When normal fella Frank Warren got the urge to do something extraordinary, his humble 'postcard project' touched souls around the world
Since its creation in 2004, the PostSecret blog has inspired over 500,000 people to mail in their deepest, darkest secrets on a postcard, to be published and have the experience shared. From sexual confessions to criminal activity and hilarious admissions, there are just three rules: the secret must be true and must never be told to anyone else and it needs to be on a postcard. The simplicity and honesty of the project now attracts over three million viewers a month. Its creator, Frank Warren, is coming to Australia to talk about the phenomenon.
Frank, PostSecret has taken over your life, but what were you doing prior to that?
I was a father, husband and small business owner. I was an entrepreneur for 20 years and I copied and delivered medical documents from the National Library of Medicine. It was good work but it was boring. I wanted a job that was more meaningful and creative, and it eventually drove me to start these unusual postcard projects on the weekends.
One of my early projects was creating messages in bottles. I created a series of postcards made from photographs of my left hand with phrases and messages written on them. I then attached an antique stamp to each one and inserted them into bottles. Most of the bottles found their way into Clopper Lake in Seneca Creek State Park, near my home. It was something I was able to concentrate my creativity on and it eventually lead toPostSecret.
The PostSecret project is the latest postcard project. It caught fire around the world eight years ago and it's still wonderful for me to see where it leads.
Every blogger/creative is trying to come up with that brilliant, simple yet effective idea. Have you had any seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time ideas that didn’t get off the ground?
I don't think you find that once-in-a-lifetime project if you are looking for a once-in-a-lifetime project. When I started PostSecret it was an idea that pretty much only appealed to me. Even my mom called the idea "diabolical" when I told her about it.
I knew I had this creative inner-life of private fears and jokes and desires. And I thought if I could create this "place" where others could share their inner-selves honestly, it could really be special. In the end, I don't think the success of PostSecret is so much about the idea. It's a simple idea – mail me your secrets. I think the reason I was able make it work was because I had crazy faith.
If anyone is looking for the secret for finding that idea that wakes up the world, my suggestion would be: Find a way to give voice to the unheard and tell the untold stories.
It’s a rare thing these days to find a positive online community, so it must have been dismaying that for the few weeks you had a comment section, the feedback could be quite vile. What's wrong with people online?
I think it can be dangerous to have open, uncensored online communities. But that does not mean there are not ways to create those communities online that lead to meaningful intimacy and action (and perhaps one day spirituality). I don't think that magic formula has been found yet but maybe it will come from one of your readers.
You’ve given a TED talk… what other forums have you spoken within?
Speaking at TED last year was a great opportunity. Earlier this month I spoke at the American Visionary Art Museum and shared secrets for an anti-bullying program. I delivered the keynote address at the Hope Line Conference (The American suicide prevention hotline). I have also travelled and spoken in Mexico and Spain at the ‘City of Ideas Conference’. I also recently shared secrets and stories at Amherst College. They are all really rewarding experiences.
What’s the one secret that really, really got you there?
One of the most moving secrets I’ve received is “I recently got a job as a full time babysitter. The parents don’t know that I am their adopted daughter’s birth mom. I didn’t know either until I saw her baby picture was the one I sent them before they adopted her”.
Have you posted your own secret?
I have one of my secrets in every book. The second book, My Secret, was one I compiled with secrets that I wish I had seen while I was in high school and college – the times when I felt most alone and without direction. My secret in that book is written on a Catcher in the Rye cover and reads, "If you feel like you are insane. And you are trapped in a dysfunctional environment. You are not crazy." Maybe a secret to my younger self?
Can you explain your business model? The website is advert-free, so how do you raise funds for suicide prevention?
I started with the idea that I did not want PostSecret to be a "hot website" or a way for me to generate revenue by selling my visitors to marketers. Plus I just hate ads. I always wanted PostSecret to have a higher purpose. The funny thing is, by saying "no" to all advertisers early on, it allowed me to build a supportive community that enables the PostSecret books and speaking events to have even more value.
Last year, we worked to create a comprehensive database of international suicide prevention hotlines.PostSecret sponsored the site and readers from the PostSecret community voluntarily add to it.
Are there any other interesting projects out there that move you similarly?
One of my inspirations for PostSecret is still going strong, it’s called Found Magazine.
One project that PostSecret has inspired that I follow is I Found Your Camera.