The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors Paperback – 1 Jun 2009
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About the Author
Hal Niedzviecki's writings on culture have appeared in newspapers and magazines across North America. He is the founder of Broken Pencil, a magazine covering zine culture and the indie arts. In addition to three novels and a story collection, Niedzviecki is the author of Hello, I'm Special and We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As my husband's in the tech field, and very up to date with all things digital technology, he's well aware of many ways in which we've lost our privacy. But a whole book dedicated to the subject? It scared him too much.
It scared me, too. As a graduate student in Library and Information Science, I've taken a required course on the topic of Intellectual Freedom. One major theme that cropped up again and again was how what we reveal about ourselves is recorded in ways we can't even imagine. Several class mates argued, "If I'm doing nothing wrong, why should I worry?" I, and a number of others, tried to communicate to them that any loss of freedom or personal information is a potential disaster, and that once it starts there's no stopping it. I'm not sure we convinced all of them, but a few were "reformed."
I loved The Peep Diaries, and did, as my review title exists, find more than a few eye-popping facts that were new to me. But the aspect I enjoyed most was the connection he made between the decline in "real life" community (Americans so often don't even know their immediate neighbors) and the ways in which we may be seeking to achieve those sorts of relationships online. A brilliant observation. I'd love to read a book-length treatment of this one topic alone.
I enjoyed this book from start to finish. It kept me engaged, and I enjoyed the style. It walked the line between scholarly research and familiar, friendly language, never lulling me to sleep as so much of my graduate school reading has (!). Very highly recommended to all, but I'll warn you: it probably will scare you, but in a way that's good for you. It will teach you that every bit of information you give away is stored by someone, somewhere, and may one day be used against you.
Towards this end, Niedzviecki interviews many players in peep culture: bloggers, reality tv stars and producers, youtube "filmmakers," and creators of surveillance technology available to the public. He even decided to get in on the action himself by starting a blog about his personal life and buying a device that allows his consenting wife to be tracked GPS style. To his surprise, he found blogging quite addicting and keeping tabs on his wife throughout the day surprisingly stressful.
About half of the book recounts his interviews with those involved in peep culture, and half is reflection on peep culture. The reflective part is not nearly as interesting, as Niedzviecki's points and ruminations are often quite stale. We've all heard the diagnosis before that the desire to blog, star in reality shows and the like is one part narcissism and one part desire-to-connect-in-an-increasingly-isolated-existence. It may be true, but the fact is that we don't really need another book telling us this (and tell us he does, repeatedly, as if it gets more original each time we hear it.)
My favorite part of the book was the chapters toward the end dealing with issues of privacy raised by peep culture. It is one thing to willingly consent to give up privacy and be watched. It is another thing when the same technology allows people to invade the privacy of those who did not consent. Blogs make gossip easier. Put increased availability of cameras and surveillance technology and youtube together and you get the potential for privacy violation. (Yes, the law can punish the transgressors, but who cares; everyone already saw the video before it was taken down.) As Niedzviecki often reminds us, new technology is not necessarily a bad thing, but it often leads to periods of adjustment where we stumble to acclimate ourselves to "new ways" of doing things.
Overall, this is a moderately good book about an interesting subject. Niedzviecki is a good writer and interviewer, but his philosophic ruminations are a bit stale and tiresome. (And the author had a tendency to make the same or similar points over and over.)
But let us be honest. There would be far fewer exhibitionists if the rest of us did not relish watching them make fools of themselves. Not only are we a culture of exhibitionists; we are a culture of voyeurs.
Niedzviecki believes that Peep Culture emerged because people find it more difficult today than ever before to develop close, long-lasting relationships. We might live in larger and larger cities, surrounded by more people than ever, but the pace at which we live our lives makes it near impossible to connect with like-minded people or to maintain such relationships over the long term. So what could be more tempting, or addicting, than how easy it is to find hundreds of new "friends" on websites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube - especially when we can choose people who think and believe exactly as we do?
In order to test his theory, Niedzviecki became a direct participant in Peep Culture. Among other things, he blogged and he tweeted; he participated in what is humorously called "reality TV;" he met with a group of people who post nude photos of themselves on soft-porn websites; he researched the latest tech gadgets that allow us to spy upon one another; he made over 700 new friends on Facebook; and he filled out online surveys in which he exposed his personal details to companies that profit by selling his information to others. In other words, he did the very things so many of us have been doing for a number of years (well, maybe with the exception of posing in the nude for web photos).
Niedzviecki thoroughly explores the downside of Peep Culture, a downside that is particularly dangerous to young people on the cusp of maturing into the adults they will be for the rest of their lives. He notes that college administrators, hiring managers, credit managers, insurance investigators and others, are as aware of sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as anyone else - and that they often pre-screen applicants based on what they see on those sites. Not surprisingly, what makes a high school or college student popular among his peers (primarily an ability to party with the best of them), is the very thing that could cost him admittance to the college of his choice, a high-paying job after college, or reasonably priced car or health insurance.
Niedzviecki spends surprisingly little time exploring the more positive aspects of Peep Culture. How, for instance, those finding it most difficult to make face-to-face friends often eliminate depression and raise self-esteem in the process of making dozens of new friends on-line - even to the point of using their new found confidence to make friends locally. Or how easy it is for like-minded people to find each other and share a passion about some obscure subject so few others seem to care about. But regardless of whether or not there is a Peep Culture "pro" to match every Peep Culture "con," there is no going back to the way we were even two decades ago. The world has never been smaller, and never before have people been so interconnected for so many hours of the day.
The repetitiveness of Niedzviecki's arguments does, at times, make for dry reading, but "The Peep Diaries" is a nice snapshot of where Peep Culture is today, if not necessarily where it will be this time tomorrow.
It starts with our caveman desire to belong and be part of a community, Niedzviecki explains. As social animals, we're hardwired to connect with one another and to feel special or important. Historically, people lived in small villages which fulfilled that function. Everyone knew each other and everybody's business. Everyone had a place and was acknowledged in some way. Now we're global and mobile; we don't stay in the same town, we don't have intact nuclear families, let alone extended ones, and we're becoming increasingly alienated from the church and organized religion.
We're also frantically busy. Most families have two income earners and kids who are involved in sports and afterschool activities. Where is the free time to make friends, to hang out, to relax and reflect upon our day? Enter the Internet with its seductive message -- instant friends on Facebook! If you're unpopular at school, no worries. Post videos on YouTube and become a quasi-celebrity. We expose ourselves in the hope of making genuine connections, but does it work or is it illusory?
One of the best parts of this exceedingly well researched book is that Niedzviecki claims no easy answers. Unlike other nonfiction works that assert the Net and reality TV are dumbing us down, or making the new generation the most narcissistic imaginable, The Peep Diaries understands that not everything is black-and-white. In fact, most things in life, including the use of surveillance cameras, social networking and reality footage are complex and contradictory. They can't easily be assessed and dismissed into one good or bad category. Moreover, Niedzviecki is a consumer who immersed himself in peep culture, not solely as an experiment but also as a lifestyle -- he's still there despite the risks involved in revealing personal information about himself, which could be used against him, or out of context, by law enforcement, neighbors, employers or advertisers.
The old Shakespearean saying, "All the world's a stage..." has never been more true. In the modern wired world, we're always acting, creating personas online to impress and capture the hearts and attention of others. We have turned ourselves into products that we pitch to each other. When we take photos now, in the back of our minds we're wondering how this will look on MySpace. If we don't like a photo, we delete it -- we act as though the moment never happened; when we're at events, including the Olympics, we're stopping to tweet about how much fun we're having. If we're having that much fun, how can we stand to stop in order to tweet? The Peep Diaries has no easy answers for these hard questions, but it gives us all a starting place to look at our comfort with "oversharing," obsessively tracking and incessantly micro-blogging in search of an emotional connection that may always elude us electronically.
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