Why we can't stop looking

Have we moved from pop culture to "peep culture"? Hal Niedzviecki on an age of Facebook, Twitter and reality TV

By Amanda Fortini
Published July 24, 2009 2:24PM (UTC)
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If you, like me, are somewhat private by nature, you are often made uneasy by our exceedingly confessional society, one in which friends upload photos of all things personal — kids, wild weekends, dark adolescent years — tweet their every move, or allow people to track those moves with a handheld device. Last winter, I argued with a close friend about her plan to post an unattractive photo of me on Facebook. I thought it was my prerogative to ask that the photo remain where it was — in her camera. She thought I was being narcissistic and precious, that I should get over myself. (Or, failing that, just “untag” it.) Last fall, I hired a young woman to help me transcribe an interview, the contents of which I’d hoped would remain confidential, and she wrote about it on her blog. Then my mother began a campaign of cyber-stalking, pointing to my Facebook status updates (“Amanda is driving to the desert”) as proof that I had time to come home for a visit. In the age of cyber-expression, privacy has become a near-impossible luxury.

My struggle to navigate these public-private rapids is hardly unique. In 2008, the editors of Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus chose “overshare” — a verb with which many of us are all too familiar — as their word of the year. Recently, on NPR’s "AirTalk," the discussion focused on a new site, called “My Parents Joined Facebook,” a forum where adult children can “get back at” their parents for “taking away their public privacy.” (How’s that for a 21st-century oxymoron?) “Family. Can’t Facebook with ’em, can’t unFriend ’em!” is the site’s slogan. Those are but two snapshots from the outlaw territory in which we have found ourselves.

In his new book, "The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors," writer Hal Niedzviecki names this “cultural movement steeped in and made possible by technological change.” He calls it “peep culture.” Peep culture, according Niedzviecki, encompasses myriad cyber-phenomena:

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.

Peep culture involves watching and being watched, snooping and spying, gawking and gossiping; it means exposing our intimacies with an eye toward bonding with others and growing comfortable with the increasingly common slippage between public and private. Peep culture, like pop culture, informs the atmosphere — it is the atmosphere — in which we live. Writes Niedzviecki, “It’s like that famous line about pornography: you know it when you see it. And you do see it. All the time, everyday, everywhere.”

In the past year, we have certainly learned that peep culture can escape our control. There are, for instance, the many Facebook-related firings, like that of the Swiss woman who claimed she couldn’t attend work because she couldn’t look at a computer screen, and then checked Facebook from home, or the British teenager who posted a status update calling her job “boring.” There are the intemperate Twitterers like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was fined $25,000 for whining (er, twining?) about a referee call, and Alice Hoffman, whose complaints about an unfavorable review caused a minor tempest in a Twitter feed. And then there is arguably the most inspiring, galvanizing example: the social-network cyber-chatter that eluded the Iranian regime's attempts to stop the free flow of information. Niedzviecki explores numerous manifestations of peep culture and uses them to discuss the implications of our online exhibitionism: Who is going to see what I write or post? Do I want them to know my most personal details? Do I want to know theirs? Where is this stuff going? Once it’s public, do we have any control over how it is used? Will it endure?

Niedzviecki, a cultural critic and fiction writer who has published two previous works of social commentary ("Hello I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity" and "We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture") parses the issues we must all confront — of privacy, freedom of expression, voyeurism and narcissism — if we are to live as engaged, techno-savvy members of contemporary society. Last week, he spoke to me by phone from his home in Toronto, where he was, with full awareness of the situational irony, on break from filming the forthcoming "Peep Diaries" documentary.

How did you come up with the term "peep"? There’s the "peep show," of course, but what do you mean exactly when you use the term “peep” alone? Was it something that had previously been used elsewhere, or did you coin it? Is it a noun, a verb, an adjective?

It's everything! When I came up with this idea of “peep culture,” I was thinking of peep shows, and the poor unfortunate character of Peeping Tom, and I also wanted something that would have a nice alliteration with pop culture. Basically what I'm arguing in the book is that we're moving from pop culture to peep culture. In pop culture we spent a lot of time observing and enjoying the exploits of celebrities, particularly their performances — their movies, their music, their dance moves, their comedy — but in peep culture we're shifting to spending a lot time getting entertainment from our life, and from the lives of family, of friends, and of anonymous people around the world. The methods are similar in the sense that you have the mass media and we sit behind screens and engage in long-distance entertainment. But the subject is very different — the subject becomes our lives and the lives of ordinary people, which are not performed or scripted.

It's not like every single person has stopped watching television drama so that they can read their grandmother's blog. It's a shift. Both exist at the same time and will continue to exist, but I believe that peep culture is gaining the upper hand.

There's always been people who seek fame or recognition, but lately it seems as though it’s become an epidemic.

The two things that keep coming up in the book are community and fame. We are, I think, extremely communal creatures. We evolved from apes and monkeys, and they spend a lot of time in groups grooming each other. And that's pretty much how we lived, in communal groups where we depended on each other and groomed each other. With the shift to industrialization, to big cities, to urbanization came the end of the kind of communities that provide us with inherent recognition. We had lived in a community where everyone knew who we were whether we liked it or not, where anonymity was not an option, where we didn't have to work at being noticed because we simply were. But now we have these big cities, we have pop culture, we have everyone sitting at home watching television, and we don't have those kinds of communities anymore, and yet we are hardwired to want that.

But paradoxically, we also have the whole issue of fame and celebrity, which confuses things. At the same time as we are finding that we're getting the kind of communal stroking — the cyber-grooming — that we long for, we also start to think, hmmm, maybe I'm a celebrity now. That desire to have relationships with people in which they know a lot about you and you don't have to know anything about them, which is sort of the quintessential celebrity relationship — that creeps in, and it skews things quite a bit.

Date the beginning of peep culture and outline a little capsule history for us.

What really creates peep culture is the rise of television. All of a sudden you have, in the 1950s, a little box in every single house that shows you a family, and that family is the Everyfamily, that family could be your family. "Father Knows Best," say, and "I Love Lucy," which by the way were real families pretending to be fake families for your viewing pleasure. And it started to seep into people's minds that, well, if that family's interesting, then my family is interesting.

The mainstreaming of peep culture began in and around 2000, where you have "Big Brother" and you have "Survivor" and you have these incredibly massive global hits based on watching ordinary people do things. This, in combination with the new technologies of the Web, fulfilled the promise that began in the '50s — that you should be on TV. That, in fact, it's not talent that's interesting, it's people. In many ways, that's proven to be true.

I want to ask about this kind of blinders-on syndrome people have about the Internet. You talked about this with regard to the woman, Padme, who has a blog about her “power exchange relationship,” “Journey to the Darkside.” How do people allow themselves to think that others won’t be able to figure out who they are? Over and again we hear these stories about people getting in a lot of trouble.

I think that, first of all, the urge to reveal yourself is so powerful in our society, again for these twin reasons: the desire to feel like you're in the terrain of celebrity, and the desire to simply be noticed in our anonymous age and feel like you have some kind of community, even if it's just a pseudo-cyber-community. And those two things are incredibly powerful, and they seem to kind of overwhelm a lot of the reservations people have. The other thing I've noticed is once people start doing it, a lot of their inhibitions fall off. And the feedback they get, the attention they get, is overwhelming for people.

You call it “breaking the seal”

That's right. Once you "break the seal" you can’t stop. Because your community feeds off you. If you disappear, they'll just move on. And the main rationale for it all is to simply deny: "No one is going to connect this to me" or, "No one's reading this" or, "Nobody cares," which is true up to a point. But what people don't seem to realize is that this information is extremely useful, and so why wouldn't people access it?

Useful in terms of...?

Corporations, law enforcement, government, market researchers, family, friends...


Dating. If you were putting out a tremendous amount of completely free information into the world, why wouldn't people use this to decide if they should hire you or date you or admit you to a college or give you a harsher sentence when you claim that you don't have a drinking problem or whatever, and online all your Facebook pictures feature you wearing a "shot belt."

Talk about the rise of Facebook and Twitter. When did social networking really take hold?

None of this made sense until the rise of high-speed broadband Internet. People had experimented with this stuff, but widespread acceptance probably didn't kick in until about the year 2000 as well. Something like Twitter is a very recent phenomenon. Two years ago, when I talked to [Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone] in San Francisco, they were just a couple of guys in an office. And they were really considered to be on the lunatic fringe of social networking.

A lot of people don’t get the appeal of Twitter. They wonder, "What’s the point?"

I put that exact question to the people of Twitter. I said, why would anyone want to do this? And they said to me, people like Twitter because it's connection with low expectations. And that's a phrase that has stuck with me and has become almost an overarching explanation for the whole peep culture phenomenon. You have this idea of, we want to connect but we live in an atomized, capitalist society that does not reward too much connection. In fact, you don't get ahead by making good friends and standing by them or by being very involved in your community. So we want the feeling of connection without the weight of being expected to do something.

You talk about it at the end of the book: You invite people to a Facebook party. Maybe you can just talk about what happens and the conclusions you arrived at about social relationships as a result.

I decided to hold a Facebook party because I realized at one point that I had 800 Facebook friends, but in real life I really didn't have any friends, at least no friends in my city, Toronto. Part of that could be because I'm a curmudgeonly workaholic and part of that could be definitely because I've been in new-father mode, and you sort of lose touch with people. So, long story short, I said OK, I'm writing this book, I have 800 Facebook friends, let's get to know them. I said, Look, come to the bar near my house in downtown Toronto, I'm buying the first round. Thirty people said yes, for sure they were coming. Some 60 said maybe, several hundred said no, and the rest just didn't answer. So I really felt like I was going to have 40 people at this event. But unfortunately only one person showed up. And I was shocked; I really was shocked.

Were your feelings hurt?

They were. No one wants to hold a party and have no one come. That's pretty pathetic. At the same time, such a decisive result, I think, was really revealing about the truth behind a lot of these social networks. Which is, again, that we want to connect but we don't want to have to have face-to-face interactions that could lead to demands being put on us.

What are the generational differences here?

The major generational shift is the fluidity of young people. The fluidity by which they are constantly on the move, instantly Twittering, Twitpic-ing ... they'll be doing that at the same time they're blogging and updating their status and making little movies and sending them to YouTube. It's this totally fluid, constant thing that is in direct synchronicity with their real life. I think that the ease with which they do that, and the speed, is probably the No. 1 generational difference.

You talk about nanny cams, GPS devices, cellphones that track kids, all these surveillance devices. Can you tell us how they are examples of peep culture? Because to me they don’t feel like they would be entertainment. I would not want to sit there and look at the footage. I would use a nanny cam if someone were watching my child, but everything else seems just boring to me.

Try it! [Laughs] One of the things I argue is that these are the consequences of peep culture, that once we sort of open the portal — if we say it’s entertaining to watch other people’s lives, well, then, a lot of the classic arguments against surveillance are difficult to keep going. People enjoy this, volunteer for it, and want it. Why wouldn’t they want to be watched on the street if they’re willing to be watched in their own houses by themselves?

When you say classic arguments, do you mean that people don’t want to have their privacy invaded?

Or that people are afraid of the government misusing their power to watch us. Those kind of things. But it’s like, well, if people were afraid of that, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, which is creating vast public bodies of knowledge of their most intimate moments.

I argue that we are very much in favor of surveillance in our society. We want it. We enjoy it. In many cases we think of it as another possible conduit that can get us attention. We can be seen on a surveillance camera doing something crazy, or we can be near someone doing something crazy.

Do people actually think that getting on a surveillance camera is a way of being a celebrity?

I think that’s a pretty minor line of thinking. But take the case of the Columbine shooting: There were surveillance cameras in the school, and surveillance camera footage did get leaked out and can be found on the Internet, and it’s part of their mythology now, part of their fame. And so, if you have a sort of twisted mentality already, and you’re going to do certain things, it could be an extra bonus. I read an article about the 20th anniversary of "Cops." The producer said, “Well you know, it used to be really hard to get people to sign the release forms. Now, as soon as they see the camera they get very excited. They start yelling, “I’m on 'Cops!' This is awesome.”

The tendency, when one talks about these issues, is to talk about all the bad things that are happening — say, social breakdown. I’m wondering if you can talk about the happy benefits of peep culture — the good parts, the things that we might overlook.

First of all, there’s the isolation that so many of us live in, and the opportunity to reach out to other people who may be lonely in the same way we are. People will find best friends that they would never have met otherwise, through these conduits. So that obviously is positive, there’s no question about that. There are in some cases legitimate communities formed where people really do care about each other, and I think there are cases where pre-existing communities and friendships are strengthened. It’s just, you have to be really careful about assigning goodness to these things overall.

Even if you’re watching for entertainment value, in many cases there’s often a kind of moral sanctimoniousness or feeling of superiority, wouldn’t you say?

Absolutely. You feel the right to watch this: “Look at this terrible thing.” This is a deep question of our society now. We just saw an example of it with the whole situation in Iran, where for a couple of days everyone was watching this video of this poor young woman being shot, and there was this horrible close-up of her eyes rolling in the back of her head, blood everywhere, and then she passes. We have to ask ourselves, what is the value of this footage? Just as we ask ourselves, what is the value of surveillance camera footage that captures a horrific accident or a terrible crime? Does it really help us, or does it hinder us? To what extent are we watching this from a place of moral indignation and to what extent are we watching this from a place of “Did you see that sick stuff?!” prurient excitement. And you can do both at the same time, but at the end of the day I think we’re seeing much more pseudo-morality than we are seeing real concern. As soon as Michael Jackson died everyone seemed to forget about the poor Iranian girl.

If you can play soothsayer for a second, where is peep culture headed?

Sure, I love that question. You look at the 15-year-olds and the 20-year-olds and the way they’ve integrated it into their everyday lives. That’s where it’s going. It’s going into just constant filming, documenting of your life. As you go along in real time you are creating at the same time a parallel virtual you who is available online to anyone, and you have a kind of perception of your profile, you’re always hyper-aware of that virtual person.

At the very end of the book you also say you’ve come to the conclusion that there’s value in “not knowing.” Can you just talk about that?

That’s a kind of sensibility, I guess, a feeling that what makes up the possibilities of human and individual sanctity is giving people some space to be not known. So, if someone is dying, to not have a camera in his or her face; if someone is going through a hard time, to not be chronicling it and documenting it and demanding that they’re doing the same — that though we need to cast light on things, and there are issues that need to be revealed, there’s also a beauty just kind of being, and that if we lose that, that’s going to be a very hard thing to get back.

You mean, being without feeling that you don’t exist unless you’re observed — if a tree falls in a forest …?

Yeah — if you were born and lived and died and nobody ever took your picture or clicked on your Facebook profile, or if you had zero Twitter followers, that in some way your life would be just the same, just as good, that the amount of attention you receive through peeping yourself is ultimately not a signifier of your success as a human being.

Amanda Fortini

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