Making Humanity Look Good at its Lowest: An Interview With the Founder of PostSecret
Anybody who’s read the comments on YouTube (or Reddit, or philly.com) can tell you: Anonymity has its downside. People say some horrible shit when they know they can get away with it. That’s what makes PostSecret — the web site that’s been collecting anonymous, often confessional and frequently artful postcards since 2005 — so remarkable. Even though it can be a place for people to unload their darkest truths without repercussions, it has turned out to be an oasis of humanity on an inhumane internet. “I think the web has all kinds of potential for different kinds of conversations,” says the site’s founder, Frank Warren. “I’m happy that PostSecret can represent something a bit more thoughtful and creative.” So the site perseveres, furthered by six anthology books and, more recently, PostSecret: The Show, a live dramatic interpretation of real postcards Warren has received — playing at the Kimmel this Friday and Saturday. At intermission, audience members can submit their own postcards to be included in the show. I talked to Warren on the phone earlier in the week.
How did this live show come about?
We’ve gone through dozens of versions and what we have now is something that I think is really touching audiences in a way that is really in the spirit of PostSecret itself. It’s wonderful to feel like we’re honoring people’s secrets, and bringing the stories behind the secrets to life dramatically onstage.
Are there recurring themes in peoples’ secrets?
Sure… We talk about it in the show, in fact we explore this whole genre of secrets that I didn’t even know existed, but I’ve received hundreds of them: These are secrets, usually told by a parent, more often than not a father, to a child. And these are secrets that turn out to be complete lies. I’ll give you an example: One guy said “my dad used to tell me that, when I was a kid, in our front yard there were toys buried underneath the lawn and if I pulled out enough weeds, eventually the toy would pop out of the roots. And another one from a guy who said “my dad used to tell me that when the ice cream truck played music I meant they’d run out of ice cream.”
When you ask for people’s deepest confessions and secrets you never know what you’re going to get. The show is full of surprises like that. Secrets that have changed peoples lives. Secrets that have brought people together. Secrets that read like love songs.
Have there been trends? Have certain kinds of secrets become popular at different times?
Hmm. I haven’t noticed anything like that. … I have to make a decision every week which secrets to put on the blog, and I can never post all of them, so I have make choices, and sometimes I’ll look back over time and see funny things that have happened, like how secrets bubble up in a way that’s surprising…
Years ago I got a postcard from somebody that said “I’m an adult but I find it very relaxing to color in children’s coloring books.” Flash forward four years later, there’s whole section in the book store now: adult coloring books.
Unlike say YouTube comments, PostSecret seems to have avoided the mean/brave/troll contingent. So you know why that would be?
I think there’s kind of a PostSecret community of people who come and read the secrets, and they see the courage and vulnerability that strangers are sharing with them, and I think it creates that kind of feeling to be reflected back in kind. So yeah, I’ve never had an issue really with negativity in a way that you might see with YouTube comments and I think it just has to do more than anything else, with the nature of the web site and the tone of the conversation that comes from the secrets.
For the darker secrets, do they burden you psychologically?
No it’s funny, I really don’t feel that way typically from the postcards and I’ve been getting them almost every day for years.
But I will say, some of the emails do feel that way. People find my email and some of the emails, it’s difficult to know how to respond, or to hit delete. And sometimes I get so many it’s tough to keep up. I’ve never felt burdened from the secrets on the postcards. I still feel like a kid Christmas morning every time I walk to my mailbox, to see what gifts are there from the world. but it’s the emails that can be burdensome.
You get an email from a young person talking about how a postcard that they read on the web site made them think about their life in a new way, and they’re excited. Or you hear somebody else who talks about how they just finished writing their suicide note. And you don’t know how to respond, or how urgently, or should you refer it to somebody else. Even though I was a volunteer on a suicide prevention hot line, you still feel a sense of responsibility every time you get a message like that.
Maybe that background helped this project become so thoughtful. This could’ve been darker, couldn’t it?
You’re exactly right. You know, when people hear about the site, they think it’s like a porn site or something, and it could’ve gone in that direction, for sure. But there is something about my nature and my past experiences that resonated with what people were sharing. I don’t think I drove the project a certain way but I was certainly a partner in the conversation in allowing the community to find … the kinds of secrets that they wanted to expose and release, and maybe grow from.
Why do people have such a hard time telling each other these things?
You and I already know the answer to that. It’s just a matter of finding the courage and vulnerability to face it. I think it’s just understanding who we truly are in our fullest sense. And we can always go a little bit further. It makes you feel a little uncomfortable but there’s always the secret underneath the other secret.
Do you think for some people, putting the secret on the postcard is the first step toward telling the secrets directly to the ones who need to hear them?
I do. That’s a hope that I have, that the first person you have to reveal your secret to is yourself, and after that, you can tell others. Sometimes people, they let their secret go on the web site and they realize once they did, it was never as big as it felt when they kept it locked up in their heart.
I think if the Zodiac Killer was still out there, he would’ve probably sent you something.
Nothing from the Zodiac Killer yet. But have been contacted by the police and the FBI over postcards.
But like if DB Cooper was out there, I think he would have sent you a postcard.
I think I’ve probably gotten a few like that.
PostSecret is at the Kimmel this Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19. Info here.