Say You, Say We
PostSecret's evolution from secret selves to a community of listeners
Do you have a secret? Sure you do. Everybody does. At least one. Have you considered writing the secret down? It might make you feel better. Or this: Put it down on a postcard and send it to a stranger.
Sounds a little nutty – and by his own admission, Frank Warren started the PostSecret project in 2004 as a kind of "creative prank" – but what began as a lark has turned into a potent and hugely popular mix of confession and art fit for a Handmade Nation. Warren has personally received a half-million postcards, anonymously sent and revealing everything from secret crushes and crises of faith to cancer scares and an overenthusiasm for onanism. He's put it all up on the Web, at PostSecret.com, preserving the anonymity but in the process also creating a community that has since spilled over into the real world.
The Chronicle recently spoke with Warren in advance of his Dec. 12 appearance at BookPeople, where he'll be promoting his latest collection, PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God. It will be Warren's first time in Austin since his keynote speech at the 2008 South by Southwest Interactive Conference – an event made especially memorable when an audience member came up onstage, professed his love for his girlfriend, and proposed to her. (She said yes.) It seems wherever Warren goes, people can't help but confess to him.
Austin Chronicle: So when you began this, did you have any idea that you'd end up at interactive conferences as a very visible Internet personality?
Frank Warren: [Laughs] Um ... [long pause] no. When I started the project, I knew it would always be special for me if I could just execute it right, if I could create this safe, nonjudgmental place online where people could share the hidden parts of themselves. I knew I'd always appreciate it, but I've been shocked by how it's resonated with millions of people around the world.
AC: It is sort of remarkable that this is something that essentially begins as a monologue, then once it's posted on the Internet it becomes a dialogue, really – but not necessarily one involving the person who started the conversation.
FW: Yeah, I think you're really insightful into understanding some of the nuances of how this new conversation works. We have these new communication tools like blogs and Twitter that allow a person like me with no professional background to communicate with millions of people around the world for free, in ways that haven't been possible before. And I think that allows us to have new kinds of conversations and build new kinds of communities in very meaningful ways that don't just operate online but can bring people together in the real world to build relationships and change lives.
AC: I'm very curious about how that works, the transition from total anonymity to a community in which people have names and faces.
FW: I think it's just part of the natural evolution of the project. I think initially it is easier for people to share parts of themselves when they feel protected. But I believe that somehow I've been able to translate that supportive, safe environment – the anonymous environment that's on the Web – into a physical place where classmates and community members sometimes feel comfortable sharing very deep, emotional, funny, or painful secrets in front of hundreds, sometimes a thousand people.
AC: I can only imagine how intense this project must be for you at times. Especially since a lot of these postcards are addressed "Dear Frank." It isn't "Dear World"; it's "Dear Frank."
FW: [Laughs] Yeah.
AC: How has that been for you – years of having deep dark secrets delivered to your front door?
FW: Well, thankfully, I'm a guy, so I'm pretty emotionally stunted to begin with. [Laughs] I do think I have had to change over time to become the person who can do this every day.
AC: Have you had any sort of models? I was curious if you ever listened to Allan Bridge's Apology Line [an answering machine devoted to anonymous call-in apologies that ran from 1980 to 1995].
FW: Little bits, little snippets of it. I'm familiar with the story. I haven't heard too many of the recordings, but I do think that was an early inspiration for PostSecret. I would say a greater inspiration was probably Davy Rothbart and Found Magazine. That's a pretty amazing project, and Davy Rothbart is an exceptional person.
AC: I just interviewed him about six months ago. [See "The Treasure in Other People's Trash," May 29.]
FW: He's a huge Austin fan, just like me, so that doesn't surprise me. A couple years ago we spoke together at I think the Drafthouse. That was a great time.
AC: I was wondering how you physically store the postcards.
FW: Every postcard is delivered to my home, and I read every secret. I keep every one. I think each one is precious. I probably have literally a ton of secrets. I keep them in a safe, secure location. Those big Christmas decoration bins you can buy at Home Depot? I got 30 of them filled.
AC: Wow. Again, that – no pun intended – seems like a very heavy load.
FW: Well, a few weeks ago I had horrible back pain. I had to cancel a few events. So maybe metaphorically, I sometimes feel that burden of shared secrets.
AC: Is your back better now?
FW: It is better.
AC: So can you tell me what the BookPeople event is going to be like?
FW: BookPeople is such an organic fun time with people who really care about the written word and the stories behind them. ... [The event] is going to be pretty spontaneous. I hope it's going to be very informal, where I can just really respond to people in terms of what questions they might have about the project and share some stories, and maybe some people will share some secrets. I'll try and share some of mine.
AC: Does that come with the job? People demand that you share too?
FW: Well, I have one of my secrets in every book, so I feel like that – what was that commercial about hair replacement? "I'm not just ...."
AC: Oh yeah, the Hair Club guy. "I'm not just the president; I'm also a client"?
FW: There you go.
Frank Warren will be at BookPeople Saturday, Dec. 12, at 3pm. BookPeople currently has a collection box for secrets in its store.
Tickets for the signing line will be given away at 9am on the day of the event. To get a signing-line ticket, you must show your receipt for the purchase of PostSecret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God from BookPeople.
James Renovitch, Fri., March 2, 2012
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