How a community art project with postcards became an international hit

It started when one man invited people to share things they usually hid, and ten years on, PostSecret has a worldwide following

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The Independent Culture

It was a community art project that took on a life of its own.

Ten years ago this month, Frank Warren, a small business owner, handed out 3,000 self-addressed postcards in Washington DC with instructions to share a secret and anonymously return it to him.

Around 200 hopes, desires and fears made their way back to Warren and, after exhibiting them at an art show, he decided to share some of them online. In its first week, PostSecret received about 100 hits. When he added some more the next Sunday, 1,000 people visited the site; the following week, 100,000. People started creating their own cards and sending them in. Since then, PostSecret has become the world’s most popular advertisement-free blog, and Warren’s heroic post service has dropped off more than one million artfully decorated cards from all around the world, a selection of which he continues to upload every Sunday.

They range from the funny (“I give decaf to customers who are rude to me”) to the heartbreaking (“I can’t bear to tell my family I relapsed so instead I quietly suffer alone”); the sweet (“When we were talking on the way home you asked me when the happiest moment of my life was. All I wanted to say was, ‘Now’”) to the shocking (“I made my cat drink bleach just so I could see my cute vet again”). There are a number of sexual taboos and even confessions of criminal activity. Regrets, there are a few.

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(Press Image supplied by helena.towers@harpercollins.co.uk)

As part of the project’s anniversary celebrations, Warren, 50, has released a book, The World of PostSecret, the fifth tome to be put out but the first since 2009. Why has he decided to release yet another collection?

“I feel as though secrets are inexhaustible,” says Warren, on the phone from the US. “As with poetry or songs, there’s something about our deepest stories that can always be explored. I think there’s a thirst for these little visual haikus that have become a touchstone for authenticity.”

The first secret that Warren received which hinted at the project’s potential was a postcard made out of a photograph of a broken-down door that turned up a couple of months after the site’s inception. The accompanying confession divulged that the damage had been caused by the sender’s mother in a bid to continue a vicious beating. “The week I put that on the web, my site got one million hits,” recalls Warren. “Other people started sending me photographs they had taken of their smashed doors and sharing their stories of struggle and abuse.”

After posting a number of them online, Warren received an email from a girl. “I’ll never forget it. She wrote, ‘Dear Frank, Seeing all these pictures on the blog of broken bedroom doors doesn’t depress me because all this time I thought I was the only one, and just knowing there are other people out there like me who share my secret doesn’t make it go away but it lets my burden feel a little bit lighter.’ It was then that I realised there are two kinds of secrets: the secrets we keep from other people and the secrets that we hide from ourselves.”

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Images from Post Secret (Press Image supplied by helena.towers@harpercollins.co.uk)

It is a testimony to Warren’s emotional involvement with his contributors that he is able to reel off dozens of secrets from memory. He really does care.

Despite refusing to run advertising on the site, Warren has been able to make money through the books and as a public speaker (his 2012 TED talk has received more than 2.5 million views so far). He laughs when asked if he regrets his dismissal of advertisers.

“I could have made a lot of money, for sure. But I feel that PostSecret has this higher purpose and needs to be a safe, non-judgemental, non-commercial place.”

Indeed, because of the sensitive nature of many of the shared entries, Warren has been a tireless supporter for mental-health issues and fundraises for a suicide prevention helpline. As for the future, he is unsure where to take the site next. “It is time for transition and I don’t know if that means killing the project and maintaining the values and purity of it or to find that right person to turn it over to. It’s all open; I’m just trying to follow where it leads.”

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Images from Post Secret (Press Image supplied by helena.towers@harpercollins.co.uk)

Although Warren says it would be impossible to pick a favourite secret from the years, there is one he carries a copy of in his wallet. It was sent in on a money bill and reads: “We’re all part of something bigger and we’re all part of it together.”

The project, he says, has changed him immensely. “I’ve become much more understanding and compassionate towards other people. My range for expectation about human behaviour has really expanded.”

As for the most recurring secret? It remains little changed over the past decade. “It’s the story of someone trying to find the one person they can tell all their secrets to. In some ways, PostSecret is just an insufficient stopping point until they meet that right person and find that truly safe place where they no longer need to keep any secrets.”

‘The World of PostSecret’, by Frank Warren (William Morrow, £18.99), is out now

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