If Frank Warren isn't the "most trusted stranger in America," which he has been called, he's definitely our collective confidant. Each week, hundreds of people write their innermost secrets on artfully decorated postcards and send them to Warren's house in Montgomery County. Along with the cable bill, mail-order catalogs, and magazines, he regularly sifts through confessional messages such as:
"I buy antique pictures because it makes me feel like I have family."
"I wrote my will today, not because it was the sensible thing to do, but because I am worried what would happen to my purse collection."
"I am afraid to discipline my kids because of the way my father disciplined me."
"I steal spoons from restaurants."
Warren's PostSecret project has been going on for five years now, with no end in sight. And what started as a scrappy mail-art project has transformed Warren into an Internet sensation, in-demand speaker, and best-selling author.
Sitting in a Gaithersburg sushi restaurant, the 45-year-old Warren comes across as a low-key, deliberate, and thoughtful man, the sort of guy you could trust with delicate information. In fact, he's been gathering it for most of his adult life. With his wife, he started a company called Instant Information Systems and used to spend his days retrieving data for paying clients from the Library of Congress, the National Library of Medicine, and other info hubs. He conceived of PostSecret to help alleviate the tedium.
"There were times I'd spend all day at a copy machine," he recalls. "I've probably copied two million pages in my life. During those times, I would fantasize about different projects—work that would be more meaningful or creative."
PostSecret was one such project, and it began with 3,000 self-addressed postcards that Warren handed out or left in public places. A set of simple instructions accompanied each card: "You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything—as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative."
Cards trickled back to him, about 100 in all, and he exhibited them at Artomatic, a D.C. art fair, in 2004. When the exhibit closed, Warren, a Berkeley grad with no formal art training, figured the project would end. But the postcards kept coming. "People were making their own cards," he says, between bites of maki. "I wasn't handing them out anymore, but somehow the idea spread virally across the country. They started coming with postmarks from Texas, California, Hawaii."
With no exhibition in the works, Warren instead created a website and started posting a selection of new cards each Sunday. "Then, people could see the type of cards I was receiving, and it created a feedback loop," he says. "That allowed me to direct the project in various ways."
Functioning as a curator/editor, he steered PostSecret away from niche content toward something more universal.
"If I'd wanted to, I could have made it a porno site early on," he says. "'Mail in your sexual secrets.' But I chose to emphasize the secrets that were soulful, authentic, hopeful, painful, and connected to all our different emotions. Those were most meaningful to me, and I could sense that they were connecting and resonating with people, so I felt like I was moving in the right direction."
Traffic to the site exploded—it's gotten more than 250 million hits—and the cards kept coming, with upward of 100 a day crowding Warren's mailbox. He jokes that he "had no idea how many people pee in the shower" (the most common secret) and estimates that he's received 350,000 postcards. They are the basis of a burgeoning PostSecret cottage industry that includes four best-selling books, two traveling exhibitions, and a spot for Warren on the college lecture circuit, as well as appearances on CNN, The Today Show, and Fox News. It's allowed him to quit his day job—or rather, sell his company—to focus on PostSecret full time.
Here in Baltimore, Warren put together a selection of 300 secrets relating to spirituality for the American Visionary Art Museum's 2007 All Faiths Beautiful show. Work inspired by that exhibition will be featured in a new book, PostSecret Confessions on Life, Death and God, due out from Harper Collins in October.
And, with Warren's blessing—in lieu of a fee, he asked that a donation be made to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline—the All American Rejects used PostSecret postcards in its popular "Dirty Little Secret" video. On YouTube, the video has been viewed nearly 10 million times and a good bit of the viewers' commentary focuses on the secrets in the clip:
"The secrets were really interesting, and some of them made me lol."
"I paused it so many times to read the secrets, I know them all now."
"I wonder, are all these secrets real? I think not."
Warren believes they are real, or that there is some essential truth in each one, even if they've been fabricated. "I think that the most strikingly honest cards might come from people who think that they're making up a secret," he explains. "They can put anything on that card, so it, most likely, has some kernel of truth about secrets they've been hiding from themselves. That's where you get to the deepest levels of truth. And it has the potential to bring healing to a dozen people who read it on the Web, because it's their secret, too."
Warren drains the last of his sake. "My wife has this fear," he says, "that 20 years from now, we'll be retired in Boca Raton, and the secrets will just keep coming and we won't be able to escape them. But I hope they never stop coming."
He stands and heads for the door. It's time to go home and check the mail.