Blogger gives dark secrets the first-class treatment

Blogger gives dark secrets the first-class treatment

By Maria Puente, USA TODAY
GERMANTOWN, Md. — Frank Warren is knee-deep in secrets: They're overflowing boxes, piled on tables, leaning against walls — closing in on 30,000 at last estimate, and hundreds of new ones are arriving every week.

 
 

Warren is unperturbed; secrets have become his life. Not his secrets, mind you — America's secrets. And they're beginning to make him famous. He has become an award-winning blogger, a first-time author, an artist with a traveling exhibit, a possible documentary subject, the inspiration for a music video and the all-around media "it" boy of the moment.

It couldn't happen to a more unlikely guy. In a culture that rewards hip-and-mocking, Warren, 41, has to be the most unsnarky man in America. Lanky, soft-spoken and earnest, he is the antithesis of the Jon Stewart crowd, but he's becoming a cultural force almost as popular as Mr. Snarky himself. Warren is, as his publisher puts it in his book's foreword, "the most trusted stranger in America."

"I've been surprised every step of the way," Warren says. "I'm just a typical suburban husband. I'm an accidental artist. It's been quite a journey, quite an adventure."

And all because of his blog, PostSecret.com. It started out as Warren's temporary community art project. Now it's where thousands of Americans go to anonymously post their deepest secrets, and where millions of Americans go to read them. Secret-tellers — call them "confessors" — send their secrets to his home here in suburban Washington, D.C., on postcards they decorate themselves. Warren reads every one and picks 10 to 20 to post on his blog every Sunday.

They are mini-works of art. Some are heartbreaking, some are hilarious, some are touching or thought-provoking or shocking or silly or repulsive. All of them are riveting, especially the ones about the big stuff: sex and death. (Photo gallery: A selection of PostSecret postcards)

For many readers, PostSecret is a deliciously addictive fusion of old tech (snail mail) and new tech (the Internet) that produces something never seen before.

"People are drawn to this because it's something powerful and raw and real that speaks to them," Warren says. "I try to keep it ideologically neutral and juxtapose the cards in a way that's balanced and non-judgmental."

This week, PostSecret featured these: a card bearing an image of a baby wrapped in a pink blanket with a note reading, "Please take care of my baby." And these words pasted over it: "i have always wanted to find a baby on my doorstep. (and keep it.)" Another showed a sand trap on a golf course with the words "I have never played a round without cheating." A picture of a colorfully wrapped present reads, "I hate opening a gift in front of the person that gave it to me."

And that's it. There's no bloggy pontificating. There are no ads. (Warren refuses them.) It's just the postcards plus a few instructions on how to submit, a legal notice, a picture of his home mailbox and a link to a suicide hotline (hopeline.com) for which Warren has been a longtime volunteer.

Yet just a year after its launch, PostSecret is a smash hit. It's the third-most-popular blog in the blogosphere of nearly 30 million blogs, based on the number of other blogs that link to it, according to Technorati, the leading blog-tracking service. Nielsen BuzzMetrics says PostSecret always is in the top 20 at blog-watching BlogPulse.com every Monday morning. It also gets 2.3 million unique visitors a month and 3 million page loads a month, according to another Web-measuring service, StatCounter.com.

This week it won a record five Bloggies in the sixth annual weblog awards, including the top prize, Weblog of the Year. Warren's book, PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives, a compilation of 400 postcards, is selling well enough after three months that he's planning four more.

Publisher Judith Regan of ReganBooks, who plans a call-in PostSecret segment for her talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio, says she embraced PostSecret because it's about "the human heart exposed."

"The reader and viewer can feel the conflict, pain and pathos of the authors," she says. "I thought that (readers) would respond because the secrets are authentic and moving."

His blog is the worst-kept secret

Meanwhile, an exhibit of 2,000 PostSecret postcards in Washington earlier in the year attracted thousands of viewers; some waited in line for hours, even on a Sunday when the Redskins were fighting to stay in the playoffs. The exhibit is scheduled to open in Philadelphia in June.

Several filmmakers are courting Warren for potential TV documentaries about PostSecret, and he says the National Postal Museum is talking to him about doing an exhibit. PostSecret postcards were even featured last year in the All-American Rejects' music video for their hit Dirty Little Secret.

Warren has been featured on the Today show, National Public Radio and in dozens of print and online media stories. Time magazine named the blog one of the world's 50 "coolest" websites. The New York Times called it "consistently engaging" and "original." It made the Chicago Tribune's list of top 50 best websites.

There was talk of doing Letterman, although Warren nixed that. "The last thing I want to do is go on national TV and laugh at people's secrets," he says.

Art, therapy, voyeurism

"It went from obscurity to being in the top five for the last six months," says Technorati spokesman Derek "DJ" Gordon. Blogs with "a unique voice or point of view almost always get recognized," he says. "This one was absolutely fresh and engaging, and now it has a huge following."

Sue MacDonald, a marketing official at Nielsen BuzzMetrics and chief blogger at BlogPulse.com, says people love PostSecret for different reasons. "Some love the art, some love the therapy, some love its voyeuristic nature," she says.

"Everyone enjoys the creativity of such a simple idea. … Frank has combined several different media — postcards, the mailbox, blogging, artwork, e-mail conversations — to create a breakthrough idea."

Now Warren is so busy that he barely has time for his small business supplying medical documents. His wife, Jan, and an assistant have taken over much of the work as PostSecret has taken over Warren.

Jan Warren is feeling a little shell-shocked by all the attention, especially after the cover of the book featured their actual address. "We're talking about looking for a new house," she laughs, a little grimly.

So far, nothing bad has come from PostSecret, although she worries about its effect on their privacy and their daughter Hailey, 11.

"It all happened so quickly. It just snowballed on us," she says. "The biggest thing for me is the mess. I don't like clutter."

Too late for that. Thousands of postcards passing through your home — as with Dick Cheney, Warren has stashed them in an "undisclosed secure location" — can make for a lot of clutter. And some people at the local post office hate him, Warren says sheepishly.

A repository for secrets untold

It all started a few years ago when Warren went through a difficult period in his life that he doesn't detail. He turned to art projects, figuring that art isn't just for trained elites.

In his third project, he began handing out blank postcards to strangers in Metro stations, inviting them to decorate the card and share a long-hidden secret, something never shared before.

Soon hundreds of cards were pouring into his mailbox. He put them up in his exhibit space at Artomatic, the annual Washington art show open to anyone who is willing to pay a small fee. "In four weeks the show was over, and I thought it would end, but the secrets kept coming and from all across the country."

So he created the blog. He long ago stopped handing out postcards, but they keep coming in the mail anyway, and now many are coming via e-mail.

"It's the best source of free therapy I could ever ask for," says Nicole Clayton, 31, of Frederick, Md., whose postcard was on the blog last year. It featured a photo of a beautiful couple frolicking on a beach, the kind that's a place holder for a photo in an empty frame. The card read, "I wish my life was more like this picture frame insert."

Making the card offered a "moment of self-clarification," Clayton says. "It's hard to admit that sometimes you wish your life had taken a different path. It's hard to admit you're not where you expected you would be."

PostSecret seems to prove three (at least) things: Lots of ordinary Americans are artistic, lots of them are poetic, and lots of them have something to hide.

"Everybody has secrets; it's part of being a human being," says Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst in New York and author of the forthcoming Anatomy of a Secret Life, about how secrets are formed and how they can cross into dangerous territory. She says the worst secrets are the kind people keep from themselves, so PostSecret can be a boon to both confessors and readers.

"He has provided a forum that enables people to feel like they're sharing or getting a secret off their chests but without any risk. They have the catharsis without being exposed," Saltz says.

People love to read this stuff, because "human beings are normally voyeuristic and curious, and it allows you to really identify with the posters," she says.

She worries that someone who is suicidal might feel worse by sharing a secret and getting no response, but she says Warren can't do much about that except what he already has done with his link to the hotline. "He's done everything he can do to be responsible," she says.

But Evan Imber-Black, a family therapist and author of The Secret Life of Families, says telling secrets has no meaning except in the context of family relationships.

"We live in a time where people have the mistaken idea that you tell a secret to the multitudes on TV — and move on," she says. "But opening a secret is just the first step. (Posting on PostSecret) might offer some measure of relief, but I'm not sure how long it lasts. When a secret opens, it usually takes time and relational work to get a new equilibrium."

Maybe so, but Warren is no therapist, and he's beginning to wonder: Where does this all end? It already has reached the point that readers out there in blogland go into a panic —scores of e-mails fill up his mailbox — when he's even a little late posting new cards.

"My wife's big fear is that 40 years from now when we've retired to Boca Raton, secrets will still track us down."

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