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The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors

by Hal Niedzviecki

Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki has a hard time coming up with good, solid conclusions in his new book, The Peep Diaries. He admits as much in the last chapter. He thought that by the end of his investigation into what he calls “Peep culture” he would be able to take a firmly pro- or anti-Peep stance, but he can’t. All he can say is that people should be free to choose how much or how little of their lives they make available via
social networking sites, blogs, or reality TV.

Niedzviecki shouldn’t be criticized for this lack of groundbreaking conclusions. Making definitive pronouncements about how technology – particularly new media – will affect society in the future may help sell books, but it’s a fool’s game (see Arianna Huffington, Jeff Jarvis, et al.). In the absence of any earth-shattering thesis, The Peep Diaries is essentially an entertaining journalistic trip into the simultaneously mundane and unfathomable world of people who post nude photos of themselves on voyeur websites and families who volunteer for wife-swapping reality TV shows.

One of the problems with the book is that Niedzviecki’s definition of Peep culture is so broad that it seems, at times, to reach too far for examples. In one passage, he stretches to describe Morgan Spurlock’s movie Super Size Me as a “must-watch example of the Peep culture documentary.”

After all of the references to touchstones of Peep culture (MTV’s The Hills, Second Life, Facebook, etc.) and scholars past (Max Horkheimer) and present (Charles Taylor), Niedzviecki left out one potentially helpful name. Perhaps it’s a little too obvious, but in some ways the “combination of hyper-individualist excess, cutthroat capitalist self-preservation, longing for lost community, and our inherited hardwired need to make sense of life through narrative” that helped foment the culture Niedzviecki chronicles sounds similar to the conditions that French sociologist Emile Durkheim observed when he coined the term anomie during a much earlier era of technological change. Or maybe not. It’s always best to leave the pop theorizing to others.