PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives by Frank Warren

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line: a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.
— Marshall McLuhan

Despite only being perhaps no more than 18 months old, Frank Warren’s PostSecret site is arguably the hottest thing in the mainstream blogosphere right now. It has caught on to such a point where PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, a Greatest Hits package basically recollecting Warren’s first year in business online, has recently cracked even the New York Times bestseller list.

The story behind this sudden success is a fairly strange one. In November 2004, Warren simply printed up 3,000 cards inviting complete strangers to decorate their deep, dark secrets on a postcard, and send it anonymously to his Germantown, Maryland, snail-mail address. In turn, Warren would receive the right to showcase the received cards in art galleries and collections, and also put them up electronically on his PostSecret blog. Therein lies a bit of cleverness with the project’s title, incidentally: not only is the art sought by Warren send by the post office — making it a Post(al) Secret — it literally stops being a secret once it leaves the sender’s hands, making it a Post-Secret in a time-lapsed sense when it gets posted to the web.

Since handing out his initial requests in the street, Warren has been snowballed with about 30,000 postcards from people all over the world in many different languages, including Braille. Yes, that’s 10 times the amount of what he originally solicited for, which is pretty amazing. The PostSecret blog now gets upwards of 2.3 million visitors and three million page loads a month according to a recent USA Today article, making it one of the most popular websites on the Internet. This is additionally jaw dropping as the site is only updated once a week on Sundays, thereby throwing out Rule Number One on How to Make a Successful Blog out the window. (Namely, update, update, update.) At the time of this book review’s writing, the Technorati blog search engine also ranked the PostSecret blog only behind techie sites like Boing Boing and Engadget in terms of the number of links feeding into it.

The reason for PostSecret‘s rapid success is likely quite simple: the best cards in Warren’s deck offer a visceral punch to the head that are absolutely flooring in their candor. The truly outstanding ones, as reprinted in this anthology, seriously deal with the big topics of sex, death and, possibly, regret that other mediums couldn’t handle as concisely: the seven-year-old girl who hid under her parents bed in the morning to get a glimpse of her dad coming out of the shower; the woman who wished upon a dandelion for her husband to die; the person who wonders which stranger or friend in a crowd will be the next to leave this planet in a box.

However, one should note that all is not all doom and gloom with PostSecret. It offers much in the way of intentional and unintentional humor: the person who enjoys smelling their own defecation; the woman who wishes she could buy a boyfriend in the underwear section; another woman who thinks she’d be a rapist … if only she were a man. Most of the time, these work quite well and bring some needed levity to the project. For the most part.

Based on the fact that Warren himself illustrated postcards to get through a rather dark period a few years ago — something he’s never been truly frank about in interviews — it also seems pretty clear that the success of PostSecret also lies in the fact it’s short short stories are meant to be dispensed a therapeutic tool for the end user. This book can actually be usually found in the Well-Being or Self-Help sections of your friendly, neighborhood bookstore; some of profits from the book even go toward funding a suicide prevention phone hotline. Understandably, Warren has also gone so far to ask people not to review the project negatively on customer-feedback sites like Amazon, so as to not prevent new would-be secret mailers and confessors from putting stamp to card. Still, while there’s a need for sensitivity around people’s feelings, especially raw ones like those presented here, Warren seems to think in his request that there are some real, honest truths on each card 100 per cent of the time.

We’re not as sure. Cards bearing messages like “I love to pee when I’m swimming” could be deceptive emotions, the Internet equivalent of an anonymous prank call. Really, no one but the anonymous mailer will ever know for sure. That poses a minor concern for anyone looking at the art objects contained in PostSecret: just how honest and authentic are the emotions being conveyed here? One is thus tempted to make a quick joke here — and not disrespectfully — that PostSecret could really offer little more than a new, literal variation of so-called postcard fiction.

But even if some of these postcards aren’t wholly authentic in conveying the truths of the human condition, Warren should be very proud that someone took the time and, in many cases, the creativity to make them up. And even if some of these cards offer falsehoods, the “lies” may inadvertently say a lot more than Warren ever intended, which points to the many fascinating underpinnings to the entire project. Who are these people, what is their “secret” and why do they want to share their dirty laundry? In a way, these cards are utterly groundbreaking documents of emotions speaking to the New Millennium of Terror and the Need for Security we live in. These cards dredge up past mistakes made, grudges continued to be held, and, ultimately, the fear of feeling being left truly alone without friends or spouses … forever. PostSecret then isn’t art therapy so much as it is art or even New New Journalism.

In fact, one can point out Frank Warren has become the unlikely curator of a DEW line, one marking the things ordinary people will be worrying about in the years to come. It’s an astonishing proposition, and the ultimate gift Warren’s blog or book has to offer the world. He has likely most accurately captured the mood and anxieties of varied tribes connected to each other in the post-9/11 global village.

By combining Old World writing and art with New World technology, this book and its corresponding blog are effectively a sober and poignant reflection to millions of the truths and lies we all tell each other from time to time. In a way that Frank Warren probably never truly anticipated, PostSecret gives people living in western societies, ones that have swung hard to the political right in recent years, a gift, a personal shot at redemption and salvation in an age when nobody forgives anyone about anything. That’s the true value behind these collected postcards. Ultimately, they points us all towards something bigger and better over there on the distant horizon by forcing us to look closer at all of the great and terrible stories we’ve been afraid to so far tell.