Q&A with PostSecret creator Frank Warren
Frank Warren, creator of popular blog PostSecret presented at Towson Wednesday, Nov. 16, courtesy of the Campus Activities Board. Warren was one speaker featured during Towson’s Love is Louder week, a national anti-bullying campaign.
Towerlight: When did you start PostSecret? What was going through your head when you did?
Frank Warren: The blog started in February of 2005. My whole life, I felt that I had this rich interior life of inside jokes and sexual thoughts and hopes and fears. And I thought if other people could trust me with their hidden lives, it could breed a real special thing and place. It started to work. What surprised me most was the reaction people had to it. The first month on the Web, there were millions of visitors from around the world. So that’s been the most gratifying part: the fact that people trust me with their secrets and there’s been a great reaction to it.
TL: How many secrets do you receive now?
FW: I receive about 100 every day.
TL: How do you determine which secrets are placed on the website?
FW: It’s kind of a gut feeling. I get about 500-800 a week. I look for secrets I haven’t seen before, a new voice, a kind of fresh representation for a secret. I always focus a lot on the composition of all 20. It’s really important to me that each week there’s a secret that’s funny or shocking or hopeful or sexual or heartbreaking. I try to arrange the secrets so there’s cohesiveness, that there are connections between the secrets. They’re more than just the sum of their parts, there’s this larger conversation amongst all of our secrets.
TL: Do you mean you organize them by subject matter, or does it go beyond that?
FW: Subject matter can be a part of it, but also literary techniques, a set up and a punch line, or a juxtaposition of subject matter, maybe cinematic techniques of visual ideas connecting the secrets. It can be a number of kind of connections, starting with subject, but it can also just be the color of the card, or maybe one card has a top half of a person above it, and the second card has legs, so there’s this visual connection that’s kind of shocking.
TL: What’s healthy about sharing secrets?
FW: I think it can be cathartic for the person who shares the secret with themselves first and takes ownership of it with words and sharing it. It can be a first step to talking about your secrets or your fears with a spouse, a brother, a sister, a girlfriend, a counselor. I also think it allows other people to feel less alone and more empathy with whatever secrets they may have.
TL: Does contributing to PostSecret encourage open communication? It is anonymous, but does it help people on their journeys?
FW: I hope so. I think of the project as an art project, a community art project. But people have told me that they have a sense of relief or unburdening in their secrets, by taking ownership of it, putting it on a postcard, and physically letting it go. There’s something empowering about that ritual.
TL: What service do you think PostSecret offers its readers and those who send postcards in to you?
FW: I think it’s another option people have to tell their story and bear their secret. I’m not trying to displace anyone: a counselor or a family member or a priest. But somebody wants to share a secret anonymously. I think that can be a powerful first step in finding that journey to take you where you need to be.
TL: Do people confide in you personally at these presentations? Do you have people come and talk to you face-to -ace? How does that feel?
FW: Yes. It can be pretty overwhelming. Sometimes, people have a very strong emotional experience with the project, with the website, or the books, or with the PostSecret event. Sometimes they project it onto me, how they felt about this stranger who shared a secret. And so it’s challenging sometimes to live up to what I think people want me to be.
TL: Do all types of people come to you and approach you, like college students, the elderly, adults?
FW: All kinds of people do, for sure, but I would say the majority are young people. I think more women than men. I think part of that has to do with the Web being so popular, so college students are aware of it and share it with their friends a lot more. But I also think young people are more interesting. They’re kind of in the midst of searching for their identity in a way, and an adult might feel locked in and boxed in to a certain role. And young people, too, I believe are more sincere in that search of what’s true and what’s bullshit.
TL: What are the differences in the secrets young people share compared to ones older individuals share? Is there an obvious difference?
FW: I think there is a developmental life of our secret selves. The secrets that you share when you’re a pre-teen aren’t the same kind of secrets that weigh heavy on you when you’re in your 40s or 50s, when your child is leaving for college, for example. There are similarities, too. So much of our lives is trying to find those true and real friends who we can honestly tell all of our secrets to. I don’t think that desire ever leaves us.
TL: Have you ever been shocked by a particular secret?
FW: One disturbed me quite a bit I remember: “I pee in the shower.” No, but I don’t get as many shocking secrets as you might expect. People ask me all the time, “Do you get secrets about crime or murder?” The one secret I remember, if it’s a secret, is that a woman from Texas emailed me that she wrote her secret on a postcard and she was going to mail it to me, but she looked at it, and that it made feel her feel horrible so she tore it up and said she would never be the kind of person that would carry that secret again. You can see in that simple story how sharing a secret can be transformative. It can create a possibility of changing of who you are.
TL: So it helps to put these emotions into a physical being, so to speak?
FW: I would go further and say as “exorcising” a secret into the physical world. You have to choose the words to take ownership of it. And no one’s going to judge you. It’s all within your own mind and in your own heart and then you’ve got that corpus, that body, that secret, and you let it go and release it.
TL: Would you describe secrets as negative? Your language seems to suggest that. Are they your demons?
FW: When I don’t talk about the project, I don’t talk about confessions because that does have a negative implication. I think sometimes the reason we keep secrets is we feel as if others knew about them, there would be a separation or humiliation or an embarrassment. That can weigh you down. That’s one motive why we keep secrets. But I also think secrets can be funny and human and hidden acts of kindness.
TL: Do you like those types of secrets better than the darker ones?
FW: Those are more rare. I do like the novelty of seeing the pay-it-forward type secrets, for sure.
TL: Do you think society focuses on the dark type of secrets than the kindness and the cute subjects?
FW: It’s all there. Just like everything is on the Web, people focus on the negativity of the Web. But there’s some powerful empathy there, and compassion and hidden acts of kindness and people making meaningful connections on the Web as well. Maybe there’s even some spirituality in there.
TL: So in your presentation, what do you try to do for the audience?
FW: There are a lot of ways to look at my presentation. One way to look at it is creating an environment where everybody there can feel, just for 30 minutes or so, like they can talk about their deepest secrets in front of strangers and classmates. Stuff they’ve never said to their dormmate before, but they could stand up and share it front of 500 people. That can be pretty powerful, not through my voice, but through the audience members’ voices.
TL: So you rely on everyone else to provide your presentation?
FW: It’s exactly like the blog. It’s community sourcing, and that holds the most value for people anyway. If audience members can listen to their classmates tell their true secrets, there’s nothing better I can say.
TL: Is traveling is your full-time job?
FW: Secrets are my full-time job. I do more than just travel and speak. There are books and a play, a lot of emails I have to go through.
TL: Anything else on your mind?
FW: Through this project, I’ve learned that there are two kinds of secrets: the ones we keep from others, and the secrets we keep from ourselves. Hopefully, we can dig up some of both.