Here, as first appeared in Sunday Lifestyle, is my story on Frank Warren and PostSecret.
Some people write about issues as benign as the odd behavior of their pets. Others discuss more serious topics such as their failing marriage or a failing belief in God.
Still others use the forum as a last, desperate cry for help with some internal struggle.
When rummaging through the 1,000 postcards he gets every week, Frank Warren gains more insight into the lives of ordinary people than any doctor or preacher. The PostSecret online community project he started in 2004 quickly turned the Germantown, Md., resident into “The Most Trusted Stranger in America,” with the site receiving more than 183 million views during its existence.
“I have been asked many times why I started this. It still feels to me as though this project found me,” he said during a recent phone interview. “All I try to do is make the right decisions every day to protect the integrity of the project — and learn to trust the journey.”
The project involves people sending in postcards with anonymous secrets written on one side. The confessions range from cynical to shocking and seductive, which Warren considers part of the Web site’s appeal.
“That’s what people want to see. They want to see those embarrassing things up there,” he said. “One of the things that draws people is the authenticity of the secrets, the rawness of what’s on the postcards.”
Forbes magazine has placed Warren on its list of the 20 most influential people on the Internet. The site has won numerous awards, including a Webby Award for best Internet art and blog of the year from Weblog. The National Mental Health Association, meanwhile, recognized Warren and his site for the awareness raised about mental health issues.
One thing Warren hasn’t received, however, is much money. PostSecret has been noted as the largest site on the Internet not to feature any paid advertisements. He insists on running the site as a nonprofit project; many payments he receives, such as a fee to appear in the All American Rejects music video “Dirty Little Secret” in 2005, go to suicide prevention groups.
Having seen more than 250,000 secrets to date, Warren never fails to be amazed by some of the things he reads. One postcard he carries with him at all times arrived festooned with several “rush” stickers from an airport baggage handler.
“It said, ‘You called me an idiot, so I sent your bags to the wrong destination. Oops, I guess you were right,’ ” he said. “It reminds me to treat people with the respect they all deserve.”
Other postcards have left impressions for different reasons over the years. One Warren recalled had an image of the Twin Towers with “Everyone who knew me before 9-11 believes I am dead” written on it, while another had a picture of a female police officer wearing only her uniform hat with a nasty note inscribed on it from the wife of the man with whom she was cheating.
Warren puts a handful of postcards on his Web site every Sunday but receives far more than he can place on the Internet. He’s compiled four books of postcards over the past couple years using themes such as romance and confessionals; the books quickly became staples atop the New York Times best-seller list.
“Web site secrets are living secrets. The books are an archive or testament of the secrets,” said Warren, who said a lot of thought goes into the arrangement and selection of secrets for the books. “I think of myself more as a storyteller with the books, using literary techniques.”
The self-described “accidental artist” has had to divert more time to the project as the years have progressed. Also the founder of the small business Instant Information Systems several years ago, he said he’s become “an absentee owner” because he now spend 40 to 50 hours per week on PostSecret. In addition to the books, those commitments include a lecture tour of more than 20 colleges he’s conducting the rest of the year; that tour stops this week at the University at Buffalo.
“What I like to do is to share stories — the funny, the inspirational, the hopeful stories behind the secrets. I also like to project images of postcards that were kept out of the books for various reasons — the secrets’ secrets,” he said.
Time is always left at the end for audience members to speak, Warren said. During one recent stop at a small college in Manhattan, he said more than a dozen attendees shared their secrets before an audience of more than 500 people.
“For me, that’s the most interesting, rich part of the talk because you never know what’s going to be exposed,” he said. “Strangers will give each other a pat on the back or hug, some show of support … It’s wonderful when you see that take place. That’s the equivalent of what I’ve tried to do on the Web site every Sunday. It’s so exciting to see that reality from the Web make the jump.”
Warren also spends time after each lecture speaking with attendees and signing books; schools often try to cap his time doing so, but Warren said he makes sure every person who wants to talk to him does so. While perhaps unnecessary, he considers that to be the least he can do for the people who have made his project so successful.
“I feel very privileged that people trust me enough to share secrets with me that they wouldn’t tell their closest friends or family members. It feels now as though it has this higher purpose. It’s almost spiritual,” he said. “Each one of us has a secret that would break your heart if you knew what it was.”
Contact editor Paul Lane at 693-1000, ext. 116.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Presentation by Frank Warren, founder of PostSecret
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Mainstage Theatre at the Center for the Arts, North Campus of the University at Buffalo, Amherst
MORE INFORMATION: Call 645-2787 or visit postsecret.blogspot.com