April 24, 2008

PostSecret Creator Shares Insights to Others’ Secrets

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Frank Warren, the founder of the PostSecret project, has often been called “the most trusted stranger in America,” a moniker well-deserved when considering the over 200,000 secrets he has received in the mail as part of the project.
Those familiar with PostSecret are used to the heavy themes and the oft-serious undertones found in many of the project’s collected postcards — displayed in a weekly blog and four books — but Warren began his speech at Cornell by sharing a light-hearted secret that had been submitted anonymously: “I pee in the sink.”
The laughter that followed set the stage for an event steeped in collective emotions and, of course, secret-sharing. The audience — which included attendees from Binghamton, Buffalo and Syracuse — consisted largely of fans of the enormously popular PostSecret website blog. “I’ve known about Post Secret for about two years now,” said Lily Roh ’11. “I read the blog every Sunday.” [img_assist|nid=30193|title=Secrets are fun for everyone|desc=Frank Warren, founder of the PostSecret project, speaks in Bailey Hall yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The concept behind PostSecret is simple: people across the world create postcards detailing secrets they have never shared with anyone else. What started out as a group art project dreamed up by Warren has become a cultural phenomenon, with 1,000 new postcards arriving each week to Warren’s home in Maryland and 1 million weekly visitors to the website.
“Hi, my name is Frank and I collect secrets,” Warren said. “Every day we make a decision … to bury a secret or let it out.” Warren described the PostSecret project’s purpose as two-fold, stemming from “the idea that sometimes when we think we’re keeping a secret, that secret is keeping us” and “the opportunity to grow from a secret.”
The project began in 2004 when Warren printed up hundreds of blank postcards with his home address, inviting people to mail in secrets. He handed them out in Washington D.C., expecting the project to taper off after a few weeks. Instead, he found that “the project wasn’t finished with me,” as new cards arrived long after he had stopped distributing postcards.
“I realized that I’d accidentally tapped into something, full of mystery and wonder, that I didn’t really understand,” said Warren. He decided to start the PostSecret blog to display the postcards he was receiving. Blogs represent “a new kind of communication technology that can allow us to have new kinds of conversations,” he said.
The blog is a success. With 130 million visitors to date, it ranks with Yahoo!, AOL, and Ebay among websites most visited by college females. PostSecret’s next move was into the literary world, and PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives was published in 2005.
Warren shared a few of what he called the “secret secrets” — those that did not make it into the books — with the audience, drawing particularly huge laughs with one card that simply stated, “I like to watch Dr. Phil drunk.”
“The reasons [for sending the cards] are just as varied as the postcards themselves,” said Warren. “I think sometimes people are searching for authenticity or self-acceptance or grace.” He noted that many of the secrets he received dealt with issues such as body image, loneliness, self-harm and suicide while relatively few were on topics related to homicide or crime — a disparity he said evident in American culture, with its focus on crime rates and murders.
Warren described the latest PostSecret book, A Lifetime of Secrets, as a “collection of secrets [that] is greater than the sum of its parts, a dialogue of voices.” He said that it showed that “courage can be just as important as artistic training or technique in creating art that moves us.”
PostSecret, said Warren, “helps you redefine what art is, and who can be an artist.”
Following Warren’s talk, members of the audience responded with their own secrets — a cathartic exercise for speakers and listeners alike.
“Each one of us has a secret that would break your heart,” Warren said. And as audience members lined up to share their secrets, it became clear that this was true. Revelations ranged from the humorous to the serious, including revelations about struggles with depression, suicide and stress.
“I was really taken aback by the secrets people shared,” said Arjun Natarajan ’09 after the presentation.
PostSecret has long worked together with the National Hopeline Network, 1-800-SUICIDE, a partnership that began when Warren posted a request from the organization for help on the PostSecret website. PostSecret viewers raised $30,000 for the hotline that week, which was later augmented by a $2,000 donation by The All-American Rejects in exchange for the use of PostSecrets in their recent music video “Dirty Little Secret.”
Warren’s insistence that PostSecret include a “large philanthropic component” resulted in over $150,000 for 1-800 SUICIDE last year. Praising the work of such hotlines in raising mental health awareness and suicide prevention, Warren challenged Cornell students in the audience to do the same, offering to supply $1,000 — a “PostSecret grant” — to anyone at Cornell who set up a peer-to-peer hotline at the University. He invited interested students to contact him and Hopeline President Reese Butler.
Many students noted the sense of community felt during Warren’s presentation and the subsequent audience question-and-answer session.
Added Dana Cobert ’09, “at such a big school like Cornell, it’s easy to feel that everyone’s alone with this one-track mentality, but from [Warren’s] talk and all the raw emotion surrounding secrets people shared, there was a sense of community here.”
Others said it made them more aware of issues students face.
“It made the audience more aware of the high suicide rate,” said Bethany Wong ’10.