Frank Warren: The Man With All The Secrets (Part 1)

With the FBI, NSA, CIA, and all the other acronyms it goes without saying that Washington DC is home to a lot of secrets.

But the secrets I’m about to tell you about are much more interesting than those you’d find at the place above.

They are the secrets held by you and; I, the secrets held by the person checking out your groceries, your neighbor, the waitress at Applebee’s. I’m talking about the secrets of the everyday person.

Frank Warren doesn’t know all of them, but he does get an awful lot of them.

Frank Warren is the creator of PostSecret, a blog where he posts anonymous postcards that are sent to him. Every Sunday he will post 20 homemade postcards from the past week, each postcard reveals a person secret from the anonymous sender. In 2008 PostSecret won four Weblog Awards including Best Blog and Best Net Art. In 2007 Forbes Magazine ranked Frank #11 in their Web Celeb 25. He outranked Lonely Girl Jessica Lee Rose that year– maybe she can vent some her thoughts to him about it.

I was recently invited by Frank to talk about PostSecret and go behind the scenes of what makes PostSecret work. I have to admit I was rather nervous, he’s probably the biggest person I’ve got to meet besides the cable pundits I work with on a daily basis.

I traveled out to Germantown to meet with him and I was welcomed at the door by a tall man with glasses and a smile. The family dog was also in a rush to welcome me.

After exchanging pleasantries I saw that this was a man who was mild mannered, welcoming, and pleasant. He spoke with a childlike enthusiasm that still exists after collecting secrets for many years. The ease I had talking to him told me that he was the perfect sort of man to tell a secret too.

We walked out to check his mail, a task we all do everyday except for Frank there’s more waiting for him then credit card offers and Valpaks.

He reached into the box and pulled out two big bricks of postcards bound by rubber bands. Frank grabs the mail without any surprise of the volume. “I get about 1,000 postcards a week and in the past 4 years I’ve gotten over 300,000 postcards.” Frank has already had to replace his mailbox due to the volume of mail he’s received. Let’s hope mailbox #2 makes it through 2009.

“I get between 100 to 200 postcards everyday from places all over the world,” says Frank as we start to head inside. I find it surprising that the whole mail operation goes rather unnoticed by his neighbors, in fact it’s as anonymous as the secrets he receives. When I asked Frank how his neighbors handle any requests to collect mail during vacations he told me that they are mostly unaware of the project.

“They kind know there’s something kinda special about the mailbox… if they are aware about the project it’s usually from their sons or daughters who told them about it. I guarantee you when I ask my neighbors to collect my mail when I’m gone it’s like nobody else’s mailbox they are ever going to go into- so it’s kinda like a special surprise for them.”

Forget the neighbors, what does the Postal Service think about a guy who receives hundreds of postcards every day? While Frank has a great relationship with Kathy, the mail carrier who delivers his secrets, sorting through the pile reveals possible evidence that others might be getting a sneak peek at the secrets at the post office:

“This whole pile comes and it’s arranged properly almost as if the Postal employees have been going through them- and sometimes I’ll get an interesting one on top, as if they made their own selection,” Frank explains as he points out how the postcards are all facing in a certain direction as if they have been read.

Frank Warren hasn’t always been a collecting of secrets. The Arizona born-Illinois native went to UC Berkley where he graduated with a degree in social science. To pay for school he worked part time handling medical information. The work led him to Washington, DC after college and he started his own business . After 20 years in business he recently decided to close it to focus more on PostSecret:

“Well I had this business that I started 20 years ago called Instant Information Systems and we just closed it down about a week ago. I’ve been working on secrets 50 hours a week so I haven’t had time for anything else for 3-4 years.”

The secrets started in November 2004. Frank found himself a rut, tired of the monotony of his business. “I daydreamed of something more creative,” explains Frank. He decided to embark on an art project for Artomatic, a local DC art forum. He passed out postcards at public places including Metro stations. These postcards invited people to anonymously write their secrets down and send them back to Warren. For Frank, the idea of people and their secrets was a way not only to look at society but a way to look at himself.

“It’s been a way for me to explore secrets of my own life- so maybe the real reason I’ve been drawn to this project, drawn to other people’s secrets, is that it is a better way to understand the parts of myself I’m hiding from myself.”

After collecting secrets, he created his Artomatic display, various postcards hung on wire, each with personal secrets from parts unknown. However the secrets didn’t stop coming. So Frank created a blog to display some of the secrets and now it’s one of the biggest ad-free blogs on the net.

For a man that runs one of the most popular blogs on the web he’s still able to live a normal life in Montgomery County. Besides an incident at the local Panera Bread, most people have no idea who Frank Warren is. However thousands of those people have trusted him enough to share with him their deepest secrets. However for Frank it’s not about him.

“Sometimes people look at me funny now and I think they know something but they don’t say it- but I don’t try and advertise myself, when I first started PostSecret I would write my own little comments and stuff but now I don’t do that. I never had my picture on the website or my writing- I just reflect what people are mailing me.”

To Frank, it’s not about fame or money but about respecting and honoring the secrets he shares and the site. That’s why you’ll find no merchandise or ads (I bet hundreds of those secrets would make great T-Shirts).

When the All-American Rejects approached Frank to use some of the postcards for their Dirty Little Secret music video he turned down the money and instead offered use of the postcards in exchange for a donation to The National Hopeline Network. The postcards you see in the video are real “secrets” and Frank was able to use some of the set pieces from the music video to raise even more money for Hopeline, where Frank worked as a volunteer.

Frank has used the attention and spotlight he’s received to help bring attention to the issue of suicide- a problem that Warren calls, “America’s secret.”

Not only has the success of the blog spawn numerous best-selling books, it has created a movement of open communication and secret-sharing.

The PostSecret Community is an online forum where members share and discuss secrets. Frank Warren’s MySpace page is littered with comments of fans that leave their cell phone numbers and invitations for others to share secrets with them. It appears that others want to follow in Frank Warren’s footsteps as a confident to strangers far and wide. Frank took notice and encouraged the community to share through his blog.

Erin Mellor lives in North Carolina and decided to reach out and text a stranger, “Its liberating! The people I’ve talked to can often relate in some way or another.” After being able to share some of her secrets with others, she wanted to repay the favor- and posted her AOL Instant Messenger screen name on the PostSecret MySpace page. It wasn’t too long before others started to confide, “Once I posted [my screen name] I got messages from different people within a few hours. Some people chat first and are a little shy about sharing, while others just send me their secret in the first little blurb of message. I guess for some, its easier to just get it out, otherwise you might not do it at all, like pulling off a band-aid, or something”

In sharing secrets, Frank has created an environment where people can be truly honest and open with one another- without fear of rejection.

“PostSecret creates this model of a safe, non-judgmental place to share your secrets where you don’t feel weird or different or strange or alone.”

Warren sees this movement as an ushering in of a new generation, a generation of people that have nothing to hide and are more willing to bare-all than our parents.

“It’s a generational shift-like adults don’t get it, but young people today are so much more confident about sharing the parts of themselves that parents would never talk about. You can see it everyday on Facebook and MySpace. We are just a much more open society than we used to be- and in most cases I think it’s healthy. I think part of it is a search for authenticity. Young people want to know what’s real, they want to know what’s phony, they want to know who is a hypocrite and who’s real.”

The movement isn’t confined to the Internet- people are writing secrets and leaving them in copies of PostSecret books, and PostSecret Live events are attracting enormous crowds for the chance to hear stories from Frank and to step up to the microphone and confess secrets to the audience. Frank tells me it’s a very therapeutic experience.

“There is so much emotion in the room, people will share a secret, walk back to their seat and strangers will hug them, there is so much warmth- a sense of support. There is something spiritual about it.”

If you want to catch Frank he’ll be speaking at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University next Friday, January 23rd at 7:30 PM. Tickets are on sale for only $10. I highly urge everyone to show up and learn more about the man behinds the secrets and perhaps you’ll get a chance to tell him your secret. I will be there with Frank next week and I hope to tell you all more about it in Part 2 of my story.

Video: Frank Warren checks his mail for secrets

5 Comments so far

  1. The Definitive Dmbosstone » Post Topic » Metblogs: Frank Warren: The Man With All The Secrets (Part 1) (pingback) on January 16th, 2009 @ 8:44 am
  2. erinmellor on January 16th, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    I’m very honored to be a part of this! Thank you, Patrick!

  3. The Definitive Dmbosstone » Post Topic » 25 Things Proves That Memes Will Never Die (pingback) on January 31st, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    […] recent writings on PostSecret has shown me that we are living in a society yearning for openness. We want to share […]

  4. Frank Warren: The Man With All The Secrets (Part 2) | Washington D.C. Metblogs (pingback) on February 1st, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    […] our first conversation, Frank Warren encouraged me to come out and experience one of his PostSecret Live events and I […]

  5. dissertation on October 16th, 2010 @ 7:42 am

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