Frank Warren could never have expected that hundreds of thousands of postcards would be sent to his doorstep.
In November 2004, he started the PostSecret project by handing out 3,000 blank postcards with instructions to reveal a secret that the holder had never told anyone before, and post it back to him. But even after he stopped handing out the postcards, anonymous secrets kept arriving in his mailbox in Maryland, USA.
Over a million people visit the PostSecret blog on a weekly basis, making it the largest advertisement-free blog in the world, and in 2005 the postcards were treated as an art form in their own right at the PostSecret exhibition shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
To date, he has received over half a million postcards.
The popularity of PostSecret has led to a weekly blog, five books and most recently, a global campus university tour. However Warren views PostSecret as a “community art project”, which he originally started with no concept that it would be acknowledged world-wide.
“I was struggling with secrets of my own and this was a way for me to find and discover and work with the secrets I was hiding from myself”, he soberly reveals.
PostSecret remains deeply personal to its founder, and has taken on as much significance and purpose for Warren as it has to those who write to him.
The postcards reveal extremely private and often dark, tragic secrets. ‘He’s been in prison for two years because of what I did. Nine more to go.’ Contrasted with: ‘I can’t think of a secret, except – I don’t think I’m interesting enough to have a secret.’ ‘When I listen to my patients, all I can think about is how I drag that razor across my skin too … and how much I miss it.’
Warren has received confessions of murder plots, sexual abuse, suicide attempts and cases of severe depression. Many people have described PostSecret as ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ because it allows confessions to serious offences without consequential punishment.
Warren prefers to focus on the emotionally confessional aspect of the project and the ways it helps people confront and move on from the problems that they’re hiding – from others and from themselves.
“I think all interesting people have secrets and it’s probably healthy to reveal some of those.”
He continues with a chuckle that some secrets are best kept to oneself: “if you’re spending your holidays with your in-laws or your wife there are probably some secrets that could just be hurtful.”
Although Warren works closely with the American helpline 1-800 SUICIDE, PostSecret makes no claims to function similarly. In a sense, it is a one-sided form of communication: Warren stores every postcard he receives and only sometimes does he personally reply to a secret which has touched him.
“In most cases, the postcards come anonymously and it’s not even with a return address. I think in most cases people just want to let their secrets go. They don’t necessarily want me to react or answer their questions, they just want it to be a step in their journey.”
Only a fraction are made public by publishing them online or in one of the PostSecret books.
The PostSecret blog doesn’t accept any donations. Warren believes that there’s more to it than making a financial turnover.
“For me, the project isn’t a tool for making money or generating revenue, it’s really something which has more meaning than that. I believe that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to earn the trust of so many strangers, by treating what they tell me with dignity. I’ve never taken one dollar for a paid advertisement on the website.”
It can be difficult not to get carried away with imagining who may have written a secret and what sort of life they lead, but Warren’s six years of experience have led him to a solution to day-dreaming. “I think when you have a strong imagination like I do, you can combine it with PostSecret and understand that all these mysterious, extraordinary stories are happening in people’s lives all the time, just beneath the surface. It makes riding the subway or seeing somebody sitting by themselves at the coffee shop just a little more interesting.”
Still, PostSecret isn’t wholly serious. There are plenty of secrets such as: ‘I converted because I think I look sexy in a headscarf.’ ‘I don’t eat dinner at your parents because their house is filthy.’ ‘When I’m mad at my husband … I put boogers in his soup.’ ‘I ate all the blueberries. (And they were delicious.)’ ‘I don’t care about recycling. (But I pretend I do.)’
Warren has put one of his own secrets into each of his five books. “People don’t really guess mine. I think that’s the beauty too; it reminds us of how we’re so connected to each other. You think you can have only all these unique secrets, but really they’re the parts of us that connect us at the deepest level.”
“I think it’s the postcards which really keep people grounded,” Warren explains.
“There is a real sense of authenticity and earnestness in the postcards that you might not find in just an email, and I think it’s that the element of the art that really allows the voices on the cards to speak and resonate to people.
“I think of the postcards as art and so I think there’s a level of truth, especially where you’re talking about personal self-revelation.
“Sometimes I think a secret can be true and false, or it’s false until you share it and you can make it true in the choice. It’s a complicated question, so I think maybe the most interesting and meaningful secrets are the ones written by people that are true but they think they’re making it up, by a way of pulling it out of themselves.”
Warren receives thousands of postcards every week. In seven days he is delivered the same amount of post that you would get if you received one item everyday for two years and nine months.
He puts its popularity down to being able to relate to other people’s secrets, besides writing your own: “People come to the website at PostSecret for different reasons, but eventually you come across a secret that is strange or has articulated something, and it applies to you, or maybe your spouse or your parents, and I think that when that happens it can create a real difference”.
PostSecret is accessible because it transforms what may generally be considered ‘unacceptable’ into the ‘acceptable’.
It fuses old and new modes of communication together: the postcards are sent in via ‘snail-mail’, but then are viewed and contemplated on the internet.
The postcards are sent in from a wide demographic, but Warren seems certain that the project resonates most with younger generations.
“I think young people are at a point in their life where things are more intense and more alive. They especially are searching for what’s real and what’s bullshit, and PostSecret fits into that.”
Nowadays public disclosure of one’s thoughts and feelings via social networking sites is commonplace. Warren remains adamant that this online culture does not detract from the resonance of the postcards he receives. “I always select the secrets every week that most speak to me and ring with authenticity.” He pauses in reflection.
“It really hasn’t affected me in terms of what I select and what’s shown on the website, I think. I get about a thousand postcards every week and post about 20.”
Warren’s role is integral to the workings of PostSecret. He’s not only its founder, but a communicator, friend and confidante of over half a million people.
He’s neither a psychologist, nor a psycho-therapist. He’s a homeowner with a wife and child, he has a Twitter account, and he likes Harry Potter. But what makes Frank Warren stand out is his consistent interest in reading secrets, shown through the undoubtedly exhausting weekly selection process for the website.
Warren describes his role as comparable to a diary holding thousands of secrets.
“I think what I try and do is facilitate a conversation, so my voice is very rare on the PostSecret blog. I try and stay in the background and let the power and the poignancy which is on the postcards speak for themselves.”
Despite being the singular figure that the entire project relies on, he never once expresses anything other than an extremely humble sort of pride.
When I ask if he ever gets tempted to flippantly disregard a secret, he gives an instantaneous reply.
“I always look forward to the postcards every day.” He simply seems to be taking it all in his stride, even though he’s under no obligation to keep reading each and every postcard.
PostSecret has taken over Warren’s life in ways he could never have imagined, and the project is now his full time job. “I spend 50 to 60 hours a week on secrets. I think I’ve become pretty efficient at going through the postcards, and my wife helps me sometimes, but I’ve got through over half a million. I still look forward to the mail every day, so I think I’m the right person for the job.”
As if that wasn’t dedication enough, every single postcard is sent directly to his home, making PostSecret even more personal for Warren.
“When I started the project I had no expectation that it would grow to reach really tens of millions of people around the world but I knew it would always be special for me. Knowing that it resonates with other people and that others appreciate it is very gratifying. I think it’s a responsibility and a great privilege, but it doesn’t feel like a burden.”
He must have a great relationship with his postman.
“Yeah, my mail carrier, we do. She asked me to supersize my mailbox so we had to get a bigger one.” PostSecret has invaded even the smallest details of his personal life, never mind his jet-setting across the globe on a tour to share the stories behind the PostSecrets, which also allows audiences to share their secrets ‘live’.
Is there a future for PostSecret? Although it appears to be nearly independent, Warren disagrees. He won’t be giving up on the project he has nurtured to fruition any day soon.
“The PostSecret events are pretty exciting, so I just look forward to travelling and sharing the stories behind the secrets: the ones that are inspiring or funny or sexual or shocking.”
So long as people have secrets to reveal and let go of, it seems that the social and emotional functions of PostSecret cannot, and will not, expire.
Gaining an insight into the life of a man whose work has built a rapport with thousands of people also led to the discovery of an eloquent truth.
“I do think of PostSecret as a community art project,” Warren declares, “but I think the postcards can do the work of art in a different way. Someone who writes a secret might not realise the effect they’re having on other people who they’ll never meet. By being courageous enough and yet vulnerable, you can inspire people.”
Reading a PostSecret is like reading an emotionally loaded account of a lifetime; the accessibility of which lies in its unreserved honesty.