How the internet created one of the world's biggest community art projects

The internet might not be the first place you think of when considering art – but it’s actually been the birth place for an art project that became an international phenomenon.

PostSecret was launched in 2004 by Frank Warren as an experiment. He handed out 3,000 self-addressed postcards on the streets of Washington DC, asking people to decorate it, portraying a secret that they held and send it back to him. The secret could be anything – the only restrictions were that it must be completely truthful and must never have been spoken before. He received about 200 postcards, which he shared online. The website received about 100 hits that week. He added more postcards the following week and about 1,000 people visited the site. The week after he received 100,000 hits as he added more secrets. Since then, PostSecret has become the world’s most popular advertisement-free blog and has received postcards from all over the world.

Photo of postcard at PostSecret exhibition in Washington DC reading "I think I deserve a better story than we met on Match.com"

He told The Independent in 2014 that the first time he realised the project had potential was when he posted a postcard made of a photograph of a broken-down door. The secret that went with it revealed that it had been broken by the sender’s mother to continue a beating. “The week I put that on the web, my site got one million hits,” Warren told the newspaper. “Other people started sending me photographs of their smashed doors and sharing their stories of struggle and abuse.”

He decided to post those online too and received an email from a girl saying, “Dear Frank, Seeing all these pictures on the blog of broken bedroom doors doesn’t depress me because all this time I thought I was the only one, and just knowing there are other people out there like me who share my secret doesn’t make it go away but it lets my burden feel a little bit lighter.”

Photo of postcard at PostSecret exhibition in Washington DC reading "I'll never find someone if I don't go out and socialize"

Not all of the secrets that Warren posts are as hard-hitting as that one though, some share embarrassing stories or their hopes and dreams. And while Warren claims it is impossible to choose his favourite, he says he carries a copy of one secret in his wallet. It was sent in on a dollar bill and it reads: “We’re all part of something bigger and we’re all part of it together.”

In the 14 years PostSecret has been online, the website has received more than 500 million hits and Warren has been sent more than a million postcards by mail. In 2016 and 2017, 500 of the postcards were on exhibit at the National Postal Museum, displayed between Plexiglass they shared disturbing and shocking, funny and heart-breaking stories. Some of the secrets in that exhibition included:

I told my family that I had a business trip and took a vacation by myself.

I steal flowers from gravestones and put them in a vase on my kitchen table.

My grandmother’s cooking sucks!

Imagine my surprise when you loved me back.

I know he doesn’t love me anymore.

I’m afraid my unborn children will not be as beautiful as my sister’s kids.

I leave poetry in library books.

Photo of postcard at PostSecret exhibition in Washington DC reading "I love getting my period. It gives me an excuse to be bitchy and irritable and to take naps."

While the project has its roots in mail art, Warren says that he believes it has become something much bigger – “a special community that goes beyond that”. He adds: “It’s amazing the stories I’ve heard from people who have been motivated to change their lives by an anonymous secret shared by someone they’ll never meet.”

The way that PostSecret has used art and the internet to create this community is unique in its form and its achievements and Warren admits that it’s something that is probably only possible at this point in time, due to the interplay between traditional and digital forms of communication. “Connecting that is a real cultural movement we're having right now because of the web, where young people especially are sharing more of themselves, are sharing parts of who they are that their parents' generation and earlier generations would never talk about. So PostSecret caught that confessional wave.”

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