If you’re reading this review online, you’ve elected to do so instead of looking at baby pictures, porn, or any number of blogs, vlogs, and feeds—a seemingly limitless collection of media and information. It’s shocking what people will put online. Or, strike that, it’s no longer shocking. In a worryingly short amount of time, many of us have become very comfortable with oversharing our lives and consuming the personal details of others on the Internet. It is this rapid shift that concerns Canadian social critic Hal Niedzviecki in his book The Peep Diaries. Niedzviecki meditates on the changes wrought by the broad new set of practices, abetted by technology, in which so many of us participate. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, personal blogs, and so on constitute what Niedzviecki designates “Peep Culture,” “in which a desire to be watched and to watch others being watched pervades almost everything we do.”
The Peep Diaries is a conversational, sometimes rambling “Can you believe this shit?” jeremiad against Peep Culture, though its title is more suggestive than its contents. (It is not really a diary, but to complain that The Peep Diaries is neither titillating nor emotionally revealing is to admit a hunger for the sort of nakedness —literal and figurative—that is a hallmark of Peep Culture.) Niedzviecki spends time with several people who share their lives online, and also goes native, by blogging, Twittering, and Facebooking (what verbs, these!), and by using a GPS device to track his wife’s bike ride to work. If these participatory stunts seem tame compared with the antics of, say, George Plimpton or Hunter S. Thompson, it’s because they are. That is part of Niedzviecki’s point: These activities are passive and solipsistic, meager substitutes for face-to-face communication.
Niedzviecki also argues that the time and energy we used to devote to our real lives are now spent developing virtual social networks: “The Peep Culture adopter seems to be veering away from humanity even as everything they are seeking—attention, community, interaction—is pretty much at the core of what humanity is all about.” In one of the book’s most telling episodes, the author tests the mettle of online relationships by inviting all seven hundred of his Facebook friends to an open-bar party in Toronto. He settles in with a drink and waits for the masses. Instead of hundreds, dozens, or even a handful of people, exactly one person shows up. The party is a failure, but the experiment is a success, inasmuch as it suggests that the bonds we form online do not necessarily translate into actual human connections.
Niedzviecki seems dizzied by the extent of Peep’s reach. Because he is writing about a massive social change that is still happening, he avoids overarching pronouncements and condemnations: “Peep is all about contradictions which is why it’s so hard to come to firm conclusions about it as a phenomenon.” He leaves us with some small but well-considered suggestions, and one big case of uneasiness about Peep technology: He urges us to be even more protective of our children’s privacy, to be wary of Peep’s unintended consequences, and to be open to the pleasures of not knowing everything about everybody. The Peep Diaries is a skeptic’s screed about some crucial ways our society is transforming, and his skepticism, much like mystery, is in diminishing supply.
Nick Poppy is a writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn.