Ten Questions with PostSecret's Frank Warren
Frank Warren started PostSecret as a community art project in November 2004. Since then people have sent in one hundred and seventy-five thousand anonymous postcards. They are featured in art galleries, a music video, and Frank’s bestselling books: PostSecret, My Secret, and The Secret Lives of Men and Women. His new book is A Lifetime of Secrets
In 2006, his website was awarded five Bloggies, the most distinguished weblog awards ceremony, including Weblog of the Year and Best American Weblog. Warren was also named number 14 on the Forbes list of the twenty-five biggest, brightest, and most influential people on the Internet. In 2006, he was presented with a special award from the National Mental Health Association in recognition of how PostSecret has “moved the cause of mental health forward.” As an advocate for suicide prevention, Warren is a volunteer for and actively involved in the organization Hopeline/1-800-SUICIDE.
Question: What was your initial motivation to do PostSecret?
Answer: When I started PostSecret my motive was to create a “place” where people could feel free to share their private hopes, desires and fears. A place where the secrets they could not tell their friends and family would be treated with dignity in a non-judgmental way.
But looking back almost three years later, I know that there was another drive at work at the time that I was unaware of. After I started the project I received a secret from a man describing a humiliating childhood experience that he had never shared with anyone. The courage he showed in mailing that postcard to me inspired me to recognize a similar secret I had been carrying alone for more than thirty years. It was an experience that I had never thought of as a secret, but I had never told anyone about it.
So I told my secret to my wife and daughter, faced it on a postcard, and—in my case—mailed it to myself. It brought me a sense of healing and ownership of that buried episode in my own life. And now in hindsight, I think the reason I began PostSecret was because at a level below my own awareness, I was struggling to reconcile with a childhood secret. And like others I have heard from, I was able to find greater self-understanding and self-acceptance through a the stranger’s secret.
Question: How many do you get?
Answer: I started the project by printing 3,000 postcards inviting people to share a secret with me. I passed them all out on the streets of Washington DC—where better to solicit secrets? I received about 100 secrets mailed back to me anonymously. It was a surprise to see the original artwork on most of the postcards. It was an even greater surprise when the secrets kept coming.
When I stopped passing out the postcards I thought the project would end. But the idea spread virally around the country and then around the world. More than 150,000 secrets have been mailed to me in just under three years.
Question: How many do you run?
Answer: Now I get about 1,000 postcards every week. From that I post 20 at www.PostSecret.com every Sunday. I also use some other postcards as part of the PostSecret Events when I speak at college campuses. Additionally there is a 400 card PostSecret museum exhibit and four PostSecret books.
Question: What motivates people to post their secrets?
Answer: I believe that the motives for mailing in secrets are complex. Maybe someone wants to share a quick personal story about a sexual taboo or funny experience. Other postcards show painstaking detail and raw personal insight. Some truly feel like confessions or poignant pleas to lost loved ones. I think of each work as a piece of art, but I also see some as sacred objects used by the creator’s to find peace or greater self-acceptance.
Question: What’s the most common type of secret?
Answer: The secrets I receive reflect the full spectrum of complicated issues that many of us struggle with every day: Intimacy, trust, meaning, humor, and desire. The themes that come through PostSecret are the same as those found feature films or literature. But I must admit, the most common secret I get is not so lofty: “I pee in the shower.”
Question: What’s the darkest secret that’s ever been submitted?
I have included one of the darkest secrets I have received recently with this interview (above). It is an image I talk about when I travel to college campuses and speak about the project.
Question: Did you ever think PostSecret would turn into the phenomenon it has?
Answer: No, sometimes I feel like I have stumbled upon something full of mystery and wonder that I don’t fully understand. The PostSecret Blog has received nearly 100,000,000 hits. When I started the project I had a goal of receiving 360 secrets in one year. I knew that that collection would have special value for me and am deeply gratified that others find these revelations fascinating too.
Question: Do you think that the success of PostSecret indicates that the Internet is fostering greater communication or greater isolation?
Answer: Yes, and yes. I have always found it paradoxical that the larger the world population becomes the more loneliness there seems to be. But I also find inspiration in how new communication technologies like blogs and virtual communities are creating the potential for new kinds of conversations.
I believe in the years to come we will be amazed by what artists and entrepreneurs dare to accomplish on the web and how their grand mistakes and accidental successes will remind us of our greater unity.
Question: What have you learned from all this?
Answer: We all carry a secret that would break your heart if you just knew what it was. And if we could remember that there might be more understanding and peace in the world.