The Art of Authenticity: A Conversation with PostSecret’s Frank Warren

“I feel like PostSecret is almost like an anti-Facebook. It’s the true story that you would normally never share in a public arena.”

Ben Huberman | Longreads | February 2015 | 13 minutes (3,354 words)

For the past ten years Frank Warren has been collecting and publishing other people’s anonymous secrets, sent via postcard, on his blog, PostSecret. The stories behind the postcards span the entire spectrum of human drama, from tales of petty revenge to accounts of abuse and severe depression. This richness of experience — along with the secrets’ visual design, by now a recognizable mishmash of Americana, well-executed kitsch, and ironic arts & crafts creations — has kept the site popular through multiple waves of internet fads. Originally a local mail art project in suburban Maryland, the site has spawned several books, including The World of PostSecret (released in November 2014), as well as a play, a TED talk, and numerous live events.

I have a longstanding fascination with the history of the Post, a system of communication based on the competing interests of technology, surveillance, and intimacy. Ever since first visiting PostSecret, it has struck me as a project that builds on and plays with that original postal tension: does sending a postcard bring reader and sender closer together, or stress the distance between them? PostSecret harkens back to the days of handwritten correspondences and epistolary novels, but requires a very modern, digital infrastructure to spread its message of healing-via-sharing. Intrigued by the multiple layers at play in his project, I recently chatted with Frank Warren over the phone about the meaning of secrecy in the age of Snapchat and Whisper, the relation between authenticity and anonymity, and the way he chooses which postcards to publish, having received more than 1,000,000 over the past decade. 

We all have a fairly decent idea of what the Post is. What is a secret?

I’ve been collecting secrets for ten years and my definition continually evolves and expands. One way to think of a secret is as dark matter — this stuff that makes up 90%-95% of what’s in the universe but that we can’t see, we can’t sense. The only way we know it’s there is how it affects the behavior of other objects. That’s the definition of a secret I’m living with now.

Image by Robert Fogarty.

What happens to that dark matter once it becomes visible through a platform like PostSecret?

Maybe it goes from anti-matter to matter? I think the results of sharing a secret can be transformative. They can change who we are, they can create relationships. They can hurt, they can harm, they can heal. My hope is that when people share a secret with me and the world on a postcard, it’s a first step in a longer journey reconciling with that secret.

Do you ever receive follow-ups or updates from people who had sent you their postcards?

Yes! One follow-up I received was from someone who said that he had made up a story that he thought would make a good PostSecret secret and mailed it in. But then, after I scanned it and posted it on the web, he saw that through the mail process, some of the text that he had put on the postcard had been ripped away. And the secret had a new meaning. He went on to say — that secret that went on to appear on the postcard, on the website, was a true one in his life.

I’ve received another email from a woman who said, “I wrote down six secrets on postcards that I was going to send to you, Frank, but instead I left them on the pillow of my boyfriend as he was sleeping, and I went to work. Later that day, he arrives at my work and asks me to marry him, and I said Yes.”

How do you explain — to yourself — the power generated in the process of creating these postcards?

I think that when you’re speaking about secrets you’re talking about self-revelation. You’re talking about, in some cases, coming out to yourself. I was looking at a postcard today to make a selection for the Sunday Secrets on the website. And I saw one about an hour ago that said “Writing out this secret for the first time and reading it made me realize it wasn’t true.” So our secrets can have very complex relationships with who we are. Sometimes by sharing a secret you confirm it, and sometimes the sharing act in and of itself changes the nature of the secret.

We live in a strange moment right now — everybody is extremely concerned about surveillance and privacy, yet at the same time we seem to be compelled to share our innermost, most intimate emotions. How does your project relate to this tension?

You talk about the line between what we decide to reveal versus what we decide to conceal. We’ve always had to make that decision — it’s part of the human condition. I would say, though, that it’s much more of a tension now — now it’s an earthquake, with security, social media, and people presenting an image of themselves for public consumption.

I feel like PostSecret is almost like an anti-Facebook. It’s the true story that you would normally never share in a public arena. But in some ways, the more of ourselves we share online through social media, the less value it has. Sometimes the more we try and project an image of ourselves to others — and perhaps to ourselves — the deeper our secrets can hide from us. And so if we can find the courage to look deep and discover, uncover, and share a vulnerable secret, I think those kinds of stories have the most value of all. Not just to the person who’s confessing, but to the community that can hear it.

You’ve been doing this for a long time now — do you sense any shift taking place since you started PostSecret? Social media wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous back then. Apps like Whisper or Snapchat didn’t even exist.

I have the feeling that we’re in the middle of a transition now, but you can never really sense it when you’re in the midst of it — maybe we’ll be able to look back at this period and understand what was happening here. Generally, I think that every generation feels comfortable sharing a little bit more about themselves than their parents’ generation.

PostSecret’s been around for ten years, long before most social media. It gives people an opportunity through this unique marriage of digital media and a very traditional kind of communication — the postcard. And with the postcard, the anonymity is 100% transparent. If you send me a postcard and you don’t put your name on it, I might see a postmark, but there’s no way I could ever identify it back to you. And people get that. Anytime you’re online sharing anything, no matter if you’re guaranteed anonymity or not, there’s no way you can be certain if you’re truly speaking anonymously. I think that pure anonymity is potent and powerful, and one of the reasons PostSecret allows people to talk about their deepest secrets — things they never told their partner, their priest, or their family.

The intersection of the analog (postcards, handwriting, people’s artwork) and the digital (scanner, email, blog) has always been one of my favorite aspects of PostSecret. Which side is the more important one, from your perspective?

The amazing artwork on each postcard created by the sender, for me, is one of the most interesting parts of the project. The postcards themselves have been exhibited around the world — in Rio, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, at MOMA in New York — and they’ve all been created by everyday people. I think of this sometimes as people’s art, or punk art. It just shows the investment people make in this ritual of finding the words to take ownership of their secrets, expressing them on a postcard, and then physically letting them go to a stranger.

That process carries so much more weight and gravity than if I allowed people to just email me their secrets or text the secrets. People ask me that, and I say, “No! It’s got to be on a postcard,” because I think there’s something cathartic about that process. And if you look at the artwork on the cards, sometimes the most expressive part of sharing a secret is done visually. In a way they’re able to do it because maybe the words would be too painful to say, or even to write.

Image courtesy of PostSecret.

Image courtesy of PostSecret.

Did you ever imagine that people would create such elaborate visual representations of their secrets?

Thankfully PostSecret started as an art project, so that kind of visual creativity is in its DNA.

Was 1960s mail art — I’m thinking about the Fluxus movement, for example — ever an explicit part of your vision?

Well, when I started PostSecret I had a pretty boring, monotonous job, and I was living in a suburb, I was a husband and father, so I would pursue these postcard projects after work and on the weekends. PostSecret was the third postcard art project I worked on and it just caught fire. But I do think of the project of being in the tradition of mail art, and I would even go back a little bit further — to Dadaism.

Speaking of Dadaism, you’ve been branching out recently from visual media to the performing arts — how did PostSecret: the Show come into being?

We’ve been working on the play for five years, and it’s had multiple workshops, and we’ve crafted it until we were all pleased with it.

I was invited to give a TED talk which led to me touring and sharing secrets with live audiences, listening to secrets live, especially from college students at PostSecret Live events. The play is a way for us to continue that tradition in a way that doesn’t require me to be there at every event, although I still continue to tour and have live events.

One of the things we do is share secrets that were created in the location where the show is performed, and we also invite audience members during intermission to write down a secret on the postcard and submit it for the second act. One thing that separates the show from the website is people coming together in this audience. For the first time they’re sharing a communal experience of the revelation of the secret. It’s a very different experience when you’re sitting as part of a large group, a community, reacting and hearing the other folks reacting to the secret, than when you’re reading the PostSecret book or scrolling through the website.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m hearing quasi-religious overtones in your description of a community congregating and processing through their own secrets (or sins) together.

I don’t think of secrets as confessions, or as sinful. I think of secrets as being very human — they can be funny, or sexual, or hopeful, or painful. Or criminal! My PostSecret Live events have evolved into trying to create a safe, non-judgmental space in a specific social setting, rather than online. With an audience of over 1,000 people I’ll be inviting members to walk up to a microphone and talk about a secret, a story they have not told anyone before. And that’s the most cathartic, and emotional, and memorable part of the night.

When we talk about a connection to spirituality, I think something’s there. In this country, for example — suicide is one of America’s secrets. It’s a secret that we keep to ourselves. And if you can broach the topic — which I do in my shows, I talk about my connection to the issue of suicide, my struggles — if you open up that conversation, instantly you find out that other people have their stories that they’ve been waiting to open up and talk about, they’ve just been waiting for the right moment.

Secrets are the currency of intimacy, and if we can just create a safe place for others to share, they’ll start this conversation that has a very deep and lasting meaning. Before PostSecret — maybe I’ll keep my religious experiences secret from you, but one thing I will share is before I even had the idea for PostSecret, I was a volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline, volunteering on that midnight-to-4 A.M. shift, listening to strangers call me up at that crucible in their life, and tell me their deepest secrets.

Has being exposed to so many confessions of pain and suffering over the years affected you? Has it changed who you are?

I think it has. I think it has in a good way. I feel as though I have a greater sense of understanding and compassion and empathy. I think I have a larger acceptance of the wide range of human behavior. I think of the postcards as songs or poems or novels. And maybe the more we’re exposed to people’s personal truths, the more we can put ourselves in the shoes of other folks, and feel a greater sense of connection.

When I grew up I had some struggles. I had some losses. And I think that because of that suffering as a young man and feeling alone with it, now as an adult, as I read secrets from others coming from a sense of suffering alone, I feel a greater sense of solidarity. And that’s my hope — when I share these kinds of secrets on the web, I think in some cases there can be great relief. When you feel like you’re alone in the world with a secret you haven’t told a soul and then, in a PostSecret book or on the website, you discover a stranger who has articulated your secret even more accurately than you could, that experience doesn’t make your secret go away, but it lets your burden of keeping it lift.

Do you tend to aim for some sort of balance in the topics you cover? Do you try to create mini-narratives with the secrets you select? Walk me through the way you approach the selection process.

The answer is yes to all of that! When I select a secret for the website — the Sunday Secrets — it’s a painstaking experience. I’m thinking of myself as a storyteller trying to weave together these individual secrets to become a conversation, a chorus. I see myself almost like a filmmaker, taking these single shots from individual people’s lives and editing them together to tell our story. And I want that story to be rich. Like a great novel. And I want it to have a rhythm, like a song that has a satisfying melody to it. So it’s all about fitting the secrets together, almost like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, until they all become something greater than the sum of the parts.

Image courtesy of PostSecret.

Image courtesy of PostSecret.

Are you at all concerned with the authenticity of secrets? Fact-checking them might be counterproductive, not to mention impossible, but is it something you care about?

That’s a question I get a lot from reporters! I think it has to do with the tradition of journalism and how, when you’re writing a story for a newspaper, you need attribution, you need sources. What I do is very different, and it has a different approach. In some ways I think there are deeper stories you can tell when you are allowed to remain anonymous. If you’re given a postcard and told: “You can put anything you want on this postcard and mail it to a stranger, and it’ll remain anonymous,” that allows you to really think a little bit deeper about what you’re willing to share.

We touched on it earlier — the idea of secrets as being self-revelatory. I think if you gave somebody two postcards, and you said: “I want you to write an anonymous secret on each one and I want one to be true, and one to be untrue,” in many cases the untrue secret would actually have a deeper and greater meaning than the one they consciously shared as being true. It’s the same way that walking into a bookstore you can find just as much meaning and truth in the pages of the books in the fiction section as in the nonfiction ones.

So, whether the content is factually correct or not, something of the sender is going to be revealed in the postcard anyway?

To take the time to purchase a postcard, get a stamp, write your secret, walk it to the post office, let it go, and know that more than likely it’s not going to be put on the web or in the books, because I get so many, that takes a lot of effort, and works as a pretty good screening process.

But honestly, if I gave you a postcard, and I said, “Make up a secret about your life and write it on there,” whatever you put down in that postcard, that idea that you think you’re making up has to come from somewhere. And I’ve had people mail in secrets thinking they were making it up but when they saw it on the website they realized it was their way of coming out to themselves. Or I’ve heard from other people who’ve been inspired to change their lives based upon a stranger’s secret. So even if it wasn’t true for the creator, it was to many others.

I’m really curious: is there a secret you’d never publish?

Yes! I have been contacted by the police and the FBI about secrets before, though that doesn’t necessarily prevent me from publishing them on the web. But one postcard I’ve never shared the image of and probably never will was a postcard made out of a family portrait. And the secret written across the portrait said: “My brother doesn’t know that his father is not the same as our father.” And you look at the faces of the children in the family, you could identify which brother he was talking about.

I don’t doubt the veracity of that secret, but I question who has ownership over it to share. I would not feel good about posting that on the web, and outing that young man, sharing the secret with him for the first time. That’s not the intent of PostSecret. So that’s an example I can share with you over the phone, but I would not post that image of that family and that young man on the web, in a way that could be hurtful to someone.

The number of secrets out there is infinite. Do you also consider PostSecret to be an infinite project?

Well, as we were talking I’ve been staring at a pyramid of secrets taller than me. I received over a million postcards in ten years. I think of secrets as poems or songs. I think they’re inexhaustible. And I’m thankful for that.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.