Peeping ain’t easy

Hal Niedzviecki looks in on society’s fascination with digital exposure


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One could be forgiven for dismissing The Peep Diaries as yet another lurid autobiography. The title conjures images of true-life tales of a depraved and shameless voyeur. We’ve all seen such confessional fare cluttering shelves at the local bookshop. On closer inspection, however, Hal Niedzviecki’s latest book reveals itself to be a different beast altogether.

Subtitled How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, the book is a reaction to, rather than product of, the show-all, tell-all culture he calls “peep.” Troubled by a perceived societal shift towards self-exposure and mutual voyeurism, the Canadian cultural critic and novelist decided to find out for himself what it’s all about, immersing himself in the world of blogs, social networks, reality television and constant surveillance.

He repeats throughout the book how hard he finds it to practise what he peeps, but when I reach him at his Toronto home, I can’t help but notice that I’ve caught him in the act of checking his Facebook.

“Let me just, uh, finish typing one little thing,” he says, clearly distracted. “I was just kind of on Facebook waiting for you to call and a student in Chicago popped up and asked me a question about the book....”

He finishes typing a response and sends it off before returning to the task at hand. “Sorry about that,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to get a hold of someone these days than it used to be. I don’t feel totally obligated [to respond], but if it’s genuine and in good faith and someone really does want to have a dialogue about the work, then I’m happy to do it.”

The fact that Niedzviecki is using Facebook to engage someone he’s never met about the false sense of security that communicating with strangers over the Internet allows, is an irony that is not lost on him. It speaks to the problem at the heart of his book — reconciling the human need for connection with a society that increasingly spends much of its time alone in rooms with machines.

“We have all these technologies, which are all the products of massive corporations who are not making them for our good,” he says with a laugh. “Their goal isn’t to connect us and fulfil our desire for community and individual expression. Their goal is to make money.”

The problem, as Niedzviecki sees it, is that we are looking to the same technologies that have left us feeling forsaken for a solution to this lost sense of community.

“As society expresses itself more and more through technology, it separates and isolates us and then asks us to connect through mass media,” he says. “It’s hard to see how we can healthily connect with each other through screens and portals, especially when they are part of the very same corporate system that alienates us.”

These corporations are drawing us into their webs by appealing to our deep-rooted need to belong and to be recognized as belonging, says Niedzviecki.

“There’s an intrinsic human desire to be acknowledged as part of the group and as an individual,” he says. “In the past there were communities and social structures that did a much better job of allowing us to have both community participation and daily recognition of the fact of our existence. In our current system, we don’t do such a good job at that. We have to scrape and fight and claw for every single second of recognition.”

He should know a thing or two about recognition. Niedzviecki is a Toronto-based social critic and author of several books examining popular culture and society, including Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity, which examines the expectations of a new generation that believes they are unique and deserve special attention.

The Internet makes it easy to peep on these snowflakes and on relatively old folks like Niedzviecki. Every day we see people like ourselves getting thousands of hits on YouTube, hundreds of followers on Twitter and out-friending us on Facebook. And suddenly, we see how we, too, can get this recognition.

“You get back to the question of, ‘What do I have to put out into the mass media that’s going to get people to notice me?’” asks Niedzviecki. “The answer is, increasingly, the facts of my life — the individual facts of my existence which are valued by corporations or valued by other people who want to add me as a friend or a follower or have me follow them.”

The problem is, we can never share enough. Peep culture demands that we share everything with everyone, all the time. And once we start the process, it can be hard to stop. The book is full of examples of people endangering their personal relationships and livelihoods as they find themselves obsessed and sometimes addicted to sharing pieces of themselves with a nebulous audience.

“Even I’m a little bit addicted to my blog and Facebook and Twitter and all that crap,” concedes Niedzviecki. “So just imagine the response that they’re getting, thousands of hits, comments, interest… it is incredibly addicting, it’s very much like the kind of showbiz relationship that we imagine we will have when we become famous: people interested in every little aspect of our life and commenting on every little aspect of our life. It taps into something in our brain, that quest for notoriety. Again, we come back to this innate human desire to be noticed, which has been kind of co-opted and corrupted into fame and celebrity, which are the cancers of society spreading to each one of us.”

But while he can empathize with the denizens of peep culture to some extent, Niedzviecki admits that he will never be a wholehearted sharer of his private life.

“I’m so self-aware of the trades that we make, especially the trade we make for attention,” he says. “It becomes very difficult to just share little stories and details of my life because of that hyper-awareness and that constant nagging feeling of, ‘Am I getting enough back for this? Is this the right trade?’ And it may well be that there isn’t a right trade, that there is no appropriate compensation for the process of turning one’s private life into a show.”

To see for yourself how successfully he turns his life into a show, check out his appearances at WordFest. Share your secrets with Niedzviecki and watch as he tweets them into an anonymous feed on October 14 at the Municipal Atrium, or watch him perform at a cabaret-style event at Vertigo alongside names like Cadence Weapon and Kris Demeanor on October 15. If you’re strictly interested in the facts, head down to The Banff Centre on October 18 to hear the author expound on how we evolved from pop culture to peep culture.

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