A conversation with Frank Warren, creator of PostSecret

By Aaron Brown and Emily Joan Smith

Frank Warren’s blog PostSecret began with a simple but meaningful request for complete strangers to write their secrets on postcards and send them to him.PostSecret is now the largest ad-free blog on the Internet. No topic is taboo and submissions range from remorse to revenge to just plain funny.

In addition to updating the website weekly, Mr. Warren has compiled the confessional postcards into four books. The latest, A Lifetime of Secrets, was released Tuesday.

The Mac Weekly’s Aaron Brown and Emily Joan Smith interviewed Mr. Warren about the website, his recent book release, and the future of the project.

The Mac Weekly: For those who aren’t familiar with PostSecret, how did you get started with the website?

Frank Warren: I printed up three thousand self-addressed postcards inviting people to share secrets with me. Something that was true, in their life, and something they had never told anyone else before. I passed them out to strangers on the streets of Washington, DC, and secrets started finding their ways to my mailbox. Eventually, the idea spread virally. I long ago stopped passing out the postcards, but people from around the world now create their own homemade postcards, expressing some artfully-decorated, worded secret.

How do you even begin to sort through these piles of mail you get every day?

It takes about an hour to go through them every day, and it’s a great hour. The clock just seems to fly, because it’s something I really enjoy, I don’t get tired of getting too much mail-you can’t get too much mail.

A Lifetime of Secrets, which is your fourth compilation, focuses specifically on the natural cycles of life and the difficulties and tribulations associated with life’s stages. What inspired you to choose this particular theme for this book?

I really like the way that looking at secrets over the period of a lifetime allows you to see the surprising ways that our secrets change over time, but also the extraordinary ways they stay exactly the same.

It reminds me of this concept of a universal “human condition.”

Well, I think of the books almost as biographies; you know, biographies about us as told through our common secrets.

Can you speak to the demographics of PostSecret? Do you feel your input is fairly distributed among gender, race, age, socioecomic class?

I probably get most of the secrets from young people. I think young people really have lives that are most interesting and exciting and have more secrets. I try to include secrets every week on the website that are from men, women, different ethnic groups, different religious faiths; I really try and share secrets from all types of people on all types of issues. So, every week there’s probably going to be a secret that’s funny, a secret that’s sexual, a secret that’s hopeful, or filled with anguish.

Why do you think so many of the secrets are about sex, and specifically infidelity? Is sex society’s biggest secret?

I do get a lot of secrets that involve that issue. I think it has to do with it being so meaningful for us. I think that issues of intimacy, trust, and vulnerability, are very important to us. And because of that, sometimes we have these secret lives that are never expressed or never talked about, except maybe on a postcard.

Quite a few postcards every week also deal with issues and conflicts with families. Have the cards you’ve received changed or altered your definition of family, and what that means in today’s society?

What I see, from the secrets I receive, is that we really need to be more aware of the threats that can come from people we know. I get many more secrets from women who share stories about rape experiences with people they know versus people they don’t know, whether it’s a distant cousin or an ex-boyfriend or a date rape situation. Sometimes I feel that in our minds we have these fears of strangers, but we really need to be more careful also with some of the people who we do know, and consider friends and family.

Are you saying we have to question our definition of trust?

Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to raise. And sometimes by looking at this collection of secrets, it allows you to view this hidden landscape, this social landscape that we all share but people don’t talk about.

Why are people willing to leave themselves so vulnerable by posting their deepest, darkest secret on the Internet where anybody can read it?

What I found is that people who have shared these very poignant and deep and soulful secrets with me-the reason they did is because they felt if they told a friend or a family member there might be a social consequence because of that…I think the fact that PostSecret is a nonjudgmental environment allows people to feel more free to share their secrets…I think there’s something magical about the intimacy that can connect strangers thousands of miles away through the Internet. And for me, it’s very hopeful; the idea that these new social networks and new communication technologies like blogs can allow future entrepreneurs and artists to create projects like PostSecret that allow us to share parts of our hidden humanity, the poetry of everyday life in ways that we normally don’t see. Hopefully PostSecret is just one of many future projects that will explore these hidden parts of our humanity and reveal what’s extraordinary about us and how we’re all connected.

Do you feel that fake secrets detract from the meaning and value of other secrets?

I think of PostSecret as an art project, and I don’t think of art as being true or false. You can walk into a bookstore and the book that might speak to you the most might be a work of fiction, and I think that can be true of PostSecret as well.

Do you have any celebration planned for the upcoming 100 millionth page view?

[Laughs.] No, no celebrations. But I feel it does underline the idea that we live in a very interesting time and place, where one person, myself, with no artistic training or background, or really much computer background, was able to create this project that has spread and touched so many people. I think that’s inspiring for other people who want to experiment with an idea they might have for an art project or a virtual community. It really shows the power of ideas.

[Editor’s Note: PostSecret passed 100 million views the day after our interview.]

Why you?

I feel some ways like this project came and found me, because I don’t have any artistic training or background. But I also feel very privileged that so many strangers have been able to trust me with sharing something they wouldn’t tell their closest friends or family members.

What’s the future of PostSecret? Are you going to do this for the rest of your life?

I don’t know. This might be the last PostSecret book. I trust the project to lead where it needs to go, and I try and follow. All I try and do is treat the project with dignity and respect, and make decisions like keeping ads off the blog and using my home address to protect the integrity of the project.