When enough is too much: A look at infotainment
With the explosion of social media outlets and reality television, intimate details about other people's lives have become a pervasive form of entertainment.
There's a veritable buffet of options. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and MySpace are among the online outlets, not to mention the infinite number of personal blogs. The television offerings include "Survivor," "The Real World," "The Real Housewives" and "American Idol."
"Peep culture" is what Hal Niedzviecki not-so-lovingly calls this societal trend, which he examines in depth in his new book "The Peep Diaries, How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors."
"Anyone who's ever lost a few hours clicking on the profile pictures of friends and friends' friends knows what Peep is all about," the Rockville native and Winston Church High School alumnus writes.
Niedzviecki combines personal experience with creative, in-depth research to explore how and why society has moved away from the morning newspaper and the evening sitcoms into the age of "infotainment," in which an around-the-clock collage of sensationalism and manufactured drama seem to draw an ever-increasing audience.
The book defines peep culture, documents its emergence, gives real-life examples of people who divulge their deepest secrets to total strangers and attempts to answer the question of why it has such a grip on society.
"In an age where parks are replaced by condos and fewer and fewer people know their neighbors, the urge to connect to like-minded people can be incredibly powerful," Niedzviecki writes.
He points to changing neighborhood structures and morphing ideals as the thrust behind peep culture.
"We have very fragmented, lonely societies," Niedzviecki observes.
After the Industrial Revolution, people began to live much further apart. Montgomery County, full of roads and big houses, is typical. A common aspiration is to put as much space as possible between yourself and your neighbors.
"We're living this goal of the big house and the big car and the big office," he says.
While this may meet some definition of success, he notes, it detracts from an overall feeling of belonging and keeps people from fulfilling their organic need for basic human contact.
And the technologies that allow people to draw attention to themselves by broadcasting details about their lives connects to the belief that getting your name and picture out there and noticed is the very definition of success.
"It's a pretty paltry replacement for meaningful social interaction," Niedzviecki says, adding that time spent on the computer or watching television takes away from time that could otherwise be spent on real interaction.
"We're all learning to love watching ourselves and our neighbors," the author writes. "Peep's power is that it is widespread and elusive. It's a whispered, hypnotic idea: You need to know. You need to be known. In Peep we feel the cathartic release of confession, the allure and danger of gossip, and the timeless comfort of ritual."
Niedzviecki believes that our dependence on voyeuristic entertainment is likely to deepen with the inevitable advent of even more convenient and portable electronic devices.
"To me, the biggest consequence is what happens when we start to look at each other's lives as product," he says, adding that it is dangerous to put a price tag on people's life stories.
Peep culture has a particularly strong grasp in the celebrity arena.
"We are incredibly influenced by celebrity in our society," he says, noting that celebrities are no longer simply artists working on a particular craft, but are a brand in and of themselves.
"In the process of marketing that brand, they started to market their personal lives," Niedzviecki says.
The author became more involved with online social networking four years ago after his daughter was born. Caring for a child, he says, simply did not allow for the same amount of face-to-face interaction with friends. In order to connect with people, he had to connect to the Internet.
"I'm just as sucked into it as the next person," he admits.
Niedzviecki hopes his book simply points out the various moral questions raised by the spread of peep culture.
"I think there are smart and dumb ways to use these technologies," he says.
He wants people to consider what they are getting in exchange for what they are giving up. Good writing, he says, empowers people to think more deeply about the issue at hand.
"The Peep Diaries, How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors" is available for purchase at major online booksellers.