In Cyber Safety, The Digital World

What is PostSecret?

Secret confessions are a fascinating concept. Despite the questionable nature of an anonymous message, we cannot look away. Add the “confession” dimension and we are suckered for sure.

Though the idea of writing your own secret confession is intriguing, perhaps more so is reading the anonymous confessions of other people. Who isn’t tempted to peer into the life of someone else if given the opportunity–a type of voyeurism of the soul?

These were the thoughts that inspired a project called PostSecret.

In essence, PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. Selected secrets are then posted on the PostSecret website, or used for PostSecret’s books or museum exhibits. Over the years, PostSecret has developed into much more than just a website.

The Beginning

In 2005, bored by his job and in desperate need of a creative outlet, a man called Frank Warren established a blog where he solicited the secrets of others, inviting people to write their deepest secrets on a homemade postcard and mail it to him anonymously. In an era where people rarely share their home address publicly, Warren defied conventions and posted his home address. Perhaps this fact–more than any other–confirmed the reality that he thought the project would garner little to no attention.

He provided some simple guidelines and agreed to post ten new secrets every Sunday.

The idea quickly gained traction and, since its beginning, millions of secrets have been delivered to his front door. According to this article in USAToday.com, “Frank Warren is knee-deep in secrets: They’re overflowing boxes, piled on tables, leaning against walls – with hundreds of new secrets arriving each week.”

Warren has admitted to actually keeping a tab with the post office to pay for the postcards that arrive with insufficient postage. Furthermore, he claims he still feels like a kid on Christmas Day every time he goes to the mailbox and discovers a new stack of cards.

In yet another article on USAToday.com, Warren’s publisher is quoted to have called him “the most trusted stranger in America”. He collects the secrets of others and posts them on his website, includes them in his books, or displays them in museum exhibits.

The PostSecret phenomena has taken the nation by storm and is perhaps the worst kept secret in America. Frank Warren developed more engaging methods to interact with people interested in PostSecret. He created immersive multimedia PostSecret Live! events that reveal the humor, heartbreak, and humanity of our hidden stories, and these events always sell out. You can read more about PostSecret Live on the website.

Furthermore, Warren collaborated with an award-winning team of theatre professionals to bring PostSecret to life, theatrically, for the first time through PostSecret: The Show. As described on the website, projected images, videos, three actors and a guitarist guide the audience through crowd-sourced narratives revealing the true stories behind the secrets. They are as alluring as the secrets themselves. People wait in line for hours to catch a glimpse of a PostSecret exhibit.

Simply put, people are intrigued by the secret confessions of others.

The Goal

Psychologists and commentators alike often weigh in with their opinions of the PostSecret project. Theories abound as to the willingness of people to take the time to create their postcards and share their secrets. Warren maintains a fairly strict set of guidelines for the type and size of postcards in an effort to weed out less-than-serious contributors.

Yet the postcards keep on coming.

Why people would carefully guard their secrets for years and then share them with the world at large is unclear.

One contributor wrote, “I’ve had two postcards of my own featured on the website–I won’t tell you which ones–and to see them chosen and posted for the world to see was beyond therapeutic. It gave me the message: I matter.”

Publisher Judith Regan of ReganBooks referred to PostSecret as “the human heart exposed.”

Warren has made no secret of his goal for the project. According to him, “Paradoxically I think that there have never been more people on the planet, there has never been more communication technology, but I also feel like there has never been more loneliness. My hope is that through PostSecret people can feel, not necessarily less alone, but that we’re all kind of alone together.”

Whether this is true or whether people simply feel unburdened once they talk about the secret they have carried for so long, PostSecret seems to have struck a chord with people.

The Website

The PostSecret website has received over half a billion hits since its inception. And even while other websites lose their steam over time or morph into something else entirely, PostSecret.com seems to be gaining momentum–not losing momentum–as the years pass.

Impressive is the fact that the website remains the largest advertisement-free blog in the world. Even as it collects awards and gains attention, it remains ad-free. Warren, concerned that people would believe he was soliciting secrets in order to make advertising profit, made the decision early on not to allow advertisers onto the site. He has remained staunch in this conviction and his dedication to ad-free blogging has no doubt contributed to the site’s credibility.

The layout of the blog is straightforward. It includes a few guidelines and recent postcards.

Plain and simple.

A Turning Point

After one anonymous contributor confessed a desire to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, thousands of readers flocked to the PostSecret Facebook page to encourage the self-described illegal immigrant to reconsider. You can read about this story in more detail in this article on Time.com. Whether or not the individual followed through on the desire to take his or her life remains a mystery. And it is perhaps this type of mystery–whether or not the thousands of secrets are true–that continues to draw people like moths to a lamp to postsecret.com.

Interesting to note, the Facebook page now has more than 1.5 million likes.

The Reality

As is the case any time people are invited to make anonymous commentary, many of the secrets contributed to the PostSecret project are sketchy at best. Many of the published secrets are dark. Suicide is often a subject of interest on the site, so much so that postsecret.com often shares information about suicide prevention or hotline information for readers who are considering ending their life.

Warren dedicates much of his time to suicide prevention hotlines and initiatives, perhaps in part because of the number of suicide-related messages he receives on a regular basis.

The website–and Warren, specifically–has been criticized for posting suicide-related secrets at all. Some readers and mental health professionals have expressed that giving any attention to suicidal secrets in this way does a disservice to people who are struggling with the tendencies.

Certainly Warren is not a mental health professional, nor are the contributors of suicidal secrets able to get the help they need simply by mailing an anonymous postcard. But it is noteworthy that Warren’s project has raised over $1,000,000 for suicide prevention, as stated on the PostSecret Live website.

The Danger

In addition to the heavy nature of many of its secrets, PostSecret has also been criticized for influencing dangerous apps. After successfully launching an iPhone app, Warren was forced to shut it down just three months after putting it on the App Store. This article on Mashable.com tell the story.

Predatory and abusive behavior caused Warren to kill the PostSecret app and hold back the release of the Android version. Postcards may be anonymous, but it should be noted that apps are not.

In his interview with Fortune.com, Warren has spoken out against apps like Whisper and Secret. You can read about the Secret app in our article here. It stands to reason that anonymity is not typically the best way to build meaningful relationships as it doesn’t need to prove itself and doesn’t rely on trust or result in honesty. And since you cannot know with certainty to whom you are speaking, extreme caution should be exercised.

Often PostSecrets are twisted or sexual in nature. Very rarely are all ten posted secrets on a given Sunday appropriate for young children to read. While some secrets may lead to meaningful conversations about various life topics, most secrets are too complex to be read and discerned by minors.

Bottom line: Parents should exercise extreme caution when allowing children to view postsecret.com.

The Controversy

Because of the anonymous nature of postsecret.com, it is impossible to verify the legitimacy of any of the secrets. In September 2013, Warren published a postcard to his site that read, “I said she dumped me, but really, I dumped her (body).” The postcard garnered a lot of attention, including that of the Chicago police who were summoned to look for a body in Jackson Park. Readers of the website were confident a murder had taken place and was the subject of the postcard. No foul play was ever discovered, and the postcard became known as the PostSecret murder hoax. You can read more on that story in this article on NYDailyNews.com.

One spin-off of postsecret.com, called PostSecret rejects, created over 400 fake secrets and posted them to a website made to look like postsecret.com. Other groups and people have taken pride in submitting fake secrets and seeing them reach publication in one of Warren’s projects.

In this way, postsecret rejects are an exercise in brainstorming more than a study in human behavior.

The Conclusion

The success of PostSecret is the stuff of blogging dreams.

Warren has made a career out of a hobby and has created conversation around topics that were once taboo. No doubt some contributors have been liberated by their opportunity to speak out about burdens they have carried too long. In some ways, it is unfortunate that the secret contributors take relief in sharing things with the world that they feel they cannot share with those who know or love them. This may be the saddest commentary of all.

Readers have enjoyed a closer look at the human psyche and have enjoyed the trek–however truthful–in someone else’s shoes.

At the very least, readers have been reminded that we really don’t know the burdens other people are carrying. And in some ways, we have been reminded that we aren’t the only ones who have made mistakes. On the flip side, PostSecret has served to remind parents that evil is alive and well in the world and that we must guard our children from exposure to the dark secrets of others.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, this project proves the simplest truth of all–that all human beings harbor secrets.

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