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Pop culture gives way to Peep Culture

Hal Niedzviecky, author of The Peep Diaries, holds the recent issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, which lists his book as one of 25 Books You Can't Put Down. (Della Rollins for the Globe and Mail)

Della Rollins

"Dear Diary . . ."

That phrase is, well, just so dated.

And it's certainly far too private, at a time when people are eager to post their innermost thoughts on blogs and social networking sites like Facebook, for all to read.

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Toronto writer and social commentator Hal Niedzviecki calls it "peep culture," and says it allows ordinary people to get their entertainment from other ordinary people.

In his book, " The Peep Diaries ," he says it's a tell-all, show-all phenomenon of the digital age, which also has social consequences, such as diminishing the overall concern about privacy.

One big problem is the tendency of "oversharing," or giving out too much personal information both online and offline.

It was recognized by Webster's New World Dictionary as 2008's word of the year. That's also the year Niedzviecki says formally ushered in the era of peep culture, even though it has been around for decades.

"Overshare gets you eyeballs," he said in an interview, and many who do it may not even realize they are revealing too much. "The speed at which you can put out information, there is no take back."

Maybe I overshare and that might get me into problems because someone I know might come across it one day. But it makes me more real as a person, and maybe others can connect to me that way. Vancouver blogger Padme who writes openly about her sex life

Niedzviecki says peep culture includes the micro blogging site Twitter, video sharing site YouTube, chat groups and photo sharing sites, as well as mainstream reality television and celebrity news and gossip.

His ideas haven't gone unnoticed. Talk show queen Oprah has recommended "The Peep Diaries" for her summer reading list.

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Peep culture is simply an evolution of popular culture and its focus on entertainers and celebrities, Niedzviecki says.

"We are using our leisure time and getting our entertainment from unscripted performances from real people, whether it's ourselves, our friends, our neighbours or strangers from around the world."

So why do we peep? Niedzviecki credits loneliness and the basic human need to be part of a community - "my argument is that we are hard-wired to be in constant contact with other people."

He writes about one blogger who goes by the name Padme (after the Star Wars' character). She writes openly about standard stuff such as her kids and family life on her blog Journey to the Darkside (NSFW) but also about a pretty complicated sex life, complete with plenty of photographs. Her blog would definitely carry an adults-only rating.

"People are counting on Padme's posts and Padme is counting on them to read her posts. What's happening in Padme's life is happening in lives all over the world," he says in his book.

Padme's story introduces the second chapter, which Niedzviecki has called, "Becoming a Peep (Product) Person," and Padme admits she does "put more of myself out there" than some other bloggers.

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"Maybe I overshare and that might get me into problems because someone I know might come across it one day," she said in an interview from her suburban Vancouver home.

"But it makes me more real as a person, and maybe others can connect to me that way."

Padme has been blogging for almost four years and says she felt isolated as a stay-at-home mom. The blog has given her an online community, as well as some "real time" friends whom she first met on the net. She says now, she doesn't have to "be on the phone for four hours" with friends.

Niedzviecki says online communities can give people friends without responsibilities or commitments. He put out an invitation to hundreds of his Facebook "friends" and had only one show for drinks at a bar.

Jonathan Sterne, an associate professor of communications studies at McGill University, suggests that despite all the online disclosure, people remain careful about managing their online personas.

"What you're getting is not a direct pipeline from either the person's life or their mind. People blog because they want to be read, even if they want to be read by their five friends."

Sterne also says peep culture has been a source of complaint for many years, with criticism of radio, TV, newspapers and books for allegedly violating people's private lives.

While people are learning to like watching others and to like being watched as a form of entertainment, Niedzviecki says it's not necessarily meaningful to everyone.

"We say we are connecting but, in many ways, we are sort of connecting, mainly, with ourselves."

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