It began simply enough seven years ago, when Germantown resident Frank Warren decided to embark on an experiment: He distributed postcards around the Washington area to complete strangers. Warren inscribed the postcards with the following instructions: “You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything—as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.”
Warren’s initial idea became PostSecret, a Web site which now receives millions of hits a week. The ongoing project fills Warren’s mailbox with hundreds of postcards every week, from which he chooses a few to post on his blog. PostSecret has produced five books to date, and last week Warren launched his newest project: an app for mobile devices. The PostSecret app takes Warren’s project to an entire different level of connectivity, allowing users to create and share secrets on the go. Within three days, the app had processed over 50,000 submitted secrets, and it’s currently the bestselling social networking iPhone app in the country.
We caught up with Frank Warren recently to discuss the origins of PostSecret, how Washington has changed since he started, and how the app could render the blog obsolete.
You founded PostSecret in 2004, handing out postcards to strangers and asking them to mail in their most intimate secrets anonymously. What led you to get started?
I had a very tedious job, so after work and on the weekends, I’d have different projects for myself. Most of them involved postcards. PostSecret was just the one that caught fire and turned my life upside down.
What was your initial vision for the PostSecret app?
People wanted something traditional, like a blog reader for mobile phones. I wanted something different than that: Something that would only be possible on a mobile device. I wanted people to be able to make and share secrets, to connect through the secrets and reply to what people share. It also allows people to reach out and connect with a suicide hotline.
You started the PostSecret project and keep it running by running the blog, but you’ve spoken about the people who read and send secrets as a community. In that way, do you ever feel like you’re just a cog in the machine of PostSecret?
I feel like in some ways I tapped into something full of mystery and wonder that had been waiting there the whole time. It feels very arbitrary that way, that I’m the one in the middle of it all. But it’s a very simple project, right? People just send me their secrets. Anyone could have started this but out of the millions I sometimes wonder why it was me.
One of the app’s features allows a user to see secrets submitted from their town. What sort of impact do you want that to have on people? What does it do to you when you see a postcard from Washington?
It makes the world a much more interesting and complicated place knowing that the anonymous strangers we walk by on the sidewalk or see sitting by themselves may have these dramatic stories of frailty or heroism playing out in their lives. It helps us actively choose to be aware of our own interior lives.
Your first exhibition in Washington was at the old National Children’s Museum on H Street, Northeast, during Artomatic. The museum was housed in a former convent. The building’s since been converted into part of an apartment complex. What does that tell you about the nature of Washington?
It’s not a negative thing; it’s a dynamic thing. [Washington] is a transient city. I see it as a sign that there’s a lot of life developing in that community. Currently, there’s a PostSecret exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s kind of funny how things come back around that way, with the first show being at Artomatic.
Is the app the next stage of evolution for the PostSecret project?
I definitely think it’s something new and interesting. It may be the final part of the project.
Does that mean you can see yourself shutting down the blog at some point?
Last week, my dad told me he thought the blog might die because people would just start creating their secret on the PostSecret App and not mail them to me on postcards. I hope not, but I guess it’s a possibility. I just plan on following the project wherever it leads.
The PostSecret app is available online, or through your mobile device. For more secrets, visit PostSecret.com.
Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter
More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos