Those of us with a passion for publications have seen print formats morph themselves into digital models of their former selves and have questioned whether or not the digitalization strips away the authenticity behind it. Now what if that print product in question was one that dealt—literally—with secrets? People’s downright honest, painful, revealing secrets?
Frank Warren founded PostSecret in 2004 as an ongoing community mail art project in which people anonymously mail him their secrets on a homemade postcard. The subject matter is mature and sometimes haunting. These postcards are, more often than not, the only confession ever made by the sender. Warren began scanning and posting these written postcards to postsecret.com, and when the website became a large-scale success, he compiled the most popular secrets into four different PostSecret books, all of which went on to become New York Times Best Sellers.
A great deal of America trusts Warren. PostSecret users never have to meet him and are never required to sign their own name. But now, with the launch of the PostSecret mobile app, the people previously submitting their deepest and darkest thoughts on paper can communicate directly with one another in real-time.
Submissions are still anonymous, but should you choose to contact someone based on the content of their secret, you can ... a game changer for PostSecret and a challenger to how the project previously defined anonymity.
Yes, the submissions are still anonymous, but should you choose to contact someone based on the content of their secret, you can with the click of a button—a game changer for PostSecret and a challenger to how the project previously defined anonymity.
To reiterate, the subject matter on PostSecret is intensely personal; we’re dealing with thoughts of suicide, questions on sexuality and the recounting of vivid fantasies. With this in mind, I spoke to Warren to address why he felt that translating this very personal product to the digital medium was the right decision for the company.
Does this new level of user accessibility open up an avenue for potential bullying in response to secrets, or does it provide clearer pathways to help for those in need? Do the secrets quickly typed in on an iPhone become less sincere than those plotted out with pen and paper?
“I like that [the app] is taking me out of the picture,” Warren begins. “On the app, there’s no mediation; it’s a live community crowdsourced in real-time, which is really exciting.”
Warren trusts that the PostSecret community will maintain its established culture of respect, but the content will also be monitored 24 hours a day in an effort to prevent bullying, pornography, secrets exposing children and general spam.
Now, imagine that an undercurrent of secrets is at play beneath Austin. Someone sitting at Progress Coffee, for example, may reveal a secret and geotag themselves at that location, but without self-identification. Now recreate and replay the same scenario at the University of Texas, or your doctor’s office, or your neighborhood high school.
Users are still protected on the app, but you can tag your secret to a school near you, your city, state or coffee shop.
“Users are still protected on the app, but you can tag your secret to a school near you, your city, state or coffee shop,” he says, “and if a secret resonates with your heart, you can respond to it.”
This relatability, says Warren, has led people to find their current husbands or wives and, in one case, a donor for cancer treatment on PostSecret. But the issue that remains closest to Warren’s heart is that of suicide prevention.
“When I started PostSecret I was a volunteer at Hopeline working the nightshift, so I knew the good work they were doing,” says Warren. “I wanted to use [PostSecret] primarily to raise awareness and funding for suicide prevention. I have never taken a dime for advertising on the blog because I didn’t want anyone to think I was exploiting their secrets.”
In 2010, one user submitted a secret revealing his plans for his own suicide in San Francisco. Within hours, the PostSecret community responded by creating a Facebook page in support of the life of this anonymous user, urging him not to carry through with the act. The entire episode ended in an organized a suicide-prevention rally at the Golden Gate bridge, the place where the poster said he’d jump.
"We don't talk about these issues, and they can be repressed and held under," Warren told TIME about the event. "When you do find somebody who's courageous enough to put it out there, people really respond.”
[We’re] not saying that [posting] is sufficient in treating problems, but by using those individual sentences, you can start to build them up and tell a story in a different way . . . maybe the first step to sharing with a family member or counselor.
So perhaps in this case of publishing platform switch-up, it’s more about the message and less about the medium. Instead of sacrificing the original intended authenticity of the printed secrets, the app-based version of PostSecret facilitates online relationships grounded in broader community accessibility.
How PostSecret users came together in San Francisco in an act of suicide prevention serves as an example of how an online statement fueled massive, heartfelt offline engagement. Interesting connections seem to form when people send themselves out to the world and the world sends back.
Moreover, the brevity of the secrets (no more than one sentence) line up with the current, byte-like consumption of digital media. Does Warren believe that revealing painful thoughts to PostSecret is treatment enough? Absolutely not, he says.
“[We’re] not saying that [posting] is sufficient in treating problems, but by using those individual sentences, you can start to build them up and tell a story in a different way . . . maybe the first step to sharing with a family member or counselor.”
Curious to hear how a user would respond to the application, I sent questions out to PostSecret readers. The general consensus said that the mobile app is a great addition to the already established PostSecret empire.
Says one reader, “[Users] are choosing to verbalize the things in them that most of us try our hardest to conceal. Whether those things are thoughts of suicide, or just romantic feelings about the boy in our English class, I think PostSecret represents hope. It shows that there are a few of us out there willing to take a risk.”
The numbers support the theory: So far, the app is on track to receive more secrets in six weeks than Warren received in the mail in seven years—over 600,000.
Warren too hopes that the PostSecret mobile app will help more people feeling isolated to create and sustain meaningful connections with others in the community, eventually leading them to treasure and appreciate the stories—compiled of individual secrets—they have to share with others.