What happens when secrets become products, or entertainment?
I have a postcard I’ve been meaning to send. It’s nothing special, just the skyline of the city I live in. The city at night, lit up and revealed, but also secretive and hidden. This is where I live. This is where we all live, perpetually caught between revelation and exposure. We go about our business figuring that most of the time, almost all of the time, nobody notices. We’re counting on it, in fact. We’re counting on the fact that whatever our kink, fetish, habit or peccadillo, there are many of us and we’re all doing “it.” So who’s going to notice me? But we want to be noticed. We live in cities of millions. All that energy and greed, all that community and commuting. Surely there’s someone out there who’s willing to pay attention to me, even if just for a minute. Or maybe not. Which is why I have a postcard I can’t decide whether to send. On the front, a simple city scene of the kind any tourist might buy. On the back, room to write it. My secret.
Unless he decides to post it to his website, what I wrote on that postcard will be between me and Frank Warren. Warren is a Maryland artist who presides over an empire of secrets, thousands of confessions sent to him every week from around the world. From who? He doesn’t know. About what? Anything and everything. Warren’s dominion is PostSecret.com and he is the high priest of the digital confession. He’s taken one of the oldest human traits—to keep and tell secrets—and turned it into a global phenomenon, a transnational entertainment mini-dominion that’s as simple and complicated as the primal need to spew forth the truth. PostSecret is candid, disturbing and wildly entertaining. Just be careful. Reading the thousands of secrets written on postcards and anonymously sent in to Warren is the online equivalent of doing crack. “Ever since I discovered PostSecret I look out for secrets,” writes an anonymous poster on the site. “On street corners, lamp posts, faces, dollar bills too. I need to be reminded that everyone has secrets and that I can be open to being there when someone needs to let one go. I am trying to be the kind stranger I’ve always wanted to meet.”
The “kind stranger,” or the addicted consumer of a phenomenon that turns the secrets of others into mass-culture entertainment? Entertainment, though, isn’t the right word. A blurry picture of a mother and daughter. On it: “I’m not going to cope when my mom has lost her battle with cancer. I’m going to kill myself. I hope there is an afterlife.” Text pasted over the faces of two college girls: “The first night I shared a room with my black roommate I locked my suitcase.” And some less portentous secrets: a postcard showing vintage seventies cops sporting handlebar moustaches: “I call the cops on all the parties you don’t invite me to.”
Frank Warren lives in rural Maryland, where he stores the hundreds of thousands of postcard secrets people have entrusted to him, and where he pores over the thousand or so cards he gets every week, trying to decide which ones should appear on the website, get a place in a future book or be part of a show in an art gallery. “I keep them all,” he says, “and I keep them in those big bins you can buy at Home Depot.”
The project started in 2004 when Warren circulated invitations around neighbourhoods and websites to submit anonymous secrets on postcards for an art project. Before he knew it, the project had taken on a life its own and secrets were coming in from all over the world. PostSecret had gone viral. Warren believes that people are becoming more and more lonely even though the population is mushrooming. “So hopefully PostSecret allows you to carry a greater sense of empathy,” he says. “I really do believe that all of us have a secret that would break your heart if you just knew what it was.”
How many times can our hearts break for strangers on a website, for their bad luck and bad choices? Should we all know each other’s secrets? Warren is the gentle Zen master of secrets, but he has also inadvertently created a formula—even a genre—that is rapidly being adopted by far less amiable overseers. One copycat site I visited, SharedConfessions.com, was festooned with ads and dominated by rants (sample confession titles: “I Hate Bums” and “I Won’t Vote for the Black Man or the Woman”). It’s the difference between crassly getting people to say anything, the more the better, and carefully choosing individual voices that resonate with the notion of revelation and forgiveness.
SharedConfessions is not alone in trying to jump on the “secrets” bandwagon. Companies with goods and services to sell are working hard to figure out how to harness the power of secrets to enhance brands and connect people to products. Well-known reveal-your-secrets campaigns are regularly being rolled out by giant corporations. One of them is the Let It Out campaign (Kimberly-Clark). “Kleenex® brand provides lots of ways for everyone to let it out,” announces the Let It Out Kleenex website. On their online forum, home to the complaints of thousands of anonymous posters, “Milwaukee” writes: “My boss is such a miserable person who has very little self esteem that she has to put others down all the time to make herself feel good. She is so rude and jerky to everyone. I can’t stand her. I wish she would quit and leave the company.” Is this Frank Warren’s vision of disparate human beings connecting to a shared truth? Strange things happen when corporations underwrite online sharing. “I am 16. I am a sophomore,” writes Underdog of the World. “I am a rape victim. It happened this year, by a guy I thought was one of my friends, and to make it worse it was at My church. He said he needed to talk and i trusted him. Well i think you know the rest . . . I have no one to talk to about it and i wish i did. I also wish i wouldn’t have trusted him.” That’s her story. Under it, Kleenex helpfully writes: Find Similar: Rape.
On the Dove Real Beauty Body Image Forum, part of another reveal-your-secrets campaign (Unilever), roughly fourteen thousand women have left comments. Bangzoom1118 writes that “the little tiny bit of cellulite that I will probably never get rid of still irks me . . . the tiny little imperfections that no one probably notices but me, even if I am wearing a swimsuit . . . they all still bother me so much. I see those airbrushed photos of models and celebs and wonder why my skin does not look like that, but then remember that I am not airbrushed!”
I am not airbrushed! could be the slogan for these forums. But I’m not sure it’s even true. Frank Warren sees this kind of baring of souls as inevitably leading to connections and greater human understanding. Forums like Let It Out, Real Beauty and SharedConfessions make the opposite also feel true: there’s a sense of ghostly diminishment to the revelations, a sense of stories and lives being air-brushed and harvested. To what end are we being encouraged to share our secrets on these sites? I wonder if the companies themselves comprehend the relationship between online anonymous confession and their products. They know they are tapping into our overwhelming need to share our secrets. What they may not know is that this longing to be noticed has to do with the collapse of the communities and neighbourhoods that we used to rely on for intrinsic, effortless recognition of our existence as human beings. These sites cannot replace that, which is why so much of the material that gets posted reads as petty, embittered and even hopeless. Secrets as entertainment, secrets as products disconnected from corporeal community, secrets floating aimlessly through cyberspace, ghosts in the machine (Find Similar: Rape).
Night falls on our secrets, and, all alone in my city of millions, I decide, after all, to tear up my postcard.