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This guy Frank Warren knows a thing or two about secrets. He probably even has a few secrets on the topic of secrets. He definitely has some of his own — he publishes one in each PostSecret book.
Before becoming a New York Times bestseller, his book, PostSecret, was but a Blogspot blog. It's still there. Launched Jan. 1, 2005, Warren posted a series of anonymous postcards, each one bearing a secret from its sender. He's since updated the site almost every Sunday. From early on, the blog has proved to be cultural phenomenon, taking on a life of its own in China, Greece, France, Germany and Russia. The website led to book deals, which have led to taking PostSecret on the road as both an art show as well as a never-ending tour of college campuses, where Warren shares stories behind some unsigned secrets, projecting what he calls "Secret Secrets" — those banned by the publisher — and, at the end of the night, invites audience members to come on stage and share a secret of their own, revealing, attests Warren, "the shocking, the sexual, and the hopeful." The online community Warren's built from the ground up apparently values group support and brutal honesty. Bringing such baggage into a venue of strangers, just for a night, is pretty powerful.
Metro Times: Let's talk about anonymity. One aspect of blogging should be considered mass cowardice. People can spout off anything they want under some anonymous moniker and there's little or no accountability. But PostSecret is rooted in anonymity, and somehow makes it work.
Frank Warren: I think the way these new online communication tools function allow anonymity to be leveraged in powerful ways. I mean, we're having conversations that haven't ever been technologically possible and the implications are vast. In some ways, anonymity is a sense of freedom. I think sometimes when you think you're writing a true secret, maybe it's just another example of fooling yourself about something. When a person has full anonymity — when they know that whatever they write down on that postcard will never be traced back to them and there'll never be a social cost — and they think they're making something up, those can be some of the most revealing secrets of all.
MT: But people can abuse this "freedom."
Warren: I read something in New York Times today ... there was this writer being interviewed who runs this blog called Feministing, which, she said, is like the most widely read feminist publication in the world. One of the things she talked about is how when you take any sort of position, people will feel strongly about you one way or another and that, in the past, people might've said something to you personally or written you a letter — what happens now is that people make comments online and that not only can they be completely anonymous but that they can live forever. In some ways I feel like our social activity online is very much in a Wild, Wild West stage and we're just now in the throes of developing behavior that respects people in the online world as we've come to in the physical world.
MT: What's the most dangerous aspect of online anonymity?
Warren: Online bullying, I believe, is much larger of an issue than we're aware of right now, especially as it relates to young people. I had a very good friend who took his life about 10 years ago and I would say it was due in large part to online bullying.
MT: People send you a lot of funny postcards, but there's a lot of disturbing material that gets sent to you too. How do you deal with it all?
Warren: In some ways I've had to change who I was to become a person who can do this every day. I get hundreds of secrets, sometimes every day, and you're right, many of them can be heavy, filled with anguish. It's not always easy.
MT: Sad, funny, disturbing or otherwise, have you ever felt compelled to write back to any of the secret keepers?
Warren: I'm happy to help facilitate giving voice to those who are unheard. The site spans the whole breadth of human emotion, which can be staggering. It can be jarring too — going from one secret to another, each one with a completely different emotion. Hopefully, I have the secrets arranged so that each one is a different note, and when you get to the end you recognize the song of humanity.
MT: What's the one mistake you made along the PostSecret journey you'd like to take back?
Warren: I'm not sure if it was a mistake or not — it might've been the best mistake I ever made. I don't think I had a good interview with the producers for Oprah, which could've changed things drastically one way or another. I'm sure that if I'd gone on Oprah, PostSecret would've grown rapidly, but it might've grown in ways that weren't healthy. Because of that quick, artificial expansion, it might've undercut its lifetime. In five years, I've been able to grow the project consistently and organically, step by step, and feel like I've really allowed the community to grow in a self-defining way.
MT: Has a posted secret ever incidentally outed someone?
Warren: I received a postcard from somebody that said, "I worked all my life to get into Harvard and now that I'm here, I hate it," and posted it on the site. A couple days later, I got an e-mail from her: "Frank, that secret's true but you've got to take it down. My mom and my friends have recognized my handwriting and I'm in all kinds of trouble." So I took down the postcard immediately but I sent her an e-mail back that said, "Send me another message a year from now and let me know how this story ends because even though you're feeling this pressure right now, in the short term, hopefully you'll either find a place and situation on campus that works for you or you'll transfer to a school that you like better."
MT: Have you heard back yet?
Warren: Not yet — hasn't been a year. But I think a lot of the secrets we have we keep from sharing because we know it's going to put pressure on us to do something very healthy that we're putting off for the wrong reasons.
MT: What makes for a successful blog?
Warren: Your deepest goal should be to try and create something new, something unique — not to get to a point where you can make money from advertisers. Be consistent not just with your voice but also with your posts. Painful honesty is crucial — honesty that people recognize and doesn't always make everyone, including the bloggers themselves, feel comfortable.
MT: How does going to a PostSecret art show or live event, where you can interact with the postcards on a material level, differ from how online visitors experience the project?
Warren: Each way I share the near half-million secrets I've collected indicates the universal nature of our secrets. I think of the website as a place to share living secrets — secrets that people are struggling with at the moment you're reading them on your screen. I don't have an archive, so in a week they'll be gone. The books are a way for me to tell a longer story about all of us through our secrets. I think of the secrets at the art shows as a way to convey the tangibility of the project: the physical card, the front, the back, the damage it underwent on its journey to get to me before going online. The way the cards are suspended from the ceiling, you not only get to see the card, but you can see the face of the person on the other side of the card and see their emotional reaction to it — it's like a silent dialogue with a complete stranger. One of the things I do every time I speak at a live event is to encourage people in the audience to believe in that one crazy idea they might have to and start the conversation because conversation, if productive, becomes a community.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.