America’s confessor

Frank Warren is the creator of PostSecret, one of the internet’s most successful sites. But is he qualified to handle his readers’ most private confessions?
January 25, 2012

Answering night-time calls at a suicide hotline in Washington DC some years ago, Frank Warren found himself using The Voice. Addressing callers’ problems and telling them where they might seek help, he noticed, was not nearly so important as adopting a certain tone: soothing, hypnotic, passive.

Nowadays, Warren regularly speaks before hundreds of people; he says he sometimes slips into The Voice at these public events, but from what I can tell he seems to talk this way all the time. Whether he is discussing one person’s trouble tuning in to a radio station, or another’s difficulty with childhood sexual abuse, he projects relentless and unflappable sympathy.

With narrow shoulders, grey hair, glasses and a shy smile, Warren, aged 47, looks like an extra from The Office—you can imagine him trying to fix a photocopier. He also bears a resemblance to Dr Drew, America’s most famous television therapist, and like Dr Drew, Warren has risen to prominence by providing a forum where people can air their most closely held (and at times shocking) secrets. Warren has become America’s secular confessor. The question is whether so many people should be entrusting him with their most private thoughts.

Back in 2004, Warren had a small business that managed medical documents and he was bored with it. To amuse himself in his spare time he devised a little project, inspired by a dream he’d had on holiday in Paris the year before. He printed a batch of postcards with brief instructions typed on them: write on a postcard a secret that you’ve never told anyone, design the card however you like, and send it anonymously to the address provided—Warren’s home in Maryland. Warren then handed out these postcards on the streets of Washington, DC and also tucked them into books in shops.

There was an immediate and extraordinary response. The postcards soon began to pour in—and when he launched on 1st January 2005, the online traffic was heavy. He used the free, bare-bones Google blogging service for amateurs that he still employs today. An armload of web awards and a spate of press attention further boosted the site’s profile. When Warren sits down to pick the 20 postcards that he posts online each Sunday, he is often choosing from a week’s total of more than 1,000, many of which are intricate works of homespun art.

Warren’s house is in a well-kept, upmarket development in Germantown, about an hour’s drive from Washington DC where the suburbs give way to farmland. The postwoman who delivers to his address tells me with a laugh that at least working the route gives her job security. Her confidence is well founded. Independent data that Warren showed me reported 1.7m unique visitors to his site per week and the hit counter on the website has registered more than half a billion visits. There are now French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese versions of the site, some of which are unauthorised. PostSecretUK launched two years ago; it is not affiliated with the original site but credits it as its inspiration. provides readers with small, potent doses of humour, sadness and intrigue. “I would rather be hit than ignored,” says one. “I stare at my cleavage when I walk down stairs.” “My mom puts a star on the calendar for every day I haven’t cut myself. I don’t deserve 5 of those stars.” “Is it wrong to thank God every day for the man I’m having an affair with?” “He said my meat loaf wasn’t as good as his Mom’s. Now I put dog food in it. And SMILE when he eats it.” Next to a US Army pin, against the backdrop of an American flag: “I will feel forever guilty for leaving you just like everyone said I would.” Absurdity and heartbreak are often placed side by side, which makes the tone of the website both weird and powerful.

Most secrets tend to fall under one of three categories. The first might be called the Laugher, where the postcard carries not so much a secret as a clever or odd titbit that might be a source of pride rather than embarrassment. One person sent Warren a Starbucks cup with a stamp on it and a written message: “I give decaf to customers who are rude to me!”

Second is the Sigher, a sweet or poignant secret, in many cases presumably kept private out of shyness. Sometimes it’s directed to an unnamed person, bringing a small elliptical narrative to life: “I see you see me. Ask me. I’ll say yes.”

Then there’s the Dagger, the one that delivers a shock of sorrow or brutality. These postcards can seem untruthful, or like a naked plea for attention. Warren tries to weed out submissions that smell fictional but says he’s not too troubled if they get past him, as even an invented secret can reveal something real. The Dagger at its most effective, though, can drop the smile from your face with its startling revelation of private pain. The day I visited Frank Warren, we came across one. We were sorting through the day’s post at the dining room table. One card, bearing a crude crayon drawing of a hangman’s noose and a stick figure, read, “I feel words I said led to the suicide of another.”


PostSecret has co-produced a short online documentary film with the website Fifty People One Question that captures some of the effect of the blog. Unnamed pedestrians are stopped on New York streets and asked, “What’s your secret?” It’s a funny and charming video, but it’s clear when the Dagger appears. A woman in her twenties says simply, “I’m a lot better before you really know me.” As she looks down at her feet and then struggles to meet the camera’s gaze again, the sadness of the remark sets in.

There is some indication that the Daggers come closest to the core of Warren’s intentions. Warren did his stint at the crisis hotline after losing a close friend to suicide and says that he blames himself for not doing more to help his friend. Although he started PostSecret as “a prank,” he uses the website to raise money for suicide prevention and he periodically publishes announcements for the hotline where he used to volunteer: one fundraising appeal saved it from near collapse in 2006. He has been directly involved in financing and setting up an online network of trained crisis counsellors, IMAlive.

When announcements about these initiatives appear on PostSecret, they stand out clearly. The website’s design remains minimalist and it does not run advertisements, which means that Warren, who employs no staff, has foregone the opportunity to become wealthy from the website alone. However, he does profit from the PostSecret books and from public appearances—he was able to quit his day job in 2008. But accepting adverts on the blog, he feels, would violate the sense of authenticity and trust he has built up. It’s clear to the PostSecret audience that he’s a man with a mission, even if it’s not quite clear what the mission is.

Warren traces that sense of purpose to his own exposure to the kind of serious distress anonymously voiced on PostSecret. When he was in high school in Illinois, a friend introduced him to Pentecostalism. Warren began attending services five times a week but could not speak in tongues as other worshippers did, and felt himself “a failure in God’s eyes.” Later, he struggled with mental illness but did not find the answers in psychiatry: “Whatever I was hoping to find in terms of peace and solace, through not religion but in science—maybe the medical field—that fell short as well.” Then came PostSecret, which he says filled a void in his life to a degree that surprised him.

Does it also fill a void for the thousands of people who send in their secrets? While the pleasure of crafting a good Laugher is easy to imagine, it’s not clear why sending an anonymous postcard to a stranger would help to lessen a burden. Even the unlikely event of seeing a secret published would not seem to answer to the same need as having an intimate conversation with a trusted friend. Moreover, many fans of the website admit to being voyeurs in search of titillation.

But Margeaux Ackerman, a 45-year-old woman from Minnesota who has sent in several postcards, believes PostSecret is a genuine help to its users. She points to the website’s communal aspect: “You kind of go through life thinking you’re all alone in your thoughts,” she says, and the site offers the relief of seeing how many others share the same concerns, odd or alienating though they may be. Ackerman, who has spent a lot of time participating in the PostSecret Community online forum, cites an example: if one person is worried about finding a dead body every time she sees a large rubbish bag, 50 other people say, “Me too.”

Some research supports Ackerman’s view. Anna Poletti, a lecturer at Monash University in Australia who has studied PostSecret, says that its attraction may derive from the way it binds people in a collective of strangers “who feel the same, rather than thinking or believing in the same things.”

Anita Kelly, a psychologist at the University of Notre Dame argues that “we’re hardwired to readily share” our feelings. Her work has shown, she says, that sharing secrets without hiding one’s identity is more likely to provide relief, but she suggests that the worth of PostSecret is borne out in wider psychological literature. A 1986 study by James Pennebaker indicated that writing anonymous accounts of traumatic personal events held significant psychological and even physical benefits. The value of “unburdening” oneself of a secret has a long cultural lineage, from the Catholic rite of confession to the autobiographical writings of Montaigne and Rousseau, to the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis.

Warren presents his website as part of this practice. But some psychologists and priests have challenged Warren on talk shows, maintaining that there is no great value in the kind of disclosure PostSecret affords. Molly Pulda, a researcher at the graduate centre of the City University of New York who has studied secrecy, notes that sending a postcard to PostSecret, for all its benefits, could represent a lost opportunity to get close to another person. “Secrets are such a freighted site of intimacy, so let them be intimate, even if they’re messy!” Richard Beck, a psychologist and theologian at Abilene Christian University, gives the site its due for affording relief, but he adds, “The issue in sharing secrets isn’t just about the catharsis of ‘getting something off your chest.’ It’s about moving a relationship into deeper levels of trust and intimacy.” But with PostSecret, says Beck, “no relationship is deepened.”

What do the site’s contributors say to sceptics? “Oh bullshit,” says Shayna Hefner, a 36-year-old woman who has sent in as many as 40 postcards, some of them deeply private. “I have found that for me personally it’s incredibly therapeutic,” a way of “letting go.” She has exchanged emails with Warren and describes him as “very approachable” and “a people-pleaser.”

Despite its shocking content, PostSecret has remained remarkably free of controversy. Nonetheless, the darker side of the site was exposed after PostSecret released a paid-for iPhone app in late August 2011. It was an instant hit. Users were submitting as many as 36,000 secrets a day, according to Warren. Volunteers tried to weed out graphic images, bullying responses, and other violations of the guidelines (Warren’s wife Jan was busy moderating on her iPad the day I visited), but the secrets were not pre-screened as they are on the blog. Ultimately, the malicious content, while a small share of the total, became too much to handle. Law enforcement officials contacted Warren about some of it, where it appeared that offences had been committed, or might be in the future. Warren said that the app received content that was “not just pornographic but also gruesome and at times threatening.” Users complained to him, Apple and the FBI. He had to take down the app four months after its release.

That PostSecret had avoided such debacles before must owe something to the site’s creator and his success in setting a non-judgemental and inclusive tone, a contrast to much of the viciousness online. Warren may seem to be hiding in the background, rarely writing on his own blog, but all along he’s exercising a quixotic editorial vision—one based on listening rather than speaking, just as he did on the suicide hotline. A lot of people trust that vision even without knowing much about the man behind it.

But they have strong feelings about him; indeed, the closer you examine PostSecret’s contributors, the more you smell the whiff of a cult. PostSecret fans refer to Warren simply as Frank and tend to talk about him as though he were a friend. (The phenomenon calls to mind “Bill W,” the mysterious, much-loved cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.) The huge, devoted audience looks forward to the weekly dose of affecting, up-from-the-people art; it’s a part of their inner life. When they feel “Frank” is falling short, they sound like fanatical followers of a rock band. Hefner thinks that Warren was more altruistic in the past and “has gotten a little more caught up in the commercialism of it,” and a recent secret posted on the website echoes that thought. “I think Frank is a sell out,” it read.


Warren is known for his gnomic utterances, such as, “Sometimes when we think we are keeping a secret, the secret is actually keeping us.” Other remarks, spoken in his dulcet tones, suggest a spiritual leader setting out a philosophy: “I think it’s natural to want to hide from the parts of our life that we find confusing or painful, but if we do they’ll haunt us forever.”

Public appearances by Warren, often held on college campuses, sell out quickly, owing in part to curiosity about him. Shayna Hefner once booked a flight itinerary that would take her 350 miles across California to see Warren speak and then return the same night—all after a day of teaching at school.

Warren ascribes the energy in the room at his events to “the conversation that everyone wants to have—they just don’t know it.” He invites audience members to step up to a microphone and share a secret, and Warren says he sees “emotions that you would never see during someone’s school life, or work life, or sometimes maybe even home life.” At times, he says, five people will embrace a woman who has told a secret before she can return to her seat. Warren sees a similarity to the revivalist religious meetings he attended in high school.

He firmly denies, however, that he claims any kind of quasi-spiritual authority as the creator of PostSecret. The priests and psychologists are tackling straw men, he says; he never said a postcard could replace confession or therapy. If Warren sometimes seems to credit his site with a lot of power, it is perhaps not surprising—this is his life’s work. His family, he says, takes “very little interest in the project”—and his wife chimes in to agree. She says her reaction to some secrets is, “Oh, come on, people, grow up.”

But even if Warren sometimes seems too earnest, even grandiose, about the impact of the project, he clearly is serious about the responsibilities that have developed from what started out as a “prank.” He has said that he is “never shocked” by a postcard, but chooses his words carefully: “No matter what the secret is, I have my personal reaction, but then my reaction as the founder of PostSecret. I have to be careful and make sure everyone knows if they trust me with a secret, they’re not going to regret it.”

The February issue of Prospect is now on newsstands. Find your nearest retailer here


The great escape: Libertarians plan to build floating islands to house casinos, hospitals, hotels, offices—and even new societies. Will the “seasteading” movement sink or float? Eamonn Fingleton investigates...

Out of thin air: Elite athletes increasingly depend on technology to help them win, says David Edmonds. But what constitutes an unfair advantage, and who should decide?

No place like abroad: Wendell Steavenson explains how to feel at home after a week in a foreign land