The Rise of Peep Culture

Broadcasting the intimate details of one's life has become mainstream

Illustration: Richard Mia


We derive more and more of our entertainment from watching ourselves and others go about our lives. We’re going to enter a point where we become quite addicted to being watched.
—writer Hal Niedzviecki, in the Ottawa Citizen, 31 January 2009

A few years ago, I was researching the term camgirl, used to refer to a girl or young woman who broadcasts live pictures of herself over the Web. I certainly strive to be a disinterested chronicler of new words, but sometimes I just have to shake my head. Why would someone turn her life into a digital peep show? I was tempted to dismiss this as a bizarre hobby for a few teenage exhibitionists caught up in a new technology. But then I read that there were thousands of camgirls out there. And yes, there were plenty of camboys, too. Clearly there were larger forces at work.

According to Susan Hopkins, the author of the book Girl Heroes: The New Force in Popular Culture, for some kids the constant surveillance of webcams affirms their identities—because they’re like, you know, sorta kinda on TV, and only celebrities and important people appear on TV. It’s the same impulse that provides a never-ending cast of unembarrassed reality show participants. It’s why TV crews never seem to have trouble finding a grief-stricken person to interview after a disaster. The camgirls themselves talk about ”artistic expression” and ”empowerment,” and surely that’s true for some. But for most of them the omnipresent eye of the webcam serves only to validate their existence: I cam, therefore I am.

Over the past few years, broadcasting the intimate details of one’s life has become mainstream. Many of us are now blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, Flickring, and YouTubing at least some details of our lives. In his book The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, Hal Niedzviecki calls this peep culture. Peep culture is a play on pop culture, a phrase that entered the language around 1959 (although the longer form popular culture is surprisingly older, with a first citation from 1854, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

One form is the lifestream, an online record of a person’s daily activities, either via direct video feed or via aggregating the lifestreamer’s online content, such as blog posts, social-network updates, and online photos. If this lifestreaming is video only, and in particular if the person is using some form of portable camera to broadcast his activities over the Internet 24 hours a day (à la the camgirls), then it’s called lifecasting, and the stream itself is a lifecast.

The highbrow version of lifestreaming uses no video and is called mindcasting, the practice of posting messages that reflect one’s current thoughts, ideas, passions, observations, reading, and other intellectual interests. (This is not to be confused with an earlier form of mindcasting that used the term in the more literal sense of attaching a sensor device that broadcasts one’s brain waves. No, I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that.) Mindcasters are also called informers because they post information, as opposed to meformers, who post updates that deal mostly with their own activities and feelings. (Just to keep us all confused, some folks also call this lifecasting.)

Other examples of -casting include egocasting, reading, watching, and listening only to media that reflect one’s own tastes or opinions; Godcasting, posting an audio feed with a religious message; slivercasting, delivering video programming aimed at an extremely small audience; screencasting, showing a video feed that consists of a sequence of actions on a computer screen; and, of course, the familiar term podcasting.

We may be well on our way to becoming addicted to being watched, but who’s doing the watching? If we’re all broadcasters now, it’s entirely possible that we’re beaming our streams, tweets, photos, and status updates to hundreds of ”friends” and thousands of ”followers” who are too busy broadcasting their own lives to tune in. Peep culture may be the new pop culture, but is this really a two-way mass phenomenon? Maybe most of us have an audience of one: ourselves.

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