The PostSecret Phenomenon in the Network Society
PostSecret is “an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.” This anonymous, honest, group art project has sparked an entire community of PostSecret participants online, interacting through computer-mediated communications including blogs, forums, social media, and even a mobile phone application. Through the simple act of sharing secrets anonymously, the PostSecret virtual community has provided participants with support, catharsis, and knowledge that they not alone, which is also common in oral societies. The PostSecret project and community is a representation of the global village and a collaborative art project of this scope could not have happened without the communication channels of a networked society.
Frank Warren, a self-defined ‘accidental artist’ living in Maryland, MA, created PostSecret in 2004 to as a collaborative, experimental art project. He distributed postcards asking people to decorate the card and send in their secrets. The only requirements were that it had to be true, and that you never told anyone the secret prior. The response Warren received was overwhelming, and since 2004 the project has expanded to a large community with extensive chat forums, travelling gallery exhibits, talks and speaking engagements throughout the world, five published books, and most recently, a mobile phone app.
In an interview with LemonDrop.com (2008), Warren says PostSecret began as “a safe, non-judgmental place for people to share the things they aren’t usually comfortable discussing or sharing.” Many essays, blog posts, and articles have discussed the religious undertones of ‘confession’ behind PostSecret, but Sarah Boxer with the New York Times sums the “secret of PostSecret” up perfectly: “It isn’t really a true confessional after all. It’s a piece of collaborative art.” The global scope of PostSecret’s community would have been unheard of prior to the Internet and the networked society of the 21st century.
New media technologies have completely transformed our lives; we have effectively moved from a mass media society to a networked society, as Manuel Castells believes. In the network society, we develop identity, community, and thoughts in a different way than ever before, and as a result, new connections are being formed daily. Castells (1996) wrote, “The Internet […] is the backbone of global computer-mediated communication (CMC).” PostSecret really began from the ground up, which is a characteristic of popular communications as defined by Mosco, and what most regular users consider to be a key characteristic of the internet itself: the distribution of information from many to many via new media technologies.
PostSecret is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, regardless of race, class, gender, or beliefs; indicative of secondary orality, all you need is the ability to read and access to the Internet to participate. As a visitor to postsecret.com you can have a wide variety of engagement with the site and community therein. You can submit your secrets, join in the conversation on the forums, anonymously submit your secret to the forums for discussion, post a digital postcard to the Facebook wall, Tweet a digital secret, respond to another user via the Smartphone app, or just simply read the Sunday Secrets posted on the original blog. By broadcasting across the Internet, PostSecret is reaching a global audience and connecting with people on a scale was previously unheard of. Readers, contributors, forum members, and even anonymous commenter’s are considered PostSecret participants. Castells also described how the Internet provides groups of specific interests and projects to interact meaningfully, resulting in diverse and widespread participation. This form of interactive communication sums up the response to the PostSecret project. As Warren posted secrets and the project gained attention in the blogosphere, people began to respond to the secrets; many people emailed saying they felt the same way, it was good to know they weren’t alone, or shared their own story. The outpouring of support from other Internet users resulted in the creation of www.postsecretcommunity.com, which now has extensive forums for connection and discussion.
Without the Internet, the PostSecret project would not have the same impact or allure. Although similar to the anonymity and support provided by Alcoholics Anonymous groups, the potential to reach and authentically connect with people worldwide, while still maintaining contributor secrecy sets PostSecret apart. The gallery shows tour internationally and Warren attends speaking engagements worldwide, but both are based on the phenomenal success of www.postsecret.com and the virtual community therein. Warren has also compiled five books published from 2004 to 2009, and even they have not garnered the same attention that the online community has. It is not the physical aspect that makes PostSecret interesting, it is the virtual community built around the sharing of secrets; all the methods of delivery are secondary in importance.
The concept of PostSecret as an open, safe, accessible place to share in all its forms, mirrors the concept of an online network: technologically open, widespread public access, and no government or commercial restrictions. The brief narratives of the postcards open up a larger social narrative on the forums through discussion of rape, abuse, alcoholism, drug use, death, religion/spirituality, bullying and suicide. Although some people may visit PostSecret for shock value, voyeurism, or entertainment, the secrets have the potential to raise awareness for all these different issues humans face on a daily basis. Warren has also stubbornly refused any advertisements on the website and simply links to the various project branches and 1-800-SUICIDE, the USA’s National Prevention Hotline. In an interview with Amy Sondova (2008), Warren said, “I think that by making visitors aware of some of the social services available for people in need the project can serve a higher purpose than if I just posted advertisements and pop-up banners. […] I can’t reach out and offer help to these people individually but I can use the site’s popularity to raise awareness and funds for the issue of suicide prevention.” Warren uses speaking engagement fees and book royalties to subsidize the costs of the running PostSecret in order to keep access to the entire project completely free for participants and readers.
As with all new media, questions have arisen about the affects the Internet has on community, individuals, social relations, trust, and authenticity. One proposed framework of a community, as proposed by McMillan and Chavis (as cited in Wang and Gloviczki, 2008) includes membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. With PostSecret, the sense of an emotional connection with other members of society is reinforced by the membership, or sense of belonging and emotional safety. Due to the anonymity of PostSecret, influence and integration/fulfillment are less important. In a network society, although sociologists debate the ‘loss of community’ versus the ‘persistence of community’ (Wellman & Gulia, 1999), PostSecret is a form of online community that, in my opinion, epitomizes McLuhan’s (1962) concept of ‘retribalization’.
Although McLuhan never stated that the global village would create cohesive communities, we are seeing that this is possible within online populations. Physical distance is no longer an issue to real-time communications and activities, thereby demonstrating the concept of a global village. Through technology and CMC, we have groups of literate people connecting around shared ideas, beliefs, even past experiences. PostSecret is not an anomaly; there are support groups online for all manner of experiences that life throws at human beings. These people—hidden behind a username and avatar—can connect over their commonalities and share their stories. PostSecret, by “going viral”, allows even more people to find this cathartic community and join in.
The PostSecret mobile phone application and social media provide another form of secondary orality within the global PostSecret community. The app went live in September 2011 and in the two months since being released more secrets have been shared on the app (approximately 1,000,000) than mailed to Warren (more than 500,000) in seven years. Through the app, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks, participants can have real-time conversations and share secrets, experiences, and provide support for others enduring the same thing. The instantaneousness of the social network has removed the middleman (Frank Warren) as users can interact directly with each other and post their digital secrets online. Looking at PostSecret’s many forms show a wide variety of secrets, but also a lot of overlap. An article in the Washington Post (2005) included a quote from a New Zealand participant, saying, “The things that make us feel so abnormal are actually the things that make us all the same.”
In 2008, Dr. Richard Beck and a group of his students conducted a research study on PostSecret submissions in an effort to identify the types of secrets exposed. They found that most secrets could be grouped into three main categories:
“Existential: secrets related to existential themes such as life meaning/purpose, choice, regret, religious faith, and death; Relational: secrets involving relational issues such as fracture, unrequited love, sexuality, isolation, harmony, and romantic anxiety; and Declarative: descriptive statements about aspects of the self that are often considered shameful or deviant.”
The study was for a symposium at the 2008 Southwestern Psychological Association conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Generally speaking, the types of secrets were not shocking or obscure; in fact, the data reinforced the similarities of humans and our need for love, connection, support, and authenticity.
True to the idea of retribalization, PostSecret is just a new way of finding closure, healing, and relief. Tyler (as cited by Rosen et. al, 2008) asserts that, “the internet has simply provided us a new way of doing old things.” Choi (2009), examining the popularity of PostSecret and why users would choose it over other methods of treatment wrote, “While the postcards are highly varied, they each reveal the author’s dedication to their secrets. […] Therefore, the art of writing secrets is important not just in its outcome, but also in its process.” Without delving too deep into psychology, it is possible to say that the process of recovery is often the most important part of healing. Beck’s research referenced James Pennebaker’s experimental disclosure from the 1980s, where patients found catharsis in writing, insight through disclosure and mastery by regaining control over their emotions. Beck concludes that, “the healing effects may have less to do with the other person than the fact that we are externalizing our emotions [which] allows us to vent, gain insight, and reacquire mastery.” This sense of disclosure and externalizing our emotions is precisely what PostSecret provides for participants.
An article from the Cox News Service by Phil Kloer (reprinted by the Chicago Tribute online, 2005) delved further into why people are drawn to PostSecret. Dr. Anne C. Fisher, a clinical psychologist from Washington, DC, discussed the themes of PostSecret as prominently, “seeking relief from suffering, sharing painful experiences … expressing shame and anxiety about aspects of self that are difficult to face.” In the same article, an Atlanta, Georgia psychologist and radio ‘relationship expert’ Dr. Rick Blue was quoted as saying, “There’s something about the catharsis, and the safety of a Web site. To go to an anonymous site and talk about your dark side is actually therapeutic. I’m not telling you who I am, I’m just getting it out.” PostSecret participants are seeking connection, acceptance, and mental support but may not be ready to live openly with their secret. Rosen et. al also cites Putnam, who “studied hierarchical and horizontal structures and established a relationship between trust and the likelihood to collaborate.” Because all PostSecret participants are on a level playing field, or a horizontal structure, they are able to develop trust in the community. This level of trust is particularly important for maintaining anonymity and secrecy.
Overall, there are a lot of different factors that have contributed to the success of PostSecret. Certain human values are timeless, and no technology can change that—such as our need for connection, authenticity, trust, and love. The PostSecret project embraces and encourages the discussion, discovery, and development of online community through art and the members from all over the world, in a sense, retribalize around a common subject. PostSecret will continue to grow for as long as the members of the community contribute, but the scale it has achieved now would not have even been possible without the internet, a major characteristic of the network society.