Sunday, April 01, 2007

PostSecret: Lessons in Meaningful User-Generated Content

Recently, I’ve become a little disheartened by the extent to which the web has dominated my—and others’—thinking about ways that museums can integrate 2.0 into their offerings. But today I had an experience that reinvigorated my love for and belief in tangible projects that can fill museums with content that is user-generated, shared, and explored. I heard Frank Warren speak at the American Visionary Art Museum. Frank Warren has been called “the most trusted stranger in America.” In 2004, for DC’s Art-o-Matic community show, he initiated an experiment called PostSecret. He handed out 3000 self-addressed postcards to strangers that were blank on the front. On the back, they said,

You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to PostSecret. Each secret can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything - as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.

Create your own 4-by-6-inch postcards out of any mailable material. But please only put one secret on a card. If you want to share two or more secrets, use multiple postcards. (Please do not e-mail your secret.)

Please put your complete secret and image on one side of the postcard.


  • Be brief - the fewer words used the better.
  • Be legible - use big, clear and bold lettering.
  • Be creative - let the postcard be your canvas.
Within five weeks, he had 100 postcards on display at Art-o-Matic. The cards were funny, heartwrenching, thoughtful, and beautiful. At the end of the show, he packed up and thought the secrets were over. But they had just begun.

Now, two years later, Frank has received over 100,000 postcards. He publishes 20 each Sunday on a
website that gets 1 million hits per week. He has published three books of cards (500,000 copies), has two more in the works, and has put on numerous gallery and museum shows of the postcards. Today at the AVAM, there were at least 300 people in the crowd to see (and handle!) the cards, get books signed, and share their passion for this project. Frank was a wonderful speaker. I was so impressed by his humility and his love and respect for the people who send him cards. But the truly awesome thing about PostSecret is what a great community project it is. As the AVAM staff member who introduced Frank said, “We can all be a part of PostSecret… it may even include the work of people in this room, which is part of what makes this so exciting.” And indeed, when solicited, about 20 people in the room raised their hands to say yes, they had sent in postcards.

What makes this such a great community art project?

PostSecret asks the right question.

Museum designers labor over how to stimulate and evoke response from visitors. The most basic, and perhaps least interesting, question that is asked of visitors is, “What do you think?” How would you answer such a question? Frank’s question, or his entreaty—“send me your secret,” is both tantalizing and comforting. He publishes his home address for you to send your longings, fears, and desires to. People appreciate that openness and vulnerability, and take the opportunity to respond in kind.

And the responses are beautiful, both in language and composition. As Frank put it, “their courage makes the art meaningful.” The contributors are writing about something deeply important to them. They care, and so they labor to create something of value. Random people may not be able to create great works of dispassionate art. But in this project, each artist is uniquely powerful because they give voice to something vital, something easy for viewers to access emotionally.

PostSecret has a great medium.

As Frank said, 4 by 6 inches is not enough space to explain an entire story. Because of that inherent insufficiency, contributors are compelled to use images, carefully select their words, and the result is something evocative that is open to interpretation. When you read a card that says, “I’m still in love with who you used to be,” where does your mind go? There’s a rich inner story behind each of the cards, and it’s within all of our grasp to imagine it.

Also, the act of mailing something, of creating a physical thing and sending it off adds a tangible, potentially ritualistic element to “setting free” a secret. Frank told stories of postcards that came with $10 in postage, as if the author was concerned the card might somehow get returned to them. He also read emails from people who wrote cards, but then ended up giving them to others—family members, boyfriends, friends—instead of mailing them to him.

PostSecret fosters an engaged, caring community out of anonymity.
It’s extremely likely that individuals use the experience of writing a postcard to PostSecret as the stepping stone to sharing those secrets with loved ones. But perhaps more extraordinary is the extent to which PostSecret brings together strangers in support of one another. Each time Frank publishes a card that expresses insecurity or fear, dozens of caring emails come in. A boy sends a postcard with a photo of his blemished chest and asks, “who will ever love me?” The emails pour in: “I will. What’s inside counts.” In the Art-o-Matic show, one postcard read, “I’m a white guy who likes black girls.” During the show, Frank found that someone had written on this card. The stranger wrote, “That’s ok.” I heard so many stories of affirmation and caring today I felt like I was at a freaking Hallmark convention. But the stories were real, they represented interactions between stranger, and they were deeply affecting.

PostSecret motivates people to start their own communities and rituals for secret sharing.

There are PostSecret spin-off sites. There are also people getting active in their own communities in suicide hotlines and traditional support lines. And then there are the unusual stories. One woman wrote her secret on a post-it and stuck it on the bathroom mirror in her large office complex. Later that day, she returned to find 12 other post-its with secrets surrounding hers. A girl whose postcard about anorexia was not published on the website made a shirt that said, “20% of anorexics die. Here are the symptoms of anorexia…” and wore it to school to spread her message. Classmates and teachers asked her to make t-shirts for them to wear, too. PostSecret has a ripple effect that not only engages people in that project; it engages them in the idea of sharing with others in all kinds of ways.

PostSecret feels personal and immediate, as well as universal.

Frank said that each time he gets a postcard in the mail, he feels like he is holding “a living secret being experienced in real-time." There’s an urgency to the secrets—even ones that have been hidden for tens of years—because the postcard represents the moment at which it was finally let out. Each week, the website offers new secrets, and the old ones, stored in Frank's basement, disappear.

Frank commented that he thinks we love these cards not because we’re voyeurs, but because they reveal “the essence of humanity.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but there are certainly hundreds of postcards that resonate with me personally—and I imagine with everyone who views them. Across age, gender, continent, language, the PostSecret viewers see the same desires and troubles. There were many stories of personal action taken after reading others’ cards, and appreciation for no longer feeling alone in a secret or a feeling.

PostSecret is curated.

Not every postcard makes the website; these days, Frank receives 1000 per week and publishes about 20. He says that he looks for cards that are authentic, that tell a story that feels powerful and hasn’t been shared before. Each week, he tries to create a narrative tableau of secrets to publish, looking for a hopeful one, a funny one, a confused one. By culling down the submissions for presentation, Frank is reinforcing the values that motivated PostSecret in the first place—people sharing honest, creative expressions of their secrets. It keeps the project focused.

I felt mixed about this curated component originally. Enough people are looking at the website—why doesn’t he post them all and let people vote, like YouTube? Curating the cards probably helps keep exhibitionism and showboating at bay. It’s not about how many cards you create or how fabulist the tale you tell. It’s about how honest and real one person thinks they are. And the fact that the cards are only available for one week at a time--as an art piece, it evokes the immediacy of a secret, but as a new viewer I want access to all the content.

And this is where museums (could) step in. In the ideal world, Frank’s basement—where he sorts and selects all the cards—becomes an open collection storage facility at a museum. Volunteers can come and help sort and scan the cards. Different people could curate—not just one person—and everyone would have access to the core data. The project is active, continuing, bringing new content to the museum each week and motivating people to return and get involved.
PostSecret is self-help through art, through community. It opens people to each other and to themselves. It pulls in creative expression from all kinds of people all over the world. It has web components, but is essentially about physical objects.

PostSecret is a model for where museums can go with 2.0.

It doesn’t have to be postcards. It doesn’t have to be about secrets. What are the deep questions museums can ask to get people motivated to contribute, to listen, and to care?

7 comments, add yours!:

postsecret said...


I really liked your thoughtful message. And the last thing you wrote made me think of th5 60 plus You-Tube videos people have created/curated drawing from the many PostSecret images on the web.

Be well,

Anonymous said...

You might also be aware of a number of similar online projects such as Epiphany. One thing that interests me with relation to the debate is the extent to which anonymity is part of the confession medium (such as on Group Hug). You say 'It’s extremely likely that individuals use the experience of writing a postcard to PostSecret as the stepping stone to sharing those secrets with loved ones'- I'm not so sure. Looking at Group Hug for more than 20 seconds might disabuse more than me of such a notion - but then, is the investment of sending a physical card the key to the whole thing? Or is it the curated element, the filtering?

I like very much the idea that museums might have to change their role in the dialogue, to ask other questions. I don't, unfortunately, have an answer!

Sheila said...

I think that museums can use this method, and some already are, to collect from the public for exhibitions--stories from the past, particularly painful episodes.

CHNM is already doing a bit of collecting using digital memory banks which can easily be adapted for museums.

Nina Simon said...

I think there's a difference between applications like Group Hug, which are essentially about communicating with a mass audience, and PostSecret, in which you are sending a physical item to one stranger in the mail. To me, Group Hug feels inauthentic, and the lack of art contributes to the lack of grace. (Granted the explosive popularity of PostSecret may change the nature of people's motivations to send the cards.)

Is it easier for me to type something I regret than to make a physical piece of art around it? Absolutely. The thoughtfulness, and the positive aspects of creating something, contribute to what makes this project special. PostSecret values the "Me Action"--the "we benefit" is a secondary, yet positive, experience.

Anonymous said...

I first came across PostSecret in early 2006 and was blown away by the simplicity and power of the project. I don't agree they are a stepping stones to sharing the secrets with loved ones but I do think The act of constructing something tangible to express a secret anonymously allows us an opportunity to learn and evolve without disclosure.

I wonder if there is a use by date for projects such as this, when they become bigger does their impact begin fade? I don't find the postcards on the site today as moving as those I saw the first time a year ago. Is this because the motivations of the post card creators have changed or because curating the cards is now more necessary. It could simply be because I've changed I guess.

Anonymous said...

at my museum, before i started working there, we had something vaguely similar in conjunction with the exploratorium's travelling exhibit, "memory". we had a timeline and post-it notes, and people would write a memory and then put it in the right place on the timeline.

it was apparently very successful, interesting both to participate in and to read. it was only a small step into 2.0, but i think what made it work was that there was a way to organize the information coming in (timeline), even without a curator; there was a set and small format; and a very engaging, personal task to do.

we're a natural history museum, though, and it's rare that our content is so easily translated to such a personally meaningful question. is there a way to do this about dinosaurs? probably not.

thanks for your fantastic blog, nina, i've been working through all your posts. keep it up.

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