We live in a very weird world. If youre in front of me in line at Publix and I commit the offense of talking to you (Hey, that wheat germ looks right tasty), youre likely to call the cops.
But if I go online and friend you on Facebook, youll tell me all about yourself what movies you like, what turns you on, what music is on your iPod. I can learn your e-mail name (GatorBootyGal) and, if Im lucky, see pictures of you puking your guts out during some ill-advised bar crawl.
Its strange not only what we share but how compulsive we have become about sharing. And it goes beyond sharing. In person, we can be private, almost secretive. Behind one of these keyboards, were eager to tell you our most intimate secrets.
Maybe this is driven by loneliness. Maybe its the modern way weve come to deal with lives of quiet desperation. Part of it might have to do with the delirious pursuit of fame. People want to become famous not by actually doing anything noteworthy. They just want to be famous, as if fame is a birthright.
This has been much on my mind lately because of The Peep Diaries (City Lights Books, $17.95) by Hal Niedzviecki (above). This book has preoccupied me since it came out in the summer and Im wondering if it might end up being one of those prescient, influential books like David Reismans The Lonely Crowd.
As everyone else starts the December look back at the year, this is my dark-horse nominee for most significant book of 2009.
Just since the book was published, weve had masterpieces of assholery to further underscore Niedzvieckis points the Colorado morons with the balloon-boy son and the egocentric douchebags who crashed a White House state dinner. In both of those cases, all they wanted was undeserved fame.
Of course, Id feel differently about them if they could cure cancer or feed the hungry. Then Id have their pictures tattooed on my ass. But for now, they are publicity seeking imbeciles.
Midway through the book, Niedzviecki gives a case history of a family that did one of those wife-swap TV shows. The family was Jewish, lived in the country on a farm with seven horses, and all had a pretty good sense of humor. They were to swap wives with an urban family. They figured the entertainment would be in the city-and-country culture clash.
Instead, the television producers clearly misrepresented both families. Scenes were taken out of context and a religious conflict was invented. The whole week was falsified . . . invented . . . and yet was called reality television.
How did the Jewish family feel when the mother was portrayed as intolerant of her adopted Christian family?
They didnt care. They just liked the rock-star treatment they got from the network and the flicker of fame that came with their brief moment in the sun. Truth and humiliation didnt matter. Fame did.
Of course, beyond all of these factors, Niedzviecki recognizes the insidious uses of this knowledge we so freely divulge and the hundreds of breaches of privacy we endure each day.
The Peep Diaries is an important, deeply thoughtful book that deserves a wide audience.
William McKeen is chairman of the University of Floridas Department of Journalism and author of several books, including the acclaimed Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist, now available in paperback.