture”. So what is Peep culture? Take it away, Hal:

Peep culture is reality TV, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook. It’s blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn sites, virally spread digital movies of a fat kid pretending to be a Jedi Knight, cell phone photos – posted online – of your drunk friend making out with her ex-boyfriend, and citizen surveillance. Peep is the backbone of Web 2.0 and the engine of corporate and government data mining. It’s like the famous line about pornography: you know it when you see it. And you do see it. All the time, every day, everywhere.

In his new book, Niedzviecki – the author of the excellent Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity and We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture – basically offers the following thesis: that as we move into subdivided apartments and homes, and work in cubicles that are more and more lonely and isolated, we never truly know who our neighbours or co-workers are. We then strive to share as much as we can about ourselves in public forums in order to be seen and to matter, even if it means showing ourselves to complete strangers.

Thus, we take to the Web to share as much about ourselves in blogs and on Twitter, or we star in a reality TV show, or we share our deepest secrets anonymously through PostSecret, in order to get people to know us better, despite the paradox that even though we may “overshare” (named word of the year by the editors of Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus in 2008) information about ourselves, people may never get to know us for who we really are.

At the same time, Niedzviecki notes that traditional notions of what is privacy are falling by the wayside in Peep culture, despite the presence of Web privacy policies (which are barely ever read, anyway) or privacy commissioners. On one hand, you have law enforcement officials combining through Facebook to bust up private drinking parties posted by teens on the popular social networking site, or are charging youths with child pornography for sending photos of themselves naked to one another through their cell phones; on the other, you have more and more people willing to buy cameras installed in teddy bears to monitor what the nanny or babysitter is doing to their young offspring.

Finally, Peep culture is about “shaming” individuals, or gossiping about them, whenever they don’t meet a set of standards – whatever that may be -- that we assume we have in this new shattered community of people. The aforementioned incident about the kid pretending to be a Jedi Knight is one of them. Little Fatty, a Chinese teenager who became an “icon” after his peers started inserting his face onto photographs in digital photo mash-ups, is another.

Niedzviecki has written a well-researched tome, one that reportedly took two years to write, about the seismic shift in pop culture that sees millions of people who are willing to expose themselves in ways both literal and figurative. (Niedzviecki discovered a series of pictures on the Web about people willing to “break the seal” – or upload pictures of themselves about to go to the bathroom.)

As he writes, “Peep is addictive, and once you start its hard to stop. For better or worse, it’s easy to forget that you are essentially converting your (or other people’s) private moments into public announcements … Our mass digital culture makes it easier and easier to confess, reveal, and connect. And the more we reveal, the more it seems okay to put anything and everything out into the world for public consumption.”

One of the most notable chapters of the book is a section on Reality TV. Niedzviecki was successful in gaining access to a former star of TV’s Trading Spouses despite the fact that most reality TV stars have to sign waivers to the extent that they won’t talk about their appearances to the media. It’s a fascinating read, as Niedzviecki chronicles the rise of the “star”, the actual week of filming, and the crushing fall from grace after the TV cameras disappeared, and the person in question saw his episode play up a religious conflict when, for all intents and purposes, one didn’t exist in “real life”.

In keeping with the “diary” theme of the book’s title, Niedzviecki also chronicles his own (mostly blotched) attempts to participate with Peep culture. He tries (and fails) to sign up for a reality TV series. He blogs, but only succeeds at getting about 50 regular visitors, possibly because he is careful not to be too revealing on the forum. He installs a GPS device on his wife, and freaks out when she stops on her daily routine for about five minutes to stop at a local shop for a tuna sandwich.

He installs a camera on the alleyway running through his property, and while he doesn’t find very much in the way of being remotely interesting, he does find the process of watching addictive and checks in to the camera numerous times a day. He runs a background search on his father, after the latter complains about being swindled by his insurance company, and is surprised at how much information he could find out about Dad for a mere $30. He finally holds a party for his 700 or so Facebook followers, but is dismayed to find out that only one person was willing to actually show up.

While there's a lot of factual information in The Peep Diaries, most of which is already a matter of public record, it's how Niedzviecki connects the dots between that information that makes this such a compelling read. For instance, on a section of the book about the perils of blogging, Niedzviecki offers up a number of examples of people who have gotten into trouble with their blogging for being too revealing about their lives and work. Nothing new there. However, while Niedzviecki offers that while people might need to smarten up about what they blog about, there is the simultaneous need that, in order to blog successfully, "you have to be willing to submerge your self into your self."

He goes on to note that once he posted one of his most "open and vulnerable posts -- about my frustration around my inability to reveal my innermost feelings" he found that other bloggers were quick to rally to his defence in responses left on his blog. It's a contradiction in terms, the push and pull between revealing too much of ourselves online, yet the immense personal rewards that could come from that kind of exposure.

After voraciously consuming this book, I had to conclude: could I be more popular and well-liked in my online presence if I was willing to meticulously detail all of the salacious elements of my personal life on my blog? I wonder.

I’ve was caught up in the corporate end of Peep culture at the time I was reading this book. I recently applied for a new apartment in Ottawa, and my landlord insisted that I essentially hand over my Social Insurance Number, the location and contact details of the landlord of where I’m presently living, the address of the place I lived before that, a job offer letter from my new employer, two pieces of identification (including one photo ID), and, oh, I had to submit myself to a criminal records background check just for kicks. I also had to sign a document stating that I will, in my new place, refrain from selling or consuming pot or any other illegal drug, or engaging in prostitution, among other things.

In short, my new landlord has a small book’s worth of information about me, and has had me promise to mediate my behaviour in my new place, and I have to wonder, what is this information going to be used for? – other than the obvious: to clear me as a suitable tenant. Who else will ultimately have access to this information? Could anyone now do a background check on me and find my life now laid bare? Could the landlord ever use the information as blackmail if I were to simply cough the wrong way? It’s a little creepy to think about the implications, all of which are raised in The Peep Diaries.

The message in this book has a sense of immediacy. The types of platforms and devices used may change in a few months time, as more and more new technologies make Peep culture more invasive. Or, this trend of prurient yet impersonal fascination with private details could be a fad that might simply fade away, which is something Niedzviecki himself admits in the final pages, noting that by the time his three-year-old daughter reaches her teen years, “not knowing” and “not caring” about strangers’ personal habits might be an acceptable option.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone who is participating in our Peep-obsessed culture. If you blog, Tweet or use any other form of social networking to reach out and connect, this is an insightful and penetrating tome about the truths and consequences of taking part in that process. Indeed, as The Peep Diaries reveals, these are interesting times to be both a voyeur and an exhibitionist. The only remaining question is: where do we go from here?


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