The Dawning of the Age of Peep
Every morning before I start my workday, I make myself a cup of tea, check my e-mail, and log on to Facebook. I’m not sure when signing on to Facebook changed from a once-in-a-while occurrence to part of my every day routine, but I’’ve had an account since 2004, when the site was launched. Back then, the features were minimal and glitchy. “There’s no way this will ever replace Friendster,” I remember saying to a friend from college. But now, because I work at home, I use Facebook to connect with my coworkers and clients during the day. I use it as my virtual water cooler, to chat to friends during my coffee or lunch break. It’s completely replaced my need for a tangible workplace environment. According to Hal Niedzviecki, author of The Peep Diaries, the Peep Culture phenomenon has completely taken over my life, and probably not for the better.
Niedzviecki’s theory is that our society has transformed from the pop culture movement to what he has coined as “Peep Culture.” In Peep Culture, “we’re all learning to love watching ourselves and our neighbors,” the author says. With the popularity of the Internet, reality TV and surveillance cameras, we entertain ourselves by spying on the lives of others. Although this switch may seem as harmless as the television boom in the 1950s, Peep Culture may be far more dangerous because a seemingly harmless virtual post on Facebook may damage our real-life reputations.
Niedzviecki explores nearly every crevice of Peep Culture by talking to reality television participants, couples who photograph themselves for pornography websites and the creators of websites that encourage peeping, like Frank Warren of the anonymous confessions website, PostSecret.com. Warren receives thousands of postcards in the mail every day and scans a handful onto his website. Although there are no names attached to the secrets, Niedzviecki suggests that PostSecret is so popular because the act of connecting with a group of people can be powerful and healing. But unfortunately, a face-to-face connection in today’s society may feel too scary or unsafe.
In Peep Culture, we are taught from the news and frightening television dramas like Law & Order that we can’t trust our neighbors and anyone could be out to get us at any time. To feel safer, we hole ourselves up in gated communities with fancy alarm systems and a wall of flood lights and surveillance cameras. The more closed off from tangible society we feel, the safer we feel. But we also feel more isolated and desperate to make connections with others. Instead of walking down the street to the local coffee shop to strike up a conversation with a stranger, we feel more comfortable creating a controlled version of ourselves online. We can project an image of ourselves that may not be completely truthful by posting a particularly flattering picture from several years ago. On the Internet, we can be who we wish we were without sacrificing our safety. Or so we think.
The Internet may seem like a safe place to post on message boards and join social networks, but corporations and websites may be reverse-peeping on us, Niedzviecki says. To prove this point, he joins Detectives.com, a website that gives basic information (like occupation details, length of residence and hobbies) about anyone to any user who pays a fee. He finds startlingly accurate information about his father, including reports of his income and information about his premium credit cards. Because Niedzviecki’s father has not given this information to be used over the Internet, he feels tricked, particularly when it seems the data has been sold to his car insurance company, who has decided to drop him.
Niedzviecki suggests that sensational hidden camera stories on the news and crime television shows like CSI and Cops, may have led us to believe that anyone could be a criminal and no one should be trusted. According to the author, these forms of entertainment are not trustworthy and help establish our perception of the world as a big, bad place where bad things may be happening right in our neighborhoods. I couldn’t help but feel, however, that while reading The Peep Diaries, I was being exposed to the same kinds of scare tactics that I’ve seen on the nightly news. The Internet is a big, scary place that is catapulting the world into an age of isolation, Niedzviecki argues in his book. But Niedzviecki doesn’t write about any of the Internet’s benefits, like the ability to read The New York Times online or Skype with friends who live halfway around the world and would cost a fortune to visit. Instead, Niedzvicki seems intent on scaring the reader, which feels like a low blow—as low as the sensational news and scary cop shows he’s criticizing.
For someone who has written a book called The Peep Diaries, I expected Niedzviecki to share a little more about himself, particularly after reading the book jacket: “With hilarious acuity, social critic Hal Niedzviecki dives into Peep, joining every social network that will have him, posting to chatrooms and starting a blog, spying on his neighbors, trying out for reality TV, drinking with empty nesters who post their nude photos online, and throwing a party for his Facebook friends.” Although, yes, technically Niedzviecki did mention his Facebook account a couple of times in the book and filled out an application form for a reality television show, his attitude is not that of an excited Peep Culture enthusiast. Instead, it feels like he is begrudgingly completing a mandatory assignment. After promising to write on his blog twice a day, Niedzviecki writes, “I didn’t keep the pledge. It was too much work.” When a reality TV casting director offers to hook Niedzviecki up with a few reality show auditions, he writes, “I decided to decline her invitation. It’s all just a big lie anyway, I told myself,” referring to the fact that reality television stars are manipulated into performing wacky stunts that are just as fake as scripted shows. If Niedzviecki couldn’t even get himself excited about falling headfirst into Peep Culture, why should I be excited to read about it?
Although it lacks the personal touch and impartiality I would have expected, The Peep Diaries is a downright frightening social commentary that makes me never want to log on to the Internet again. Who is collecting my information and selling it to my credit card company? Will a photo I posted in college come back to haunt me twenty years later? Unfortunately, this is a risk we must be willing to take by living in today’s society. A couple in Pittsburgh recently sued Google for placing a photo of their private driveway in the Google Street View application, a growing database of streets and neighborhoods throughout the world. Google representatives responded: “Complete privacy does not exist in this world except in a desert, and anyone who is not a hermit must expect and endure the ordinary incidents of the community life of which he [or she] is a part.” Niedzviecki shrewdly rebuts, “We don’t expect privacy when we’re walking down the street, but that doesn’t mean we expect the moment to be chronicled by a for-profit company and permanently stored in a database designed expressly for the purposes of instant retrieval.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.