Technology has always had a mixed effect on private lives. When the U.S. Postal Service was established in the 18th century, it made it much easier and faster for people to get in touch, but it wasn’t uncommon in the first few years for people to open and read one another’s mail. The introduction of the telephone in the late 19th century also had a transformative effect on communication—but for decades a private conversation could easily be eavesdropped upon by curious neighbors, or suspicious government officials.
In that context, it isn’t all that surprising that a host of recent developments have ignited a new debate about the social costs and benefits of technology. But the unprecedented rate of change in recent years has brought the debate to a fever pitch. Not only do we now have social-networking websites like Facebook and Twitter (do they help us stay in touch or do they trick us into exposing our personal information?), but we also have software that can track a person’s whereabouts (useful or dangerous?) and new video-editing technology that has made it possible to splice reality into reality television (improving our ability to relate to others or irreparably blurring the line between private and public?).
In The Peep Diaries, social critic Hal Niedzviecki terms this phenomenon “Peep Culture” and uses himself as a guinea pig to explore—and attempt to analyze—the world of Peep. He examines and pokes fun at all the ordinary people who believe their private lives deserve to be seen and their half-baked thoughts deserve to be heard. These people range from bloggers to reality television stars, from Facebook users to people who pose naked on the Internet, and from people who post online product reviews to those who spy on their wives and husbands.
Niedzviecki’s own tentative forays into the world of Peep sometimes work to entertaining effect—for instance, when he throws a “Facebook party,” with a guest list made of all the people he has befriended on Facebook, and only one person shows up. (If this sounds familiar, it may be because he wrote about the experience last year in The New York Times Magazine.)
At other times, though, his efforts fall flat. In a chapter about reality TV, he sets out to audition for a Discovery Channel show but goes only as far as filling out a boring questionnaire that asks about his profession and wilderness experience before bailing on the opportunity—thus passing up a chance to give readers behind-the-scenes insight into reality TV culture. When he decides to track his wife with a GPS device, he warns her in advance, losing the opportunity for a useful lesson on the ways technology can affect relationships. (When he later asks her about a stop she made on the way to work, she explains that she bought a sandwich, mostly “to give me something to look at while I tracked her.”)
This half-heartedness could be overlooked if Niedzviecki addressed the question that seems central to his book: Why has Peep Culture arisen and how has it changed us, for the better and for the worse? The Peep Diaries circles around this question, even guessing at a few answers, but Niedzviecki has trouble laying out a cogent argument that would make those guesses persuasive. He suggests that in our post-industrial society, “we want to connect, desperately, existentially, inherently. We’re willing to reveal ourselves for little or no reason even against our own best interests if only that we might, for a moment or two, alleviate the loneliness we feel all around us.” But, he adds, “Behind the locked doors of our castles we sit alone, desperately trying [to] stave off the inevitable discouragement, depression and anxiety that are the by-products of our anti-human society.” Wow. This would be a compelling, even believable, claim, if only Niedzviecki backed it up with some research—whether through interviews with Peep practitioners or quantitative studies on the matter. But, here and elsewhere, he fails to do so.
In the last few pages of the book, Niedzviecki even seems to admit he hasn’t quite wrapped his mind around the issue of Peep: “When I first conceived of this book I thought I would be able to end with a rallying cry. I wasn’t sure which way I’d go—pro or anti-Peep… But I’m at the end of the book and I’m as undecided as ever.” In other words, Niedzviecki knows he has no satisfying conclusions—either for himself or for his readers.
The most successful Peep practitioners, of course, do add value to the rest of our lives—whether they’re reality stars entertaining us with their antics (I know there are readers who got at least as teary-eyed as I did during the season finale of The Hills) or friends telling us things we should know (when Arlen Specter became a Democrat, I learned of it from a friend’s Tweet). I began The Peep Diaries expecting the same from Niedzviecki: that he would either entertain me or tell me something I should know—preferably both. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t do either of those things often enough.