In an era when bloggers and reality TV casts readily tell all, Frank Warren’s PostSecret project-turned-phenomenon occupies unique cultural real estate. It offers intimacy and artistry, simplicity and scroll-ability: secret after secret mailed in from anonymous fans on 4-by-6 postcards and then published online with a solid black background, no comments and no ads.
It is a modern adaptation of the low-tech message in a bottle, only these are guaranteed to reach a specific destination — 13345 Copper Ridge Road, Germanton, Md. — and they are guaranteed to be read. Warren, 46, a dad who used to operate a small business selling medical documents, now receives some 4,000 postcards a month and thumbs through each one.
The project took over his mailbox, his basement and his life, becoming a full-time job, a source of celebrity and what he calls a “mission.” It turned him into a curator of Americans’ innermost secrets. Every Sunday he snaps his magic wand, making the private public with the swift click of the “publish” button.
Warren began his project in November 2004 with a narrower scope, blanketing Washington, D.C., with a request for postcard secrets. He was surprised that postcards from far-flung ZIP codes kept trickling in long after he had ceased the local campaign.
“It was then that I realized I had accidentally tapped into something full of mystery and wonder that I don’t think there’s any way to turn off,” Warren said. “There’s a real power that pulls people toward sharing authentic moments in their lives. There can be this energy that comes from releasing one of those experiences or recognizing that kind of experience in someone else.”
Those experiences range from the heart-warming to the heart-breaking to the heart-stopping:
• “I have this deep down longing to be a pregnant teen,” one postcard states.
• “I’m still fighting it, but one reason I decided against suicide is that there are no donuts in death,” another says.
• And a third confessor writes, “Ever since the tragedy in Haiti, I’ve donated $1,000 a day at AT&T stores using their display phones.”
The secrets elicit more than 1 million visitors a week, making it the largest ad-free blog in the world, according to Warren. “It reveals that so many of us are living these extraordinary adventures all the time, stories of frailty and heroism, and it exposes how connected we all are.”
A Minneapolis resident recently discovered the power of those connections while scanning Warren’s latest book. Page five contains a note the local had left in an airplane two years and announces its impact: a marriage proposal.
“I had left the note on the airplane in hopes that I could wake somebody up from the trance we get stuck in every day and realize what is really important,” the Minneapolis resident wrote in an email to Warren.
PostSecret also has been credited for averted suicides, Warren said, and he partners with Hopeline, a national crisis hot line to steer some viewers in the right direction.
“I can’t imagine doing anything more gratifying,” Warren said. He’ll be bringing these stories to Gustavus Adolphus College tonight, when he’ll speak at 8 p.m. in Christ Chapel — an apt setting, Warren said.
“I just love that feeling [of a chapel]. There’s a real connection, I believe, in the secret and the sacred.”
He’s also aware that the college demographic is particularly receptive to PostSecret. “Young people are at that point in their lives where they’re really trying to identify who they are and understand the difference between what’s purported to be true and what’s just B.S., and that allows young people to feel the secrets more and connect more with them and maybe even to be at a point in their lives where they can recognize some of their own secrets in a way that might disappear as they get older.”
The technology comes naturally, too. Warren has ably harnessed Facebook and Twitter, giving his five-year-old site enormous reach and traction.
At Gustavus, the best-selling author will project images of secrets that were banned by his publisher and then invite audience members to stand at a microphone and share their own secrets, a period “that can be highly charged,” he said.
To be the facilitator of such an intense exchange is a role Warren never prepared for. He has no training as a psychologist or a religious leader, but he speaks with a gentle Mr. Rogers tone and believes the postcards that have flooded his mailbox have broadened his heart. “I think I’ve become less shockable and more open and understanding and maybe compassionate.”
He’s taking a Zen approach about what will come next in his unusual career. “I try not to make goals or plans for the future. I just try to follow where it leads.”