An exercise in confession & catharsis

A look at Frank Warren’s internet phenomenon and the secrets of Queen’s students

In the early stages of his 40s, Frank Warren decided to start a website. It began as a social experiment, a chance for art and cathartic truths to haphazardly coexist on a four-by-six inch postcard.

Three years later, Warren’s website has attracted over 193 million visitors and has been the starting point for three books featuring over 2,500 postcards.

The word “blog” fails to fully define the PostSecret project—phenomenon is much more fitting.

Started in early 2005, PostSecret began as a social experiment to encourage senders to mail in their deepest and most paralyzing secrets, addressed to a complete stranger in a rural area called Germantown, Maryland.

Rather than writing these postcards to stay in touch with Warren, the senders were asked to send the postcards to stay in touch with themselves and, consequently, with the site’s millions of other visitors. The website is updated consistently every Sunday, and displays an average of 10 to 12 postcards a week, which are sent to Warren from all over the world.

The secrets displayed on the postcards are adorned with drawings, prints, magazine cutouts and anything else the sender deems necessary to their message, and are accompanied by a confession.

“I felt like I just had a very rich and creative inner life,” Warren told the Journal in an e-mail. “And I’ve always imagined that other people must lead interesting secret lives as well.

“Somehow I have been able to earn the trust of thousands of strangers, who have released over a quarter of a million soulful, funny, tragic and hopeful secrets. They shared these with me, the world and most importantly themselves,” he said.

“I think that sometimes it must be easier to tell someone you don’t know and will never meet, a secret. I think one reason people keep secrets is because they are afraid of being judged, especially by someone they know.” Such confidential, cathartic experiences are often encouraged by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, confidential 1-800 numbers and suicide hotlines such as 1-800-SUICIDE, a call centre affiliated with postsecret.com.

“People who have mailed me a secret [later followed up with an e-mail] saying that the act of ‘facing’ their secret on a postcard and then ‘letting it go’ to a stranger brought them a sense of solace. In some cases it even acted as the first step in a much longer journey in reconciling with a part of their life they had been hiding from,” Warren said.

On a weekly basis, Warren said he receives nearly 1,000 new postcards. He reads all of them.

“That allows me to feel more empathy and—I know this sounds strange—intimacy with people I will never meet. I have also learned through this experience that all of us have a secret that would break your heart,” he said. Despite reading a plethora of tragic secrets each week, Warren remains optimistic.

“I believe that if we can remind ourselves of [the secrets of others] and make an effort to feel that connection we all share, there would be more understanding and perhaps more peace in the world.” Eliane Boucher, a graduate student in the psychology department at Queen’s, explained the therapeutic nature of the project.

“There’s a lot of research that demonstrates that expressive writing can have a positive impact on one’s emotional and physical well-being,” Boucher said. “For example, [James W] Pennebaker has done research on the impact of expressive writing—writing about how you’re feeling, like keeping a diary—among people with Cancer or AIDS. And he found that among this population, expressive writing reduces the number of doctors’ visits and improves medical markers of health.

“He’s also demonstrated that among other populations, expressive writing is associated with higher grades in schools and higher rates of re-employment among people who lost their jobs.”

Boucher said reasons for this were unclear.

“It’s likely that writing about these events and feelings lets the person deal with them, thereby removing some of the burden and personal tension they experience from keeping it bottled up.”

In relating the effect of PostSecret to a larger theraputic context it’s easy to understand its overwhelming response. It’s an outlet of sorts—a safe and anonymous method for cathartic release.

“I think in many ways [websites like PostSecret] are like a form of expressive writing, although they don’t carry on over long periods of time. They give people the opportunity to rid themselves or at least alleviate the burden of carrying these secrets, and moreover, they allow the person to do this in a manner that is especially anonymous.

“If you think about the typical ways in which people deal with these issues in terms of expressive writing, we often think of keeping a diary. However, with a diary, there’s always a chance that someone will find it and read it, thereby finding out your secret. In contrast, on these websites people are unlikely to be identified and so people can post things they wouldn’t want others to know without any risk.”

Boucher said the public nature of the website was likely attractive as well, adding an exhibitionistic and voyeuristic element, as well as a sense of social acceptance.

“One could also argue that there’s a potential advantage to knowing that other people are reading your secret without knowing it’s you, which could potentially have more of an impact than writing about it privately,” she said.

“In general, people tend to perceive issues of privacy as less important online and tend to self-disclose a lot more—[PostSecret] just provides another arena for this. I think you will see lots of research coming from these websites but for now, I think their popularity speaks to their therapeutic abilities. It’s clear that people are getting something out of it.”

Although PostSecret often posts e-mail responses beside the week’s secrets, it reserves the bulk of the page for the original postcards addressed to Frank Warren.

Kristina Marcellus, a PhD candidate in the department of sociology at Queen’s, said the site is in many ways an extension of the social networking phenomenon put in motion by the internet.

“I see these as incarnations of one of the goals of online social networking. To join together people who might not otherwise connect with one another for whatever reason, geography, language, etcetera,” she said. “I think the interest in PostSecret will remain for some time, particularly as it has expanded on to other online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. The expansion of the phenomenon into other languages and countries will also likely contribute to its persistence, as would the variety of talks and print-based materials produced by PS. It could, however, mutate in different ways, as it has with the inclusion of video postings.”

Marcellus agreed people are more likely to tell their secrets in an anonymous setting.

“Individuals share things about themselves online, anonymously, that they would never divulge in a face-to-face context. I think this is the same spirit that probably contributes to the phenomenon of people slipping their own secrets into PostSecret books in bookstores–being able to tell one’s secrets without having to face the reaction to it.

“There is an element of catharsis to seeing what others have contributed,” she said. “Particularly if it is similar to a secret that the reader is keeping. My personal opinion is that one of the most important things that PostSecret does is to let people know that they are not alone, as has been demonstrated by the comments posted on the PostSecret main site in response to earlier secrets and also, more recently, by PostSecret’s affiliation with 1-800-SUICIDE.” The PostSecret movement has become an international outlet for long kept words and feelings. Recreated in French, Greek, Russian and Dutch, it has transcended geographical borders and has expanded into video, book and art gallery form in response to its burgeoning popularity.

Less intimidating than a confession booth and cheaper than an hour with your therapist, PostSecret appeals to anyone with correct postage and an active imagination.

The popularity of PostSecret has had a boomerang effect on its creator. Sought after for public talks and appearances, Warren is a highly popular public speaker and often brings new, unseen secrets to his discussions, encouraging audience members to tell their own as well.

It is rumored that Warren inserts one of his own secrets on a postcard in each published anthology. Warren crafts his postcard, an embellished secret with no return address, while subsequently waiting in line at the post office queue. He pays the postage and like thousands of individuals in countless locations, Frank sends his secret to 13345 Copper Ridge Road, Germantown, Maryland.

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