Every Sunday, Frank Warren takes some of the anonymous secrets he receives by the hundreds and posts them to his website, PostSecret. Warren receives them as postcards, each one artistically suited to the secret it contains; what was originally conceived as a one-time art project has not only given way a website with over a million hits per week, but three books compiling PostSecret’s submissions into different themes: PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, My Secret (secrets from teenagers and college students), and The Secret Lives of Men and Women.
As we previously reported, Warren recently announced that will be appearing in Toronto on Thursday, at OCAD (100 McCaul Street), starting at 8:00 p.m. We spoke with Warren this week.
Do you want to talk briefly about PostSecret’s evolution?
Sure. I started the project in November of 2002, an art exhibition in Washington, D.C. It was the first art show I’d ever participated in. I just paid $60 and I got an exhibit space. And I decided I wanted to post people’s secrets in this space. So I passes out 3000 postcards inviting strangers to write down a secret, something that was true and something they’d never told anyone else before. And I asked them to mail them to my home address.
And after I passed out 3000 cards I got about 75 or 85 cards mailed back to me and I physically posted those postcards in my exhibit space. The exhibition lasted for about three or four weeks and when it closed, I took down the cards, brought them back home; I had stopped passing out the postcards and stopped inviting people to mail secrets to me. But at that point, for whatever reason, the project took on a life of its own. And there was something about PostSecret that really resonated with people, not just locally, but nationally and internationally. And so, after the exhibition closed, word of the project just spread virally. And I continued to get postcards from people, people began to handmake their own homemade postcards. They started arriving with postmarks from different states, from different countries, from different continents. Now I get between 100 and 200 postcards every day, from all around the world, sometimes in different languages. And they just keep coming.
What is it you think that resonates with people? People seem to really connect with the project.
I think there is a lot about PostSecret that I don’t fully understand. But I do feel as though I’ve tapped into something accidentally that is full of mystery and wonder. Because I see these connections that you’re talking about, and I hear these amazing stories of how people’s lives have been changed through the sharing of a secret from a stranger. And I just feel very privileged that strangers have allowed me to share these intimate moments in their lives, and have allowed me to share them with other people as well.
Is that maybe part of the relationship that readers of PostSecret have with you? With Frank Warren? There’s sort of a first-name basis on Facebook and the book intros; you’ve kind of become a face to these secrets.
Yes. I think one of the reasons the project has grown and developed the way it has is because of this relationship that you’re talking about. This relationship I’ve somehow been able to develop with strangers, where they trust me with these deep secrets that they might not ever tell a family member or a friend. And I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to develop that relationship is because people feel like they can trust me. They see the website, they see that there aren’t ads on the website, they feel I’m treating secrets with respect and dignity. They feel like they can trust me to keep them anonymous. I even think putting my home address on the website and on the book cover allow people to feel like I’m kind of making myself vulnerable first. So they can take that next step in the relationship and trust me.
And I think the secrets are coming for many, many, many different reasons. I think some people might be searching for a deeper sense of authenticity or self-discovery. Some people might be looking for absolution. Or there might be other people who just want to share a funny story or learn something about their neighbors. But whatever it is, I think sometimes that initial curiosity that carries you to the website for the first time, I think what happens to a lot of people is they see a secret from a stranger that reminds them of an experience or a feeling in their own life, and so they keep coming back to the website again and again—not to learn something about other people necessarily but to recognize something new about themselves as well.
Is it that same principle, that applies to the website, that’s happening when you make appearances in different cities? What is it that’s bringing people out in large groups?
I was really surprised when the website became so popular. The website gets about a million visitors a week. And what surprises me even more is how this virtual community is making a real difference in the real world. When I go to these events on college campuses, or coming up in Toronto, I’ve been astounded by the number of people who come and the stories I hear. And the action that the community takes—one of the things I’ll do in Toronto is talk about how PostSecret saved a national suicide prevention hotline here in the States. 1–800–SUICIDE. The person who started that hotline is a friend of mine, I actually still volunteer on that hotline, and he sent me an e-mail message earlier last year. And the e-mail said, “Frank, the suicide prevention hotline is in financial trouble and we need some help.” And I did what I could to help but it wasn’t enough. So I took his e-mail and I put it on the PostSecret website for one week, and in one week, over 900 visitors to PostSecret donated over $30 000, saving this national suicide prevention hotline. And to me, it’s so moving to know that this virtual community is making itself felt at these events, but also in doing good works in the world.
And is it a similar feeling as you go city to city, be it Toronto or New York, that extension of the online community?
I don’t know—I know it’s something, I don’t know if it’s an extension of the online community or something different. PostSecret I think of generally as a collection of people’s secrets that I share in different ways, whether it’s the website or in book form or at these presentations or through an art exhibition. And I don’t know how they relate other than there’s just something very cathartic and connecting about our true, soulful secrets.
And just about that catharsis, what do you think makes a secret? Because I think a lot of the time—I mean, what you write about in the intros to the books or what gets written about secrets, is this judgment people fear. Or this being scared to put secrets out there. Whereas if there’s a commonality to be found in the submissions to PostSecret, there’s more an overall sense of melancholy to what people are keeping secret.
I agree with what you’re saying. I think a secret is something that, when you’re keeping it, you think nobody would understand. But as soon as you share it, it doesn’t just connect you to your humanity, it connects you to the larger community in a way that’s very meaningful, I think.
And as a reader, it kind of transcends that perceived antagonism, takes away from the weight you connote with secrets.
Absolutely. I think that’s so true. You know, sometimes with our burdens, we think we’re carrying them by ourselves and if we hear about somebody else with that same condition or infliction or experience, it doesn’t necessarily make ours go away, but it allows us to feel like we’re sharing our burden. Sometimes a burden that’s shared is a little bit lighter.
Yeah, that’s definitely something I get out of the project.
I think too, something else I get is inspiration. When I see the courage every week, every day, that strangers are showing me how they’re facing their secrets. It allows me to feel more confident in sharing private parts of my own life with people I know. Or people I don’t.
Which must make it easier, I’m sure, with the amount of time that goes into PostSecret.
Yeah, it does take a lot of time. In fact, right now I’m scanning in the postcards to be displayed this coming Sunday, because I’ll still be in Toronto. I’ll be in Canada! So I just have to think ahead, you know, with so many visitors to the website, if I’m ever late posting postcards, I’m just deluged with e-mails. So I have to be really aware of that.
I guess it’s something people really come to depend on.
I think so. I think [that when] Sunday comes, there’s a lot of people who think of PostSecret!
Photo of Frank Warren by Jamie Goodridge.