Friday, January 13, 2012

Hal Niedzviecki: The Peep Diaries

It is very possible that Hal Niedzviecki has ruined blogging for me. I'm certain that this wasn't his attention, but "The Peep Diaries" makes online sharing out to be a sordid, if necessary and inevitable modern pastime. Niedzviecki's "Peep" is "a rapidly emerging phenomenon, a cultural movement steeped in and made possible by technological change" that stems from our contradictory need for more privacy- bigger houses, bigger fences, more space- and the need to share everything about ourselves and have people care about what we share- facebook, twitter, reality TV about "regular" people. Blogging is just one example of this: we put ourselves out there because we need to be heard and recognized as unique individuals. Successful bloggers have readers who depend on their bloggers for a sense of community: they turn to the blog for a reflection of their own quirks, for entertainment, for "peep." So until I read "The Peep Diaries," I thought of blogging as a creative outlet: I've always liked writing and writing helped me straighten out my thoughts. I have a "voice" for personal thoughts and a "voice" for public thoughts. I've always kind of written in my head- figured out what I would write, as opposed to what I would say, and blogging is the modern version of that. I don't read the visitor metrics of my blog very often to see who's actually reading the blog, though it is nice when those in my online circle leave comments, especially provocative ones, and my dad is very good about replying to each post. 

But Hiedzviecki called me out: in peep, we blog for a sense of personal community, to create a virtual identity, a brand, a "person-product," as he calls it. To you, I am "themacinator." Am I disguising my identity, as I believe I am, or subconsciously am I creating a persona, an identity, "an entertainment product [that gives me the] power to invent a new person- the person you think you should be, as opposed to the person you actually are"? Readers of this blog know what I chose to put out there (duh)- they've compiled some kind of image of someone who reads a bunch of eclectic nonfiction titles, has a pit bull, is obsessed with the pit bull, takes photographs in a fairly mediocre but semi-serious way, is quirky, is involved with animal welfare and loves Oakland. But is that it? Perhaps I'm a psychokiller or something entirely more reasonable, maybe I actually have another dog that I don't talk about. Maybe I have a kid. I let out bits and pieces of my private life- Hiedzviecki would have you know that I do this both in a need for community and at my own risk: we don't know who is reading our online information for one thing, and for another it is most certain that google and other search engines and third party applications are, and that they're making money from them. I know this, and yet I continue to throw out information, including the benign stuff (photography, pit bull, Oakland), and tag my posts, making them even more accessible.

This is part of "peep": we know we're being surveilled (?), we seek it out in the name of safety, but we only want it on our terms. We want to watch people, and to some extent we want to be watched. But we don't want those same search engines to sell our stuff. Like Eli Pariser argues in "The Filter Bubble," we like the ease that comes with online surveillance: we get the results we want, more quickly. We also like the alleged safety we get from the millions of surveillance cameras we have installed everywhere, in public and private space, including in our own homes. As an incredible and heartbreaking example of the pervasive and uselessness of cameras, the Columbine incident was recorded on CCTV. The video cameras did not save fifteen deaths. I'm reminded of the recent murder of a young boy in Oakland at the scene of a rap video: the suspects were caught on multiple cell phone videos but remain unidentified. We document everything, but unless we're watching a show about crime on TV, we do it just for the "peep" of it all.

Niedzviecki doesn't offer any answers, though he offers plenty to be concerned about. His book is a good argument for de-facing yourself (I patted myself on the back for not being on Facebook, and for using twitter for a discussion board, rather than as a diary), but he doesn't do much besides say "this is the way of the future, but be careful!" He decides at the end that he won't put anything online about his daughter, and let her decide what her online persona will be. To me, this seems like a given, but I see that it is not: flickr is full of fabulous photographers who have shared their children with me, and I love watching them grow up. But will they love looking back at themselves age in a "virtual community?" He offers no alternative to inevitable online breaches of privacy: it's clear that we don't care enough about our privacy, and in fact welcome it when it's convenient, but Niedziecki falls far short of providing any sort of prescriptions for what we can do to avoid this. For example, my bank has recently required me to receive e-statements, or pay per statement. Of course I understand the rationale for this- cost, environment, etc- but I am also aware of what I am giving up. I have lost the option to control my information online. According to one study, "if every American actually stopped to read the privacy policy of every Web site they visited for a year, it would take them an annual average of 200 hours, or almost eight and a half entire days of fine-print peering." So, Hal? What do we do? If, as he argues (and I would argue against), "peep" friendships don't translate into "real" friendships, should we just call the whole thing off?  

I'm going to keep blogging.