Peeping Tom, a nick name for a curious prying fellow. — Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796 

overshare (verb): to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval. — Word of the Year 2008, Webster's New World Dictionary
In December of 2008, the editors of Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesaurus chose the verb "overshare" as their word of the year. It's a new term—the aforementioned editors describe it as "emerging English." A weird word for a weird time, the awkward end to an awkward year, and, though it's unlikely to be remembered as such, a potent marker indicating a major cultural shift. In 2008 a dynamic new president of the United States was elected, Apple released the iPhone 3G, and global capitalism teetered, all turning points we won't soon forget. And yet that single ungainly word, "overshare," may prove to be more significant. For 2008 was the year we unequivocally and unceremoniously ushered in a new era: the Era of Peep Culture.

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.

Peep, like the sudden stunning rise of television in the 1950s, seems relatively innocent. Friends connecting. Overly enthusiastic teenagers pushing boundaries. People of all stripes and demographics gathering (virtually) to talk about their lives, likes, dislikes, and problems. But look at what happened with television: Such virtuous fare as Rin Tin Tin, Gunsmoke, Father Knows Best, and You Bet Your Life somehow led us to TV dinners, childhood obesity, and bowling alone. In less than a decade, television changed how we ate, socialized, and maybe even thought. Television changed society forever, but while it was happening it was hard to notice. We were too busy transfixed to what TV was showing (as opposed to doing). Elvis gyrated his pelvis, Sputnik pierced space, Cuba was blockaded, and we watched, somehow missing the big story.

It's the same today. While we monitor the overlapping "wars" on "terror," get close-up views of global warming, and access the intimate details of the lives of celebrities, how we socialize, shop, play, date, mate, and maybe even process information are all undergoing fundamental transformation. But there's nothing in particular to worry about or pay attention to. Kids will be kids, "overshare" is the word of the year, and if you want me, I'll be online, updating my status, posting my book reviews, and uploading videos of my root canal.

The first indication that something new but not yet fully understood has taken root in our society is the sprouting of fresh vocabulary. That's where we were at the end of 2008: giving tentative names to the swirling miasma of strangely unsettling activities that can all be grouped together under the rubric of "Peep culture." A year to name names, 2008 is behind us now and it's time to ask: What do we really know about the world that these new words, innocent as babes in arms and portentous as armed teenagers, are trying to describe?


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