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Hal Niedzviecki gets deep into the peep culture

Hal Niedzviecki

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For a brief period last year, Hal Niedzviecki opened his life to the entire world. Or at least to a small online viewership.

As a Toronto-based writer and social commentator (and frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail), Niedzviecki has examined the roles of media and pop culture in the eight books he has penned. At the same time, the 38-year-old husband and father has consciously avoided modern technology and social networking. No cellphone, Facebook account or Twitter followers for him.

But he knew the territory. Niedzviecki explored the topic in his 2009 The Peep Diaries, which was selected by Oprah Winfrey's O magazine as one of that summer's must-read books.

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Last year, he went deeper into the subject by allowing filmmakers Sally Blake and Jeannette Loakman to install cameras in his house for a three-month period and broadcast his life online around the clock. Niedzviecki also started a blog, jumped onto Facebook and Twitter and made efforts to get on a reality-TV show. His wife Rachel was not amused.

The resulting film, Peep Culture, documents Niedzviecki's livecasting experiment and also follows him around North America to meet fellow webcasters and attend a reality-TV "boot camp" in California. He spoke to The Globe in Toronto last week.

How much have social media evolved since your book The Peep Diaries came out in 2009?

When I wrote the book, Twitter was in its experimental stage. I spent time with the guys running Twitter. They had five employees in a warehouse in San Francisco. They had plenty of time to hang out with me. By the time the book came out, Twitter had a billion or so users.

What was the effect of Oprah's O magazine declaring your book a must-read?

The impact wasn't like, wow, bestseller! I wasn't on the show or anything. It's fair to say that Peep Diaries wasn't an Oprah-type book. The readers of O magazine were not looking for a slightly despairing, cynical analysis of mass media trends and how they affect individuality.

Why agree to broadcast yourself to the world in the documentary?

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When the book came out, the passages people seemed to like the most were those when I tried out peep culture and reported what happened. Like the Facebook party I had where I invited 700 of my Facebook friends and only one showed up. People really responded to that.

Any regrets about opening up your life to the Internet 24/7?

The livecasting was obviously the most uncomfortable. It was invasive and intrusive, but also the most fulfilling in many ways and the most addictive. The more immersive it is, the more you start to forget about it.

How bizarre was it that people were watching your empty bathroom online - and chatting about it?

For those people, this is entertainment stripped down to its absolute nothingness. They were speculating on whether anyone would come in there and what they would like to see them doing. Those people chatting seem to be having an awful good time and a much better time than they would if they were at home watching Three's Company.

How much strain did livecasting put on your marriage?

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There were some shaky moments on the domestic front. You can see there's considerable unhappiness as we're trying to balance this whole thing. That's part of the story of peep culture. Almost everybody we spent time with who livecasts all the time is single and alone. There's a reason for that, because there are so many barriers you have to try to respect with other people, and it's really hard to do.

You meet several individuals who've opened up their lives to the world. What's their motive?

Some are palatably desperate for attention and community. There's that loneliness of North American society, which is endemic in our everyday lives, and almost superimposed on that is our desire to be known, to be famous. And those things become conflated and confused. Even in people's minds they no longer know if they're doing something to meet new people and have community, or if they're doing something to get fame and attention.

Are some simply seeking validation?

Validation is part of it for sure. Somewhere in between the desire for fame and the desire for community is the desire to be validated. But validated on what level? As an individual? As a pop star? To achieve royal status as a celebrity in North America?

For some, like Malloreigh in Vancouver, is the motive swept away by the method?

Malloreigh posts alternative nude pictures of herself and doesn't really know why. She talks about how this allows her to get her message out to hundreds of thousands of people. So you have to wonder: What's your message? The message isn't clear.

The downside of everyone wanting to be famous?

Everyone wants to be witnessed but what happens now in the age of peep culture is that in the process of being witnessed we turn into product. The slip into product is really the dark side of things.

You also visited a reality-TV boot camp in Simi Valley? What was that like?

A lot of people there had families and successful careers, yet they desperately wanted to be on a reality show. You could literally see some of them absorbing these lessons, and over a very short period of time toying with becoming a certain kind of brand. For those of us concerned about humanity becoming one big branded product, there's a dark side to that that can be quite disturbing.

Why isn't it a turnoff to some viewers that many reality shows - Survivor, Repo Men etc. - are so obviously scripted?

They prefer not to know. The more they can suspend the idea that people are intervening and this is really happening, the better. That's the central tenet of peep culture: the more we can pretend we're getting access to real, intimate and spontaneous things that are happening, the more we're going to want to watch

Do you watch any reality shows?

I watch them all. Soon as I hear about a new one I'll download it and watch it. I watched Repo Men for a while. The worse the better for me. I'm particularly fond of Dog the Bounty Hunter.

Are you watching them for the wrong reason?

I don't think there's a right reason.

Did making the documentary draw a clearer line between Facebook and Twitter for you?

I don't think they are substantially different animals. There are all kinds of social media gurus who will expound on their differences. It's now part of peep culture that we have this new class of expert to tell us how to create our social media brand, and what we should put on Facebook, and what we should put on Twitter. But they operate in the same way, which is to allow us to broadcast anything we want, and primarily what we want to broadcast is news about ourselves.

Did the process make you more or less inclined toward social networking?

I came out the other end somewhat less inclined to post any kind of private material on Facebook and Twitter and their various spinoffs. They're amazing tools and there's this constant debate on their benefits - look what social media is doing in Egypt or did in Iran. But I don't think you can compare it country to country. In North America we tend to broadcast ourselves and I'm personally shying away from that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Peep Culture airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on CBC News Network.

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