Every day, Frank Warren opens his Maryland mailbox to hundreds of postcards from complete strangers, divulging deep and dark secrets. As the creator of Post Secret, the collection of anonymous postcards dispelling people’s biggest secrets, Warren volunteered to keep secrets of millions worldwide — and in the process, created a cultural phenomenon that has led to movie offers, an All-American Rejects music video, and a tour around the country, including a stop at Binghamton University on Friday. Alexandra Palombo spoke with Warren to find out some of his secrets.
Alexandra Palombo: What made you think to have people send you secrets and then you put them online?
Frank Warren: It’s a pretty crazy thought, isn’t it? I think looking back on it, I had secrets of my own life I was struggling with, and this was kind of therapeutic for me. Although it’s not how it felt at the time. It felt like [a] prank when it started, but now it feels much more meaningful, especially since I’ve gotten hundreds of thousands of these extraordinary postcards.
AP: Are they just from the U.S., or are they worldwide?
FW: They’re from all over. They come with postmarks from Hong Kong, Afghanistan [and] New Zealand.
AP: So why postcards? Why not letters or e-mails?
FW: I think there’s something meaningful about how someone has to choose the words to express their secret and maybe put some artwork on the card, and then physically have to let it go. From that point, the secret takes on a life of its own, as it travels through strangers’ hands and finally makes its way into my mailbox, fully exposed.
AP: How did you publicize your address and put the word out for people to send you secrets?
FW: I started by printing up self-addressed postcards and just handing them out to strangers on the street. But it didn’t take long before the idea just spread virally on the Web. I feel as though there was something there, waiting the whole time that I accidentally tapped into. It’s been quite an amazing journey for me.
AP: I know in our dorm last year, they had a Post Secret where we had Post-it notes that people left behind.
FW: There’s something that just resonates with people all around the world with the project, that sharing them in an anonymous way.
AP: How has it been for you, psychologically, to deal with knowing everyone else’s secrets?
FW: It allows me to feel more connected to strangers especially, and understand the stories of heroism and frailty happening in people’s lives just beneath the surface every day that so many of us forget about.
AP: I know it’s been involved with a lot of causes, like suicide prevention. What has been your favorite part of having these causes involved with your Web site?
FW: I’m very proud of the fact that even though the Web site has received over a quarter billion hits, I’ve never taken one dollar for a paid advertisement on the Web site. But I have worked hard to raise awareness for suicide prevention resources, and the Post Secret community has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for 1-800-SUICIDE, the National Suicide Prevention hotline.
AP: Have there been any other causes that you’re really proud of that have become involved with your site or your books?
FW: I would say Suicide Prevention Hopeline is the main one. That’s just because that issue touched me in a number of ways. I’ve lost a family member and a friend to suicide. When I started Post Secret, I was actually a volunteer answering phones on Hopeline. So I know the good that they do firsthand.
AP: What made you think of making an art exhibit out of all your postcards at different universities?
FW: We pretty much go wherever we’re invited, both for exhibits and for events. But my favorite part is really sharing the postcards and the stories with young people. I feel like they’re at the point in their lives where they’re more vital, and searching for what’s authentic and what’s [not]. And I just feel like young people are more alive and more engaging.
AP: Do you have any favorite secrets that you’ve gotten?
FW: I got one that came on a Starbucks cup that said “I serve decaf to customers who are rude to me.” That was pretty good. Another one came on a postcard that showed a picture of the Twin Towers in New York and the secret said “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.” You see a secret like that, and it just pulls you into a very human story behind the card in a fascinating way.
AP: I noticed your new book is more religiously focused. What made you decide to go with religion as the theme for that book?
FW: It’s not really religion. The secrets can be sexual, or funny, or hopeful, or heavy or shocking. But there are more secrets that have to do with the afterlife, or spirituality or the search for meaning. And for me, it feels like the most significant book for that reason. The most meaningful work.
AP: Do you have any other ventures to show these other secrets? You do art exhibits, you talk to people, you put them on the Web site and you do books. Have you thought of any other mediums to put these out there?
FW: We’ve had some offers for film and television. And we’ve just been moving very slow in that direction because I don’t want to do anything to screw up the special relationship I feel I’ve developed. People trust me with these amazing confessions every day, and so I move very slowly and cautiously in that direction.
AP: I know that there was an All-American Rejects’ video for “Dirty Little Secret” that used postcards with secrets. Were you involved with that?
FW: Yeah. The director offered me $1,000 to use real Post Secret postcards in that video, and I said no. But I went back and said that if they made a $2,000 donation to Hopeline, I would let them use the postcards. So they made the donation, and I supplied them with the postcards. Those are actual postcards that were mailed to Post Secret.
AP: I know a lot of people who have Post Secret on their favorites bar online. What are some of your favorite Web sites?
FW: I like “I Found Your Camera.” People who have found pictures or memory strips of images upload them to this Web site in hopes of finding who they belong to. There are some great stories of reuniting on that Web site, of orphan pictures finding their homes. I like “Boing Boing,” I like “The Wooster Collectors” which is a blog about street art and graffiti. That’s probably the ones I pretty much check every day.
AP: What’s the most elaborate postcard you’ve ever seen?
FW: I got one today with a wedding band taped to the postcard. So you can’t get much more significant and substantial than that.
AP: What would you say to the people out there that have sent you secrets, or are thinking about sending them?
FW: I would say if you’re reading this right now, and you don’t think you have a good secret to mail in to Post Secret, read the Web site, read the books. You may discover you have the best kind of secret to mail in.