February 11, 2010

PostSecret: Like an Online Confessional

Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – Every Sunday the secrets go out into the universe, like visual confessions to the intercessory Internet gods. They have been mailed by strangers to the keeper of the secrets, Frank Warren, a self-made social scientist who has for six years been collecting anonymous admissions sent to absolve a guilty pleasure, a heavy heart, a burden of hatred or an innocent mistake.
    What started in November of 2004 as what Warren describes as a “community art project” expanded three months later to the Internet, where the weekly PostSecret blog has been drawing an endless flow of secrets ever since – and a growing flock of followers who come faithfully each week just to read them.
     “You wouldn't have to pay for my therapy if you just took the time to be a dad,” reads one of this week's 20 secrets. It's hand-printed on a post card picturing a little girl setting up a tea party, all alone.
     “I am a professional relationship coach who hasn't had sex in six years,” reads another.
     “When my cat wakes me up in the morning I like to think she's encouraging me and saying things like 'Come on, get out of bed. Today can't be much worse than yesterday. Things will get better. I promise.' Even if she just wants food, it's nice to have some hope.”
     Six years later, the floodgates of confession remain open and 1,000-plus weekly “PostSecrets” continue to pour into his Maryland home mail box. It's an international phenomenon he says he still doesn't fully understand, one that has spun off into several books and national PostSecret tour, which lands Friday at the Stockbridge Theatre for one of two New Hampshire stops this month.
      “It's hard to put into a nutshell how all this came about, but I can tell you my own fascination with secrets began long before PostSecret began,” said Warren.
      With well over 300 million page views to date on postsecret.com, and nearly a quarter of a million followers on Twitter, Warren acknowledges the success of his online experiment is a product of this particular time and place, and our collective interest in the secret lives of others.
     “These new tools of communication that are being introduced to the world, right now – like Facebook and Twitter – are allowing many of us to have new kinds of conversations that were not possible before, bringing literally millions of people together around the world by sharing these new voices and stories,” Warren said.
     Although the original blog is bare bones – touted as the world's largest ad-free blog – and is not weighed down by interactive posts or flashy animations, the brand's evolution includes a sister site called PostSecret Community where devotees can find news, event updates, and enter into chats about the current week's posts, or anything PostSecret related.
     What Warren has learned is that the act of sharing a secret – even anonymously – can be life changing.
     “PostSecret has a a large component of anonymity. But once down that road, you see all our secrets are reflections of our common humanity. Depending on our level of courage, there are certain secrets we can face privately and others we can face publicly. What I see happening on the tour is, once one person is brave enough to step up to the microphone and share a secret, that courage is contagious and just cascades through the audience,” said Warren.
     He begins by sharing telling a few of his own secrets. Then, he shares the “secret secrets” on the big screen behind him – those deemed too racy by his publisher for inclusion in a book – and before you know it, there are lines of people ready to take a giant step forward and share the most shocking, sexual, poignant and funny secrets with a roomful of strangers.
     Warren, often called “The most trusted stranger in America,” has also tried to capitalize on the site's popularity to promote a cause that is near and dear to him. Having lost a family member and close friends to suicide, Warren chooses to donate a portion of the proceeds from the Post Secret empire to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
     “I think what others are feeling is the same thing I get from it,” said Warren. “I see these postcards and every day it makes me feel like I'm not alone with my own burden. I feel more connected to people by reading their secrets. In a way, they give me strength.”
Limited tickets are still available for Friday's appearance at the Stockbridge Theatre. For ticket information call 437-5210. For information on the Feb. 24 appearance at UNH call 862-2290. In conjunction with Warren's appearance at 7 p.m. in the university's Granite State Room, a display of secrets collected from the UNH community will be on display beginning at 9 a.m., also in the Granite State Room.

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