Revealing your deep, burning secret to a stranger can help you feel better about yourself and maybe even make the world a better place.
That’s what web celeb Frank Warren believes happens with PostSecret, his postcard art project that has spread like wildfire across the Internet.
Over the past five years, nearly half a million confessions have been written on hand-decorated post cards and mailed anonymously to Warren. The phenomenon has turned the 45-year-old Maryland husband, father and self-described “accidental artist” into a blog sensation. In 2009, Forbes magazine listed Warren among America’s top five bloggers, along with Perez Hilton’s Hollywood buzz and Kevin Rose, founder of Digg.com.
“It can be therapeutic, and there can be a spiritual element to it,” Warren said in a recent phone interview. “I think of these postcards as a way to exorcise a secret, to take ownership of a secret, by choosing the words to express it, by putting it on this physical object and then letting it go, just releasing it.”
‘PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God’
WHERE: Lab Theatre, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany, Washington Avenue, Albany
WHEN: Through Feb. 11, noon to 6 p.m. daily. (At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8, Frank Warren will give a presentation in the Main Theatre of the Performing Arts Center, followed by a book signing. The exhibit will also be open that night.)
HOW MUCH: Free. Admission to Warren’s presentation is $15. For reservations, call 442-3997 or go to www.albany.edu.
Every week, Warren’s home mailbox is stuffed with more than 1,000 postcards. He reads every one, and every Sunday he posts 10 to 20 new cards on the Internet so the world can see the artwork and messages that express people’s fears and joys, anger and awe. Their confessions about their lives, their relationships, God and the universe are also there to see.
Besides its award-winning website, with more than 400 million hits, PostSecret has sparked five best-selling books of post cards related to different themes and postcard exhibits that tour museums and art centers.
Warren is also on tour, and because many of his fans are in their teens and 20s, many of his dates are at colleges, speaking to sold-out crowds.
On Jan. 19, “PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death and God,” a postcard exhibit based on the title of his latest book, opened at the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany. On Feb. 8, Warren himself will take the stage, for what he expects will be an interactive event, where young people grab a microphone and tell the audience what’s on their mind.
“My goal at every PostSecret event is to find the conversation that everyone wants to have,” Warren says.
“There’s video, there’s music. I project images on a screen. Secrets that are banned from the books are projected up there. I tell stories behind PostSecrets, I tell secrets from my own life. Some of them are funny or inspiring, but what’s been happening is that more and more, people want to use the space to share their own secrets.” So Warren stops talking and starts listening.
Compassion from crowd
“For me, that’s the most compelling part of the evening every time, when young people especially, courageously come up to a microphone, sometimes in front of a thousand people, and talk about a struggle they are having with cutting or eating disorders or a family issue that they just can’t figure out how to deal with. To see the compassion rise up from the audience, and the connection. It’s extraordinary.”
Warren sees his role as “curator” or “facilitator.”
“What I’ve been trying to do more and more is to build upon the relationship of openness and vulnerability that people have every Sunday when they come to the website, and bring that into a real place where just for an hour or two, people will hopefully feel permission to talk about the parts of their lives they hide every day.”
On the blog or in person, it’s up to PostSecret participants whether to reveal more than the few emotionally charged words on their card. Warren keeps the postcards confidential and stores them in a secure place.
“Most meaningful for me are the stories, the sometimes very poignant stories, behind the secrets that can be funny or heart-breaking. They can bring people together or tear others apart. And in many cases, they are cathartic,” he says.
Warren has a degree in social science from University of California at Berkeley, and for 20 years, until PostSecret took over his life, he ran a medical information business.
Passing out postcards
He got the idea for PostSecret in 2004, when he was in a Paris hotel, and had a dream about postcards with messages on them. Although he was not an artist, he started decorating and writing his own messages on postcards and then handed out thousands of postcards to strangers, inviting them to tell their secrets.
Warren is often asked why people are motivated to share their secrets with him. Are people today more detached or lonely than their ancestors?
“It’s tough to know for sure,” Warren says.
“I would say that loneliness is a secret I see represented in the postcards every day. Sometimes I feel there’s this paradox: The more people there are on the planet, the more loneliness increases. But I’m also very optimistic about the Web and how websites and blogs and projects can create these online conversations that allow strangers to come together in meaningful ways and tell their stories,” he says.
“I don’t think we’re aware of how powerful this technology is. We’re pretty aware of some of the negative aspects of it. . . . But in this day and age, when we’re talking that one out of four marriages is starting online, that is very significant.”
Warren, who has a 16-year-old daughter, is very aware of PostSecret’s attraction for teens, and when she was younger, she was not allowed to see the website.
“When you are talking real secrets, it can definitely be mature content,” he says. “They can be politically incorrect, they can be offensive, they can involve nudity.” One of his books, “My Secret,” is aimed at teenagers.
“It’s a book I wish I had in high school,” Warren says. Because it is anonymous, PostSecret cannot directly connect with young people who are suffering from depression or other serious mental issues, but it supports awareness of suicide prevention and has raised over half a million dollars for TheHopeLine.
“Suicide has touched my family in a number of ways. I lost an uncle to suicide. I lost a best friend to suicide. I was a HopeLine volunteer for years,” he says.
Chance to be artistic
As an art project, Warren sees PostSecret as a chance for postcard makers to feel good about themselves and their talents.
“There’s a beauty in the project that allows everyday people to see themselves as artists,” he says.
“These postcards can have artwork that is painstakingly created or secrets with words so carefully chosen that they read like a poem.”
At the University at Albany, visitors will walk through and be immersed in hundreds of original postcards that appear in the book “Confessions on Life, Death and God.” “Hopefully, someone will walk through this exhibit when it’s at Albany, maybe some sleepless night when they are struggling with a secret, find the courage to put it on a postcard and drop it into a mailbox,” Warren says.
“When you walk through the exhibit, and you hear all these voices coming from the cards, I think you can’t help leave feeling a part of this greater whole. . . . I really hope that one of the things this project does is work to create empathy between people and deeper knowledge of how so many of our lives are interconnected.”