With more than 200 million visitors over the past ten years, PostSecret’s success is the stuff of Internet marketing dreams.
And yet, founder Frank Warren has remained — some might say stubbornly — wedded to a non-remunerative model that eschews paid advertising and other profit streams in order to keep his project “pure” — the only income Warren derives is through royalties from books gathering secrets around a central theme, and fees for talks tied the project he gives at colleges and universities.
What drives Warren to tirelessly winnow the 1,000-plus secrets mailed to him on postcards per week into the 20 he posts to the site each Sunday? “In a weird way, the secrets give me strength,” he tells us.
“Even after seeing almost a quarter of a million of them, I still feel like a kid Christmas morning every day when I go to my mailbox.” We spoke with him to get his take on topics ranging from social media’s impact on projects like his, to how Hollywood has come calling.
Name: Frank Warren
Position: founder, PostSecret Project
Resume: accidental artist
Birthdate: March 21, 1964
Hometown: California, northern and southern
Education: B.S., UC Berkeley
Marital status: Happily
First section of the Sunday Times: (Great question) I start at the beginning but I never go in order.
Favorite television show: Carnivale
Guilty pleasure: Texas Hold’em
Last book read: This I Believe (NPR)
What do you think accounts for the longevity of PostSecret?
I think that’s a really insightful question to begin with, because PostSecret has only been around three or four years, but in terms of the Internet and the Web, there is a longevity there. I talk to people often about how a lifespan on the Internet is different than anywhere else — you know, films, art.
In the very beginning I tried not to define PostSecret as a hot Web site because, really, there’s this pattern with that where you see a hot Web site really kind of catch on fire, and people are talking about it. Then it always comes back down, and whether or not you can survive that dip is everything.
So I’ve been really fortunate with this project, and it’s grown in an incremental way but a consistent way. For three and a half years, every quarter the traffic has increased to the Web site, and I think that’s due to a few things. One is, there hasn’t been a huge pop with the project. For example, if I’d been on Oprah when the first book came out, there would have been this huge sort of excitement or attention, and then nothing.
But it’s always been like this gradual, organic growth. I think part of it is, I’ve stayed true to the concept and I haven’t kind of fallen for the pitfalls that Starbucks, for example did, where they had this great product — coffee — but then they started adding in all these other things that took away from the experience, and now they’ve had to backtrack and they’ve had that decline. I’ve never tried to leverage the content to monetize the site, so I don’t have any popup ads. I’ve never taken one dollar for a paid advertisement on the Web site, even though I’ve had over 140 million visitors.
And I think the community that’s built up around the project respects that, and it becomes more pure, and special, and different from other Web sites, because you don’t see ads all over this very popular blog.
So, I think little decisions I’ve made along the way to identify and protect what’s special and pure about this organic community has made it a Web site that not only has had this life, but a project that’s had a life, too, and allowed me to share the secrets in different ways besides the Web site: the books, the art exhibits.
I do a lot of traveling to college campuses and sharing the stories behind the secrets there. We’re even talking now with people in Hollywood about a longer narrative based upon the project.
Would it be some sort of fictionalization to do with the project, would it be a documentary about the project? How do you envision that?
We’re still a long ways off on the final product, but we’re talking about all those ideas. We have some documentary footage of me giving the talk on college campuses, and how sometimes that turns into college students sharing their own secrets — not anonymously, but in front of their classmates, about eating disorders and academic pressure, and abuse.
We’re also talking about fictionalizing stories behind the secrets and seeing how these stories intermingle in surprising and extraordinary ways. I think an example of that would be the movie Crash, in these subnarratives and how they intermingle. There’s also the possibility of telling my story, then showing how these other secrets and stories weave into that and weave out of it.
I think what’s given me the most hope is looking at a radio show like This American Life, and how they took their time but they were able to transfer what was special about that radio show to an interesting Showtime series that preserves that integrity. I hope to do the same thing.
You mentioned not running advertising on the site. What do you do financially to make your money so that you can support yourself and your family and the project?
I’m in a unique position, because I don’t really have any artistic training or background. I’ve been a small business owner for about 20 years, and I started my own business, Instant Information Systems, about 20 years ago. I still own it and run it as an absentee owner.
So thankfully, this project came and found me at a time in my life where financially I’m pretty set, which has allowed me to make the statements based upon this project’s integrity and what’s in the best interest of PostSecret, not based upon my own financial needs.
And really I’ve been happy to not just say no to some of the advertising that has been offered, but also to take PostSecret and kind of show that there’s this nonprofit component to it and how we raise awareness for 1-800-SUICIDE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Last year we raised over $150,000 for that charity. I think that’s a strong component to the project, also.
Oh, I should add that the books have royalties, so it’s not a nonprofit organization. The books have royalties, and also there’s typically a speaking fee when I go and give a talk, so there are some revenue streams besides advertising to support the project.
You mention fundraising that you do for mental health issues. Were you an advocate for mental health prior to PostSecret, or did that come up as a result of the project and the nature of what was being shared?
A little bit of both. Suicide has always played a role in my life. I lost a family member to suicide and a very good friend to suicide. When I started PostSecret I was a volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline, actually answering the phones.
So when the project got really popular, I wanted to do something good with that popularity and with that awareness, and I knew 1-800-SUICIDE very well and the good work they did, so it was a natural match for me.
Talk about the editing process each week as you determine which secrets you’ll post.
People come to the Web site every Sunday and see, you know, 20 or so secrets, and I don’t think they understand how painstaking the process is to select them and to arrange them. I get about 1,000 a week, and from that I select 20.
I’m selecting secrets that really have a ring of authenticity to them, that express any human feeling, whether it’s humor, fear, sexuality, a shocking secret. I’m looking for anything that’s new and fresh and different. And you would think you would run out of secrets after seeing, you know, 200,000, but every day there’s surprises I pull out of the mailbox.
Once I have that selection I arrange them in a way where I try and tell a story, or I compose a song. I’m thinking of trying to hit all the notes and get a nice rhythm, and really taking people emotionally someplace different than where they were when they started [reading].
One of the criticisms I receive for the Web site is that some people find it depressing, and so I’ve tried to respond to that, too. So, at the end of the selection of secrets, usually there’s one or two that are kind of hopeful or optimistic to be a counter to some of the heavier secrets. I get a lot of those, you know, because secrets are things that we don’t want to tell our friends or family because maybe we feel embarrassed by them, or humiliated, or isolated.
So I think by their very nature most secrets are kind of heavy, so I like to lighten that also with a composition that always includes something optimistic or hopeful.
Over the years has your nose for false-seeming or inauthentic secrets grown sharper?
I see the postcards as works of art more, and so seeing them from that perspective, I see the truthfulness of the cards as having multiple layers. If you walk into a bookstore, you can find value in the nonfiction section, but maybe it’s that fictional book that really causes you to change your life. I think that’s possible with this project, too.
And it’s always surprising to get emails from people who talk about how sending in a secret was transformative for them, and how they might write something like, “When I wrote down my secret, Frank, I thought it was true. But by the time you posted it it was false.” Or just the opposite, they’ll say, “When I wrote this postcard I thought I was just pulling it out of thin air, but when I saw it in the book, I realized it was a process of me coming out to myself.”
One of the themes that occurs again and again in this project is that there are two kinds of secrets: the secrets that we hide from other people and the ones that we keep from ourselves. Sometimes, through the process of making out the secret anonymously, you’re forced to face a secret that maybe isn’t as fictitious as you would hope for or thought an hour before.
What you’re saying brings to mind the controversy right now surrounding memoirs and how authentic or veering into fiction they are.
I think it’s a complicated issue, because I think in a lot of ways artists are storytellers, and storytellers have a job, and that job is to take a story and have it reverberate with people, have it inspire people. There’s different tools you can draw upon to create that.
In some ways the memoirist is like the magician, and you go to the performance to see the show, and you know that behind the scenes things might not always appear as they do on the surface, but what it’s really about is that moment of awe, of mystery, that makes you identify with those parts in your life that are mysterious but sometimes you forget about in our everyday lives.
So I think we expect a lot from our memoirs — maybe too much — and I think that might be changing slowly. I know with PostSecret, I think of the project as being very inspirational, and I think one of the things that draws people to the books and to the Web site is that sort of raw authenticity. In so many parts of our life now the work — the art, whatever it is — it’s mitigated; whether it’s a band that goes to a record contract or a recording studio, or a film that goes to a film studio, or a book that comes to a publisher.
All that creative content at some point has to go through like a big conference table with a bunch of white guys sitting around and making decisions by demographics and marketability. And I think that lost in that sometimes is that sense of realness, like the punk rock part of it that has a real rawness. With PostSecret I think one of the things people respond to is they feel that authenticity.
People mail me their postcards, but there’s no committee, there’s no P.O. box. They just come to my home mailbox, and if I think it feels like a real secret, I’m going to put it on the Web site, whether it’s politically incorrect, offensive, involves nudity. Secrets are secrets for a reason, so I think when people see that I’m sharing these raw secrets, it really allows people to make that authenticity connection, which I think so many of us are looking for in this society right now.
Is it true that you include a secret of your own in each book?
I do, yes.
Have you ever in any forum acknowledged which are your own?
I don’t usually. I have talked about one of the secrets — well, yeah, one of the secrets I’ve included in the books, that’s in the first book. And a lot of my college talks are talking about — well, first of all I share stories behind the secrets in the book that I can’t do on the Web site. I show images of postcards that were censored out of the book by the publisher — the secret secrets.
And also what I do is talk a little bit about a secret I carried in my own life for most of my life, something that happened to me in elementary school. And in my talks I talk about, you know, my personal journey in facing a part of my own life that I was hiding from.
Secrets the publisher had censored out of the book: what are their criteria for that?
In general, HarperCollins has been very liberal in allowing me to share many, many of the secrets that I’ve received exactly as they appeared in my mailbox. But there are some issues that we have to be careful with. For example, if an image is copyrighted, like if somebody writes their secret on a Hallmark card, we can’t include that in the book because Hallmark could take legal action against me and the publisher.
Or if a postcard has an image of a child’s face on the postcard, obviously we don’t know if that child gave permission. So that’s another way we have to limit what we can share in the book because of issues of copyright and personal privacy.
You’ve had PostSecret open to user comments for brief periods of time. Do you anticipate doing that again for any reason?
One of the reasons I think the project has grown and developed and had this longer life is because I’ve consistently tried to experiment with it and try new things. And it doesn’t always work, but even the failures allow me to identify something special about the project that I didn’t notice before. When I did open up the blog where anyone could post a secret, I thought that was a great experiment.
For one thing, it showed people what my email looks like every week, and people got a sense of peeking [into] that. But also, it made me realize that one of the special things about the project is the nonjudgmental nature that it has. I think one of the reasons people feel comfortable sharing secrets with me is because they know they’re not going to be exploited, they’ll be treated with respect, and it’ll be nonjudgmental.
And so that’s why I discontinued the comments on the blog. Some of them were very harsh and judgmental, and I didn’t want people to feel like they couldn’t trust me with their secrets, that the place wouldn’t be safe any longer.
What about not making the archives of secrets available for people to look back at them?
I think of PostSecret in general as a collection of secrets that I share with people different ways. On the Web, I think of the secrets that I’ve shared there as being living secrets. When you go there on Sunday, you know somebody’s carrying that burden in real time, and I think that makes a certain kind of connection.
In terms of the archives of the secrets, that’s how I think of the books really: as being an archive or a testament, as telling a longer narrative about each of our lives with our secrets. And then in the museum exhibits, I think of those as showing the tangibility of the actual postcards and the number of secrets I get; hundreds of them are in those exhibits.
So, the reason I don’t have archives on the Web is because each way I share the secrets, I find emphasizes certain elements in the nature of our secrets. And I think the books do a good job of archiving them, better than the Web would.
Is there a particular medium through which you disseminate the secrets that you prefer?
Actually, when I go to speak on college campuses. That’s very gratifying, because I get to share stories behind the postcards and also hear the stories coming back to me from the students, which can be very inspiring. Also, to see them share their own secrets among themselves and really kind of leave the place feeling more warmly and with more empathy between classmates, that seems to be like a way that PostSecret is really changing lives in the real world.
I also like the art exhibits. We have freestanding Plexiglas units that hold the postcard sandwiched between Plexiglas. So I like the way that people can see both sides of the postcards, but also when people come to the exhibit, you know, you’ll be reading on one side, I’ll be reading on the other side, and we can see our faces through the glass and gauge the reactions that we’re having, almost like a silent dialogue is happening there. That can be very special, too.
You go through so many secrets, week in, week out, and a lot of them are very dark. What is it like personally and emotionally to be grappling with that on a continual basis?
I think in some ways I’ve had to become the person who can look at all those postcards everyday, because some of the details on the secrets are painful and difficult to read. But at a very deep level I have a strong connection to the project, and I think that some people come to the Web site or look at the project and it might make them feel depressed or down, but I have the opposite reaction.
In my childhood I had some difficulties, I had some challenges, so when I see these postcards every day it makes me feel like I’m not alone with my burden. I feel more connected to people. So in a weird way the secrets give me strength. And even after seeing almost a quarter of a million of them, I still feel like a kid Christmas morning every day when I go to my mailbox.
Do you ever take a vacation from PostSecret? I know you’ve had a couple of breaks here and there in the last several years, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t think I can really take a vacation from it, because even now as we sit here, postcards are piling up in the mailbox at home that I’ll have to go through when I get back. So I can’t really get away from it. I can kind of postpone it, but there’s no vacation for the PostSecret guy.
Do you look at each and every postcard you receive?
Yeah, they’re all mailed to my home address. I look at every one and I keep every one. It’s a pretty singular archive of postcards.
You must be investing a lot in storage.
I think I literally have a ton of secrets on postcards.
Have you considered stopping PostSecret at any point, or when you look to the future do you anticipate bringing it to a close at any particular point?
The community continues to grow and develop, and I get more and more secrets, so I see it thriving right now. I don’t know how it’s going to end. I try to just focus on making the right decisions to protect the purity of it every day and not really have goals set for the project. I just try and follow where it’s leading me, and so far it’s been an amazing journey.
I guess there is kind of a conflict, though. I would like it to go on for a long time. At the same time I see value in just kind of stopping it before it ‘jumps the shark,’ I guess.
How does PostSecret capitalize on what online publishing affords people who don’t have any previous experience in publishing?
I’m really excited about the opportunities that are available for anybody now — students, artists, entrepreneurs — to use these new social tools, these new tools of communication that are making new kinds of conversation possible.
I think PostSecret is one example of a new conversation that brings the community together, but I think there are hundreds or thousands of others that are yet to be born. It’s just waiting for that one person to have faith and an idea, a crazy idea and make it happen. You know, an idea like PostSecret that reveals the hidden humor and beauty of art in our everyday lives that often goes unnoticed.
What’s your personal relationship with technology? Are you a techie person?
I’m not a hardcore technical geek, but I’ve always had a strong interest in the intersection of technology and culture and art.
And what’s your daily media consumption?
Well, I’m a big fan of The New York Times. Every day I check BoingBoing. I’m also on television watching The Daily Show a lot. So I guess that’d be my trifecta right there: we’ve got the Web site, the newspaper and the television that I like.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.