News and views from the award-winning author of the Class H Trilogy: AMERICA LIBRE, HOUSE DIVIDED and PANCHO LAND

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A lie that tells the truth

I don’t know which is worse: believing Postsecrets.com is real or that a lot of it is fake. For those not familiar with the site, Postsecrets.com displays postcards allegedly from people who want to anonymously reveal a secret they have never shared with anyone. The site claims to have received thousands of postcards since it was created in January of 2005 by Frank Warren, a “small business owner” according to his bio at HarperCollins. (Mr. Warren has used the material from the site to publish four books, by the way. More on that later.)

Since the postcards are anonymous, we have no way of knowing how much of this material is heartfelt catharsis or simply a pretense by someone eager to see their brainchild in public. The imagery and layout of many cards seems so overtly raw and artless, I’m left feeling suspicious. After 28 years in the ad biz, a lot of these postcards look like the work of a skillful creative person posing as an amateur. In any case, I seriously doubt there is not a single hoax among the thousands of cards allegedly received by Mr. Warren. How many are fake is anyone’s guess.

The cloak of anonymity also provides Mr. Warren with the ability to produce some of these himself. Many of the postcards display a haiku-like sameness that seems suspect. Although different in appearance, the meter and length of the phrases are uncannily consistent. Also, the lack of many spelling errors is a big surprise. As someone who hosts a website that receives messages from the public I can assure you, we are a nation of lousy spellers. I realize this is a serious accusation. I don’t know Frank Warren. He may be as squeaky clean as Ralph Nader. All the same, as a creative professional, my instincts tell me a lot of these cards are the work of the same hand.

But even if every single postcard displayed on Postsecrets.com is real, I still find the site disturbing.

There’s something sad and tawdry about people who share material this intimate with strangers. Perhaps even worse is the morbid interest of those who want to see these often pitiful laments. I suppose with reality television as a bellwether, this kind of self-induced public humiliation is not surprising. Still, this site strikes me as a form of emotional pornography, a place where people with unmet needs and psychological trauma can find an audience of voyeurs.

These are harsh words, I know. It’s possible this site has helped some people air deep-seated anxieties. Yet when one reads some of the reader reviews of Mr. Warren’s four books on the material from Postsecrets.com, a different picture emerges.

“I loved this! There is something about peeking in on someone's life. I read it within a day and then my husband, who doesn't read anything, read it in two nights!”

“I think its [sic] a great read and conversation starter.”

“You really can't go wrong with any of the post secret books, its [sic] a great gift to give.”

Clearly, the site and the books are a form of entertainment for many—and a source of income for Mr. Warren. Perhaps in acknowledgement of his good fortune, Mr. Warren has donated $2,000 and “some of the proceeds” from one of his books to the National Hopeline Network, a suicide hotline. I’m sure that makes him and those who bought his books feel better.

Pablo Picasso once said “art is a lie that tells the truth.” I am left wondering how much of Postsecrets fits Picasso’s words.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez