Once the domain of diaries, trusted friends and closets full of skeletons, secrets found a new outlet in 2005, when Frank Warren launched the website PostSecret.com. Since then, PostSecret has collected secrets---written on postcards and mailed anonymously to Warren's home in Germantown, Maryland---and posted them online. To date, Warren has received over a half-million cards, published five books of collections and attracted millions of viewers.
"We've all had some secrets in our lives," Warren says over the phone from his home. "It's a safe, non-judgmental way to share some secrets and discover some."
In 2004, Warren owned a document delivery service and volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline. Citing his volunteer work as an influence, he put together a community art project where he distributed postcards, asking people to write a secret on the cards and mail them back. Warren received about a hundred cards back out of 3,000. They were exhibited, and then the postcards kept coming.
"It was about the time that blogs were taking off," he says. "I was interested in sharing some of the stories around the world." Currently, he receives around 100 cards a day, saying that the mail has levelled off since the website initially took off a few years ago.
Where are they stored? "That's a secret," says Warren.
Has he ever received anything weird in the mail, like marriage proposals or threats? "One secret said, 'I wish I was married to Frank Warren so I could see all the secrets before anyone else does,'" Warren says. He's also received secrets written on seashells, fruits and vegetables, death certificates---"pretty much anything mailable."
The website is updated with new secrets every Sunday. They range from the slightly salacious and humorous, to heartbreaking secrets about parents, adoptions and disease, and the usual glut of sex confessions and 16-year-olds wondering if it ever gets better. Some samples: "I give decaf to all the customers who are rude to me," written on a Starbucks cup; "I call the cops on all the parties you don't invite me to;" "What if I really am a 15-year-old nymphomaniac?"
The first PostSecret book came out in 2005, and the fifth, PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God, in October. The new book has the regular assortment of secrets, as well as an emphasis on what Warren refers to as "spiritual secrets." He gives an example of a Polaroid photo of a church with "I'm a Christian falling in love with someone who doesn't believe in God," written on it. "I think that's a really beautiful story," he says.
Warren will be speaking at the Rebecca Cohn on January 20, as a benefit for Adsum for Women & Children. In his talks, he says, "I try to share some of the stories behind the secrets." He also projects images of postcards that were banned from the books, of which he won't give any details of---"You'll have to come and see." In addition, audience members are invited to come up and share their own secrets.
"I think people are feeling more comfortable sharing parts of their lives that their parents wouldn't have," he says.
It's not all a diversion---Warren's project had roots in his volunteer work, and he has done advocacy work through the site, raising over $20,000 for the National Hopeline, an American crisis hotline. "I don't think there's a direct connection between secrets and suicide," he says, "though I see some very dark secrets." The side of the project that aims to help other people provides another side to what might be seen as a superficial or exploitative goal.
Laura Penny is a writer and professor of literature and critical theory at University of King's College and Mount Saint Vincent University. "Nothing piques our interest quite like the word 'secret,'" she says. "Foucault argues, in his History of Sexuality, that we live in a confessional culture, that the church's practices of confession and pastoral care have leaked into other social forms like the law, psychiatry and the media. We constantly give accounts of ourselves as a part of our institutional lives, so I don't think it's that surprising that it's become part of our leisure time---a form of entertainment---or that many of us see it as therapeutic---getting things off your chest is supposed to be liberating."
Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki, in his 2009 book The Peep Diaries, explores what he calls "Peep culture"---the culture of reality TV, blogging, nanny cams, YouTube and more. He looks at the voyeuristic aspects of PostSecret, calling it the "front lines of Peep"---a forum for shared understanding on one level, commodifying our secrets on another. Niedzviecki sees the website, in one respect, as achieving the confessional side of friendship without the obligations that come with actual friendships.
Penny agrees that PostSecret is "a kind of 'friendship lite,'" but also states, "If somebody who does not have many robust friendships finds social solace or comfort through a site like PostSecret, I have a hard time begrudging them that.
"Certainly an online format makes it easier for people to confess, without many of the risks we usually associate with sharing, such as embarrassment or loss of social status," she says.
And while it's easy to see the trite side of confessions of deep, dark secrets by 22-year-olds who've been sharing their lives since junior high, it's hard to be critical of Warren, who seems genuinely invested in wanting to aid others through discussion and his work with suicide prevention. "I think [PostSecret] brings out the vulnerability and humanity in people, and from that comes empathy and wanting to help," he says.