Thursday, September 15, 2011

PostSecret's social network of secrets

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          As part of an art project, Frank Warren posted his home address online and asked people to anonymously mail him their secrets on handmade postcards. His idea: post those secrets online, giving people an outlet to say to the world what's on their minds.

"They can make you laugh, they can break your heart -- but you think when you read all 20 to 25 every Sunday," says Warren, who launched PostSecret six years ago. "It leaves you someplace a little different emotionally than where you were."

PostSecret's confessions range from everyday exasperations with humorous twists -- like a coffee barista threatening to serve demanding customers decaf -- to disclosures of life-threatening problems such as eating disorders or suicidal thoughts.

PostSecret isn't just an art project these days. It's now the cornerstone of a business franchise, encompassing a book series, speaking engagements, and a new mobile app that launched last week.

"I was a small business owner for 20 years," Warren says. "I feel as though not having a background in art but rather in business was helpful for me to, when this website became very popular, grow it and develop it in a way that it could self-sustain itself and find these other platforms of expression."

Warren, who says the site sees more than 4 million hits a month, attributes much of PostSecret's popularity and longetivity to his commitment to the project's core value: allowing people to share their secrets without exploiting them. That means no ads.

"If we did have ads, we could generate a pretty good revenue stream," he says. "But I feel one of the reasons so many people -- over half a million -- have trusted me with their secrets is because they know that their secrets won't be exploited or commercialized."

But Warren's newest venture -- an iPhone app that debuted last week -- carries a price tag. The $1.99 allows users to read and share secrets on the go. The app adds a location layer to PostSecret's confessional network: Users can "pin" an anonymous secret to a location.

The app has already cracked Apple's top-20 list of bestselling paid applications. More than 100,000 mobile secrets have been shared, says Warren, who is working on an Android app next.

Like many startup ventures, PostSecret's mobile move is an evolving experiment.

"It's super organic, so we don't know what kind of conversations are going to emerge," Warren says. "We don't know how people are going to use it."

He envisions the app as an alternative social network -- "a way of shining light on these hidden parts of ourselves, and in some ways sharing secrets as commerce and currency."

Some of those secrets are also cries for help. From this week's batch of postcards: "I'm considering death as a solution to the problems that will emerge when my unemployment runs out. All of the people in my life who think I'm handling this so well will realize how wrong they were."

Warren -- who spent several years answering phone calls overnight at a suicide prevention hotline -- is exploring ways to use PostSecret's growing community for advocacy and aid. The app could help shine a light on data clusters that would otherwise stay hidden, he suggests.

"We notice at a certain campus, perhaps, a lot of students are struggling with issues of abuse or eating disorder or stress ... there's a way we can talk to that school and have them offer more of their resources to students, or make them aware of what's available to help," he says.

But even for the solipsistic, PostSecret can be an illuminating mirror.

"One of the things I've learned form this project are there are two kinds of secrets. There are the ones we keep from others, and the secrets we hide from ourselves," Warren says. "Sometimes the more exposure you have to other peoples authentic secrets, the more you're able to look inside yourself and understand some parts of your life you need to deal with."
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