One of the hundreds of anonymous postcards that appear weekly on the PostSecret blog. Image courtesy of PostSecret.com.
Frank Warren might have been forced to shut down the PostSecret app this week after less than four months, but despite everything, he’s still an Internet romantic at heart. “I will be till the end,” he says. “I have this idealized vision of how the Web is not just about cynicism and negativity, but also about hope and support, and, in many ways, empathy.”
It was that kind of thinking that inspired PostSecret, which launched seven years ago as an art project that handed out postcards and asked people to anonymously write down a secret on them and mail them back. Since then, PostSecret has spawned five books and now gets millions of hits a week at PostSecret.com; the iPhone app alone generated more than 2 million shared secrets during its short lifetime.
Although 99 percent of the secrets posted to the app were in keeping with Warren’s ideal, there were some he described in a blog post as “not just pornographic, but also gruesome, and sometimes threatening.” After receiving threats through the app, some users contacted the FBI. “What really forced us to take action were the threats against users, moderators, and even me,” Warren says. “In the end it was comments and messages that were in violation of US law.”
Warren says when the app initially launched, its creators were aware that people might upload unsavory content, but they were unprepared for the scale of secrets that would be posted. “At one point we were pre-screening 40,000 secrets a day, which is about one every two or three seconds,” he says. “We tried several strategies to save the community, but they just proved to be untenable in the end.”
The app’s closure is a blow for its quarter of a million users, many of whom had found within it an empowering and positive community. “I truly believe this app is a prime example that we cannot govern ourselves,” read one of the app’s secrets, which Warren posted at PostSecret.com. “Occupy PostSecret,” said another. “Overall, we were very pleased with the app,” says Warren. “But it’s very difficult sometimes to protect a large community from a small, determined group who might want to harm it.”
If he could do it all over again, Warren says he’d try to find ways to empower users to identify bad content themselves, and give them more power over the community. Unfortunately, despite a team of people on two continents moderating secrets 24 hours a day, they couldn’t find a way to make it work this time around. “Even though it cost us in many ways, we felt it was right to shut down the app rather than continue to let it devolve into something we didn’t want to see,” Warren says.
Still, he was ultimately inspired by the community he saw grow during the app’s lifetime, and the way in which he saw people communicate with each other. Shortly after the app was shut down, he received the following e-mail, which to him encapsulates PostSecret’s success:
“Dear Frank: I just want to say thank you. What you’ve done is nothing short of amazing. It’s sad that you had to close the app, but before you did I was able to meet someone—a beautiful woman from Australia. I’m currently at the airport in Dublin, Ireland, waiting for my flight to Australia. Because of you, I’ve found love on the other side of the world. I hope you find a way to reopen the app, because it really does reach and touch people all over the world. Thank you, Frank—you’ve made my life better.
Sincerely, No Longer Lonely in Ireland.”
View a trailer for the PostSecret app here: