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Peep Talk

December 31, 2011

“How do we know when we’ve crossed the line from sharing to oversharing?” This question, like so many other timely queries, drives the narrative of author Hal Niedzviecki’s The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors. Creative writer and social commentator Niedzviecki recently gave a guest lecture to the students in Professor Liz Podnieks’ class ENG570: Studies in Auto/Biography, during a module on mediated auto/biographical expressions, outlets, and industries in the new millennium. As he describes, “Peep culture is reality TV, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook. It’s blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn sites, virally spread digital movies of a fat kid pretending to be a Jedi Knight, cell phone photos—posted online—of your drunk friend making out with her ex-boyfriend, and citizen surveillance. Peep is the backbone of Web 2.0 and the engine of corporate and government data mining. It’s like the famous line about pornography: you know it when you see it. And you do see it. All the time, every day, everywhere.” Niedzviecki wrote the guidebook to peep culture in order to explore and understand just what it is that drives so many millions of folks to confess, perform, and promote in public their private lives and why an equal number of people follow, watch, and respond to these multi-media expressions and revelations of selfhood.

In an effort to bring his cultural observations to life and legitimacy, Niedzviecki immersed himself in the very world of peep he was recording. To this end, he was tracked by the Chocolate Box Entertainment crew of Sally Blake (director and editor), Jeanette Loakman (producer), and Avril Jacobson (editor) who turned Niedzviecki into his own best (or worst?) peeped subject. Cameras were installed all over the main floor and basement in his Toronto home, where he was agreeably condemned for one month to become fodder for public consumption 24/7. The cameras followed him everywhere as he went about his business interviewing peep “celebrities” like gastric-bypass blogger and Oprah wannabe Lisa Sargese, and peep facilitators like David Lyle, Fox Reality TV president. The cameras were also on hand to document, among everything else, his audition for a Reality TV show (he didn’t make the cut) and his weekend at Reality TV training camp.

The result of Niedzviecki’s walking the peep walk and talking the perp talk is Peep Culture, a documentary that aired on CBC in the spring 2011—it won a Gemini Award for Best Picture Editing. While students in Podnieks’ class studied the film through the lens of auto/biographical criticism, the subject matter is perhaps the most relevant material on the course to their own mediated lives, intersecting with and reflecting their own uses of online and digital technologies. The film opens with Niedzviecki contemplating the impact of these technologies on all of us:Putting ourselves out there for public consumption is supposed to make us happier, help us meet people, help us feel like we belong, but point a camera at us and we change.  The question is, what are we changing into?  What are we becoming?” His visit to Ryerson afforded the students an excellent opportunity to consider the answer to these questions in real time, and in dialogue with a real, as opposed to a virtual, peeping presence. Indeed, as one student aptly put it, “Hal was engaging and entertaining. Way better in person! His involvement in the digital community is quite impressive, and I admire his motivation to learn from other online users.” Another student commented, “It was inspiring and entertaining to see the author himself use humour, wit and a particularly racy slideshow to share his point of view on peep culture. Hal's presentation was informative and the lengthy discussion afterwards with the students was intriguing.” The afternoon is summed up by a student’s observation that Niedzviecki’s “face-to-face interaction with our class was in stark contrast to the type of interaction he claims we are deprived of. His warm and witty conversations with us were a reminder of the sense of community we so deeply search for online.”

This was Niedzviecki’s fourth visit to Podnieks’ life writing classes over the past few years, and she looks forward to welcoming him again.