The man who collects our secrets
Postcards from Frank Warren's PostSecret project.
Got a secret? Well, odds are, Frank Warren probably has you beat as he’s got half a million of them and counting. As the founder of PostSecret, a website that functions as both art project and cyber confessional, he’s received mountains of secrets from strangers ranging from the intimate to the absurd. The site encourages anyone to send in an anonymous homemade postcard containing a secret they’ve never revealed and posts a selection of the best ones each week. The idea might sound simple but the glimpse into the inner recesses of the human heart makes for addictive reading.
The project started off small in 2004 partly to combat the boredom Warren felt in his previous career running his information systems business. “Part of it had to do with a very boring job I had and so after work and on weekends I would pursue these more creative postcard projects,” explains Warren. “I printed up and handed out 3000 postcards with my home address and an invitation for people to mail a secret to me, something they’d never told before. And I asked them to use the postcard as a canvas and create it with artwork.” What started off as a trickle soon became a flood and the site now has a rather staggering visitor count of over half a billion as well as 1.2 million Facebook likes. The project has now grown to the point where it’s a full-time job with Warren receiving 100 to 200 secrets a day from all over the world still delivered direct to his home address in Maryland USA – and has led to an unusually strong dependence on his post office. “It’s a funny relationship I have with my mail carrier. Some people don’t put enough postage, so I’ve always told my mail carrier just please deliver the card, I’ll pay the difference. I think I might be the only person who has a tab with their post office like some people might have a tab at their local bar...”
The site has also spawned a series of best-selling books, art exhibitions and even sees Warren travelling the globe to spread the PostSecret message. He’s set to tour Australia for the first time in April and such is his popularity that the Sydney and Brisbane dates have already sold out, with Melbourne and Perth still having a few tickets remaining. But how exactly does a website translate into a tour? “At those PostSecret events I tell some of the funny and sexual and hopeful and painful and inspiring stories behind the secrets. I project images of postcards that were banned from the books by the publishers - that’s always a thrill to show the secret secrets!” Audience members also get up and in an interesting twist on the anonymous nature of the blog instead publicly share their secrets. “It’s a further evolution of the project. What I try and do at live events is recreate that safe, non-judgemental place that people feel on the website in an actual social environment. There’s something really electrifying about the radically open, uncensored conversation that can happen.”
Got a secret?
Postcards from Frank Warren's PostSecret project.
In an online climate where sites fall out of favour faster than you can say ‘MySpace’ or ‘Ask Jeeves’, PostSecret has seen not only massive popularity but also an atypical longevity. Warren believes the enduring success of the PostSecret concept has to do with making people feel a little less adrift in an increasingly fragmented world. “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.” And while many would seek to wring every cent they could after stumbling onto such a popular idea (think Facebook and Instagram’s near constant, grasping attempts to make a dime off their user base) Warren is admirably protective of the community he has created. He doesn’t accept paid advertising on the site and instead uses it to promote resources for mental wellness and suicide prevention. “If people had seen [paid] ads they might have felt like ‘Oh, he’s exploiting secrets’. And I really felt from the very start that I wanted PostSecret to have a higher purpose. In the years PostSecret has been around we’ve raised over a million dollars for suicide prevention, I’m really happy about that.”
So in his time trawling through our collective psyche has Warren found any confessions that crop up again and again? “There are two most common secrets. One of them is a secret written differently every day expressing one person’s search for that other person who they can tell all their secrets to and be their true self with. And the other secret that is very popular is ‘I pee in the shower’!” laughs Warren. “You get a nice range between the silly and the sublime.”
Frank Warren will be touring Australia from 14-20 April. For more information visit handsometours.com.