What We Talk About When We Talk About PostSecret
Frank Warren's PostSecret project in a post-"Secret" world.
For more than 10 years, strangers from around the world have been sending their secrets to a suburban home in Germantown, Maryland, scribbled or pasted onto anonymous postcards. Over time, the mailbox at 13345 Copper Ridge Road has held not only secrets but wedding bands, engagement rings, and razor blades: objects taped to cards and sent away as untraceable secrets themselves.
And every Sunday, Frank Warren — the founder of PostSecret and keeper of the mailbox — has dutifully scanned and posted a handful of these postcards to his lo-fi Wordpress site, PostSecret.com. What began as a personal art project has become an international community, now entering its second decade.
There are two secrets that Warren has seen hundred of times. The first is "I pee in the shower." The second?
"I see this secret every time I go to my mailbox. I always see it expressed a different way," Warren said in an interview with BuzzFeed. "It's basically a story about trying to find that one person who you can tell all your secrets to. There's that common thread, that search for intimacy, that search for the one person we can be our whole and true selves with."
Now, of course, there's an app for that. In fact, there are several. But the world is a markedly different place today than it was a decade ago, when Warren began the PostSecret project. It was 2004: there was no Twitter, there was no Instagram, and Facebook had just launched out of Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room. The iPhone didn't exist. Edward Snowden was 21.
Today's top secret-sharing apps — Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak — are rumored to be valued at a combined total of well over $400 million. But before the economy of secrets boomed to its current size, there was Frank Warren: a man with a mailbox in Germantown, Maryland. In 2004, Warren started an art project called PostSecret, calling for strangers to send him postcards with their anonymous secrets. He hoped to receive 365. To date, he has received more than a million from around the world.
Now on its 11th year of existence, PostSecret has resulted in five books, live events on six continents, one of the world's most comprehensive suicide prevention wikis, $1 million in donations to suicide prevention hotlines, and Warren's own short-lived but chart-topping smartphone app.
In his latest book, The World of PostSecret, out now from William Morrow, Warren offers us a wide-lens look at the past decade of PostSecret. Like the other four books, The World of PostSecret is comprised almost entirely of postcards Warren has received, artfully compiled to accentuate the similarities and differences between secrets. The juxtapositions are equal parts funny and moving, and all speak to the project's overarching message:
"Secrets are universal," Warren told BuzzFeed. "I go to my mailbox and secrets are coming from different countries, different continents. They're all expressing the same taboos and longing and heartbreak and hope. We think that secrets separate us and make us different. But if you find the courage to share them, we shatter that illusion. We see that secrets aren't walls; they're bridges."
But one aspect of The World of PostSecret is different from its predecessors: It's the first book Warren has released since the launch, success, and deletion of the PostSecret app. Early in the book, Warren tells the story of the app's three months of existence and explains his reasons for ultimately shutting it down. The week it launched in September 2011, PostSecret was an instant best-seller in the Apple Store. Despite costing $1.99, Warren's app stood at the top of the charts — the kind of success that would inspire the envy of any paid download today.
But despite its worldwide popularity, Warren killed the PostSecret app only three months after its launch due to bullying and malicious content. Though Warren went to greater lengths to scrub users' data from uploads than most subsequent secret-sharing programs would, he found it difficult to protect his users from anonymous hatred.
Warren's first and foremost concern had always been creating a safe, anonymous environment for the PostSecret community to share its stories. After PostSecret was swarmed with bullying and violent threats, largely coming from a set of users from the TigerText community, Warren felt that the only safe solution would be to shut the app down. (TigerText was an anonymous texting program. Michael Heyward, a member of the TigerText team, is now the CEO and Founder of Whisper.)
In The World of PostSecret, Warren writes about his experience after shutting down the smartphone project, when he offered all those who had purchased the PostSecret app a refund. While some did write to him asking for a refund, an overwhelming majority of the app's users wrote to Warren thanking him for his work, sending him stories about how PostSecret had helped them and often including cash to help him pay the refunds to other users. Warren writes, "It felt like a scene from It's a Wonderful Life."
While Warren was offering refunds, Whisper was preparing to launch. Secret and Yik Yak would soon follow. Each voiced a distinct but similar aim. "If you look at the dozens of apps today," Warren says, "the PostSecret app was really the predecessor."
But there are key differences between today's round of secret-sharing apps and PostSecret's version. Whisper aims to give users a place to "Share, Express, and Meet." Yik Yak offers "a live feed of what's going on around you." Secret is a place for us to "be [ourselves] and share anything [we]'re thinking and feeling with [our] friends without judgment." PostSecret doesn't really aim to do any of these things. It's not a constantly updated stream of what's going on around you — most secrets offer no trace of their origins and, posted on Sunday mornings, it's less a "live feed" and more a retrospective.
The most popular secret on my Secret timeline is "No one likes your passive aggressive, cc'd emails… Cunt!" Apparently, it was written by one of my 37 friends who have Secret downloaded on their phones. I don't really feel a sense of connection reading through my stream on Whisper, either, where the trending secrets are "I shampoo and condition my beard so it's soft for the lady's [sic] to touch" and "My older sister spent three years learning Spanish so she could go to Brazil only to find out they speak Portuguese." These programs seem to be dominated by secrets that are either clever, sexually explicit, or outright aggressive — another place on the web where we can show off, voice kinky desires, or let off steam. These mobile apps take the act of voicing a secret and transform it into a game, another place to win likes and upvotes — another way to seek approval.
PostSecret, on the other hand, has never been about gaining points. Secrets just exist on the site, for you to connect with or consider. If you have a strong reaction to one, you can email Frank about it. That's about it.
The World of PostSecret contains a section devoted to the best moments from the app's short history. "How people were connected… it's something I'll never forget," Warren told BuzzFeed. "Even though there are connections made at events and on the blog, the immediacy of the app — how it could really bring strangers together — was awesome in ways that were good and not so good. But boy, what an exciting experiment while it was out there. Those three months were very special."
One of the positive "awesome" moments of the PostSecret app came when a user shared this secret:
"My dream was to travel the world, but a malignant tumor will likely kill me next month. My new dream is to see the world through the eyes of PostSecret. please help me."
From New Zealand to the Great Wall of China to a Hollywood movie set, PostSecret users shared their photos from around the world in response.
Since he shut down the PostSecret app in January of 2012, Frank Warren has continued to receive thousands of postcards in his mailbox each week. When asked what he sees as the difference between sharing a secret on a screen versus sharing a secret on a postcard, Warren spoke of the power of ritual: "For me, the ritual of posting a postcard and choosing your words allows you to take ownership of your secret. Decorating the card and physically sending it off to a stranger… I think that act itself can affect people deeply. It's subversive. I think it surprises them."
But Warren remains open and optimistic about the idea of reviving the PostSecret app, with a strong system in place for preventing the abuse that disrupted the last iteration. "If I found the right partner again, I might be interested in ... solving those problems. I see a lot of potential for healing and catharsis and just fun."
What else lies ahead for PostSecret's next decade? For starters, Warren is looking for someone to move into his Germantown home and take over the operation: a new keeper of the PostSecret mailbox. "It's time," Warren said. "I'm going to leave that invitation out there and see what the community does with it. It's really like Willy Wonka passing on the keys to the candy shop."
There is also PostSecret: The Show, a play opening in Vancouver this January, and a concurrent PostSecret album — with recordings from live events set to music by One Hello World — coming out in early 2015. And in mailboxes around the world, self-starting PostSecret communities continue to thrive.
Secret-sharing start-ups will thrive too, but perhaps for different reasons. Even if Warren finds the means to restart the PostSecret app with heightened security measures, part of me hopes that the mailbox in Germantown will never cease to receive hundreds of postcards each week, and that whoever moves into the house next will continue to hand-scan a few every Sunday, and upload them onto that familiar, lo-fi webpage I've been returning to for a decade. The ritual, as Warren knows, matters.
Perhaps we need postcards and Frank Warren the way we need books bound in paper and plays we see live and letters in the mail, things we can touch, things that don't ping back right away: because there are still parts of ourselves that demand a little bit more than an upvote, parts of ourselves we are still reluctant to leave for others to scroll on by.
Whisper contacted BuzzFeed with the following statement:
“There is no connection between TigerText, PostSecret, and Whisper and these comments are disappointing because we are big fans of Frank and his mission, and in fact have reached out to him numerous times. Whisper was created with the mission of helping users find meaningful connections and support."