warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

PostSecret Wants To Know What You Are Hiding

Catherine Donahoe |
November 18, 2009 | 12:01 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Frank Warren is a man of many secrets. Unlike most people, his secrets are not just his own. For the past five years Warren has been running his website, PostSecret. PostSecret began as a community art project where people could send in their personal secrets on a postcard, usually expressed through artwork along with words. From the start Warren would update his blog with new secrets every Sunday, and hasn't stopped since. PostSecret has become a pop culture phenomenon across the world with no sign of slowing down.

Before beginning PostSecret, Warren operated his own company for 20 years. "It was a great business, lucrative, but it was kind of boring and tedious. So after-hours on weekends, I'd come up with these little projects where I could be creative, that I found more meaningful than the work I was doing during the week. PostSecret was one of those projects and it just took off and exploded," Warren explained.  Something that started as a simple idea has turned into a worldwide sensation and changed Warren's life forever.

Throughout this interview, Warren seemed like a man who has a passion for what he does. His friendly demeanor was clear even over the phone. Talking to him was like speaking with an old friend, not a brand new acquaintance. He answered all questions with genuine delight. Perhaps it's because he has seen people's darkest secrets, perhaps not, but for some reason it's easy to feel instantly comfortable around him.

When told this article was being written for USC, Warren said he is a native of the Los Angeles area. "I actually grew up in Southern California in the San Fernando Valley. I was a student at Colfax Elementary School with Adam Carolla, and then I went to Pierce College in Woodland Hills, close to Canoga Park," he said. He actually looked at transferring to USC or UCLA, but chose to attend Berkeley.

Warren said one of his favorite parts about PostSecret is getting to visit colleges, where he speaks to crowds about his work. "For me, having PostSecret events, especially at colleges and universities, is the most gratifying part of the project," he explained. "It's a great thrill to be able to share the inspirational and funny stories behind the secrets to young people, and project images of postcards that were banned from the books...that's always fun!"

Warren said more and more people have even been inspired to share their own secrets at these events, "not private or anonymously, but very publicly, and that can be very emotional," he said. "I think there's something about young people today. They really have more courage than their parents' generation, than my generation, in talking about parts of their lives that parts of my generation wouldn't feel comfortable sharing. I think that kind of honesty and generosity and trust is a very positive thing."

Warren recalled his experience at USC as something special. "In fact, we used that event as a promotional video for the later tour...it was actually very powerful. We had some great secrets there from audience members," he said. Warren expressed interest in coming back to USC again. "Invite me, and I'll be there next week!"

Warren shared his process of choosing secrets for the website. "I try and find secrets that are new and different, or express the secret in a creative or artistic way that I haven't seen before," he said. "I'm always looking for secrets that have that ring of authenticity to them. Also, every week I try and include secrets that touch on all of our human emotions." When sifting through the 1,000 secrets he gets every week, he also tries to arrange them on the website in a way that creates a conversation with the reader.

Warren sold his business last year so he could focus on PostSecret. He said he thinks that PostSecret can have a personal impact on people, and attributes part of its success to that fact. "People can come to the website initially out of curiosity or voyeurism, but then they still come across a very earnest secret from a stranger, that maybe is articulating a secret that they are keeping from themselves," he said.  "When that happens, I think you can have an epiphany, and realize that you're not alone with that secret. I think that can really start a journey that can lead to a transformation."

PostSecret is the largest non-advertisement blog on the web. Warren said he thinks that is another reason why people trust him with their secrets. "I also think people appreciate me not exploiting the secrets by having ads all over the website," he said. "Instead, I try to promote Hopeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline."

Warren was a volunteer for Hopeline when he began PostSecret, and said he is confident that the program can help people in need. "I do get a lot of secrets of painful details, and because they come anonymously I can't reach out individually and help," he said.  "But I try to channel those natural feelings of wanting to help out into promoting awareness of the suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-suicide, and also by raising funds for it."

Having viewed thousands upon thousands of secrets over the past five years, Warren was sure to have a couple of favorites. One came on a Starbucks cup with his address and a stamp on it. "They wrote, 'I serve decaf to customers who are rude to me,'" he said with a laugh. Another recent favorite: " 'I'm too much woman for all the pansy-ass guys in my church.'"

Another secret that struck Warren was included in his most recent book, "Confessions on Life, Death, and God." "There's a Polaroid picture with the words 'I'm a Christian, but I'm falling in love with someone who doesn't believe in God.' I think it's a beautiful love story," he said.

As for shocking secrets, Warren was sent one that took the cake. "It came on a postcard with the pictures of the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center in New York, and it said 'Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead,'" he said.

Can that really be serious? "Pretty shocking, huh?" he said. "It really invites you in to the story behind the secret and lets you know of all these extraordinary stories happening in these people's lives that we don't get a chance to see."

When asked how PostSecret reflects society today, Warren responded, "well I hope in some ways it allows us to be more open, not just with other people, but with ourselves."

Warren said working on PostSecret has changed his life. "Knowing about all these secrets and stories in the world, for me, makes life more interesting," he said. "It makes riding the subway more interesting."

He said he tries not to make goals for PostSecret, and rather follows where it leads. "I think that's what's so special about the PostSecret Events. It seems like that's how the project wants to grow," he said. "The community is now kind of showing that they want to share their own secrets, and so I just try to listen carefully and follow where it leads, and grow the project in a self-defined way."

With a current total of 282,343,535 page views that is increasing by the minute, the PostSecret blog is still going strong. As the interview came to a close, Warren explained what PostSecret has shown him.  "Everyone has a secret that can break your heart if you just knew what it was," he mused. "If you can remember that, or just remind ourselves of that, I think there would be more understanding and compassion, and maybe more peace in the world."

Reach reporter Catherine Donahoe here. Join Neon Tommy's Facebook fan page or follow us on Twitter.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.