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Anonymity, Authenticity and Healing: Secrets of Truth-telling Revealed

FatCatRex's picture

not even sure

Anonymity, Authenticity and Healing:

Secrets of Truth-telling Revealed


There are two kinds of secrets: those we keep from each other, and those we keep from ourselves.

--Frank Warren


PostSecret began as a community-based art project in Washington, DC several years ago. Frank Warren distributed cards that instructed art appreciators to send in secrets on a postcard to a particular address. Long after the exhibit formally ended he was still receiving secrets in the mail. With the addition of the Post Secret Community, an online live chat forum with a listing of events, videos and news, Warren reports that he has received hundreds of thousands of secrets ( ). As a project constructed around the practice of sharing truths anonymously, PostSecret reveals that many of us live with multiple layers and versions of truth, perhaps when we are not looking for them. Indeed, the vibrancy of the PostSecret community further demonstrates our need not only to share our truths and read the revelations of others, but also our desire to connect over these truths in a virtual space. What do we learn from the PostSecret project about our relationships to truth, as well as our truthful relationships with each other? This essay explores three themes that arose in the Post Secret project in response to this question; ideas around the importance of anonymity, authenticity or validation of truths, and the healing role a confessional truth can take, all expand upon the existing work of truth-telling that we have done so far in this course. 


parking ticket

From our screening of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1989) we can see how difficult it sometimes is to ascertain the truth, particularly when it is so closely attached to an individual’s freedom or incarceration. Perhaps if there had been a way for either suspect in this case to anonymously reveal the truth, detectives would have known for sure what transpired. The PostSecret project is based largely on the premise on anonymity as a tool for individuals to share personal truths. It is apparent from PostSecret’s official video entitled, “Fifty People, One Question,” that asking a person directly, “What is your secret?” on camera, may not be the easiest forum to hear people’s truths. One man even answered the question off-camera, peaking his face back into the frame as he finished speaking ( ). This difficulty and initial hesitancy by many suggests that a more anonymous forum, perhaps one which your face or voice are not attached to your secret, would allow more people to share a secret truth of their own. The question then becomes, why do we have to be a part of the secrecy in order to share a truth?

Interestingly enough, many do not remain anonymous on the online forum, PostSecret Community (PSC), for very long. After a secret has been shared on the message boards, many community members communicate and drop the barriers of anonymity. Private messages can be exchanged, as well as directed messages within the public forum which can affirm or add to existing stories. Soon message threads become an amalgamation of truths, a many-sided narrative with no end in sight. Many of the message threads begin with admissions of truth and continue with affirmations of the original truths as they go along. It is worth noting, of course, that no one else knows how fabricated or genuine these truths are. None of the threads I found or follow-ups to published secrets contained any hint of a questioning reception. If reactions were posted, they were only positive—usually in agreement or otherwise validating the original truth. Readers who can relate to an existing secret or who identify themselves in a secret, affirm what others have shared. Perhaps nothing will happen when someone puts a postcard or Internet post out there, but maybe, just maybe, it will resonate with someone else in another space and time.



The question of a secret’s authenticity, I would argue, is less crucial than how it is affirmed and authenticated. Thus far in this essay I have been using the term ‘truth’ to be synonymous with the secrets revealed through PostSecret, when to be fair, whether or not they are deemed ‘truths’ is a complicated and subjective issue. As far as individuals who submit postcards and online posts to PostSecret are concerned, their secrets become real and true seemingly the moment they are acknowledged and posted publically. For many secrets, which have never been iterated outside an individual’s personal consciousness, individuals are writing these secrets into being—inscribing a secret means creating and telling a truth. One postcard shown in an imitation PostSecret video features a picture of a young man holding a sign which reads: “I believe that I will change the whole world one day (I’m gonna do it too!)” .

Even sites such as YouTube, which feature the PostSecret project but do not host it officially, are spaces of confession and authentication. While the official PostSecret produced videos are present on the site, other imitation and compilation videos dominate, belying not only an interest in the revelation of truth through the PostSecret project, but also a need for expanded anonymous and thus safe spaces for truth-telling. Furthermore, in addition to new PostSecret video replicas, many comment on the videos themselves with new secrets that are unrelated to the content of the video. A comment posted two weeks ago on the original video trailer for PostSecret reads: “I would give anything not to_ see his face when i am with you. everyday i wish i had fought back harder.” Even more of these messages can be found on the PostSecret channel of YouTube—many of these are direct messages of thanks and affirmation to Frank Warren for his creation of the project. These voices express gratitude and inspiration for the secrets found in the books and weekly blog releases, even telling him that they wait each week for a new postcard release on the blog site, a new truth to float out into the world (


say hi

On the official PostSecret site, Warren addresses the issue of which secrets are authentic from the start in the Frequently Asked Question section. There are only three questions listed under the FAQ heading, one being: “Are all 200,000 secrets true?” Frank Warren responds by acknowledging that this question doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer, depending on how we define, use, or find truth in his revealed secrets. He goes on to say, “No one could claim that all 200,000 secrets are ‘true,’ … I think of each postcard as a work of art. And as art, secrets can have different layers of truth. Some can be both true and false, others can become true over time,” ( The project allows for several versions of truth and stages of truth’s development, as stated not only by Warren explicitly, but can be found in the news section of his site entitled ‘Follow-up Stories.’ Here is where Warren posts responses to particular postcards, including one in which a woman got the courage to leave her abusive boyfriend after reading an inspiration postcard of the same nature ( Warren encourages follow-up messages not only to him, but also encourages direct message communication within the online chat forum portion of PSC, which puts truth in a space of conversation and interrogation. As a conversation, it can become a shared belief, and thus a more authentic truth, regardless of whether it is being discussed by anonymous individuals.

Frank Warren emphasizes the need for healing and wellness on his site, especially under the News tab. There he lists resources for PSC followers in crisis—24 hotlines in several countries, highlighting Hopeline in the United States, an organization which he raised $30,000 for through advertisements on his website and book tour. The original PostSecret video is narrated by Warren, who admits: “I have been astonished by the frailty and heroism I see in the secrets of ordinary people, like you and me, living our everyday lives,” (at 0:53, It is clear from the message boards and plethora of wellness information, that Warren (and the dedicated online community) is concerned that exposing the truth can be a painful and scary, although ultimately cathartic, reality. In response to PostSecret video featuring Frank Warren, someone wrote: “Its makes me happy to see people release their secrets to share_ them with a total stranger. hes doing a great thing and is even saving some peoples lives who needed to let it out. thank you,” ( Many do credit Warren for creating a space in which making secrets public can liberate the confessors. Warren and the PSC followers themselves believe in the healing and restorative power of confession, which also locates truth in a position of power which is to be both respected and feared (a location corroborated by other studies of truth this semester). Our experience of truth and art in this semester had followed along a similar path—the art produced by Orson Welles’s mocumentary placed truth at a high premium, and in a position where it simultaneously mattered and was unimportant. I mean to say, truth was not the basis of his film, yet it was the focus and glue of his production.

Warren sees confessional postcards as art, and as such is not interested in the pure value of truth, or of locating the most specific and authentic truth. We however, as the general public receiving and reading PostSecret, are obviously extremely concerned with both truth-seeking and truth-telling. Many desire the anonymity of the Internet in order to speak and seek truth. It seems however, from examining the tendencies of PostSecret followers, that after we feel able to identify with truths or find those which speak to us, our desire for anonymity decreases and instead is replaced by the hope of authenticity and affirmation. Three stages of expectation—anonymity, authenticity, and wellness—found in the PostSecret community create a structure that can help us think through our discussion of constructed, layered, difficult and subjective truths throughout the remainder of the semester. Using PostSecret as a case study in truth-telling and receiving, we can see how even those issues which we keep hidden are still the things that we hope to eventually have affirmed and healed. PostSecret demonstrates how the liberation of secrets is not a selfish matter but one which both builds community as it affirms our perceptions of self, and reminds us that we remain part of an imperfect, human population. PostSecret posits truth-telling as the greatest tool for healing, identifying, and constructing selves.  






Anne Dalke's picture

Shared belief, authentic truth?

let me show you, before or after class one day, how to place those photos where you want 'em.

So, last month you were looking @ storytelling in the law --that is, @ how stories get told in a visible, public forum which has elaborately designed procedures for verification and very real consequences for both lying and truth-telling (such as life and death). This time 'round, you are looking @ a very different venue: one that is virtual and anonymous, and yet, you argue, it is for those very reasons that it operates as a site for restoration.

What is most striking to me in this account is of course the absence of any method of verification; in fact, what I'm hearing is an open dismissal of that question as an important one: "each postcard is a work of art," and so truth is fungible. That "no one else knows how fabricated or genuine these truths are," that their reception is never questioned, but that rather the secrets "become real and true the moment they are posted publicly" is all very telling, particularly in line of the work being done by some of your classmates. See, for example, rachelr's comments on "corroboration," Owl's on "reiteration," and  maht91's on "doubting as the path to truth."

Perhaps the second most striking dimension of your paper, for me, is the notion that reality is that which others acknowledge: if I say it, and you affirm it, then it is true. This is a turn to the notion of "shared subjectivity" I tried to use to structure the first 1/2 of the course; it makes "shared belief" the touchstone, as you say, for a "more authentic truth," but the difference is that there's no process, here, of testing. It makes me eager to get to the world of Carl Sagan, upcoming, and his insistence on the importance of skepticism.

But skepticism, I take it, would destroy the community being built by this mode of confession?

FatCatRex's picture

Comparing Truth Value

I'm so glad you mentioned the first paper, Anne, because I also find the juxtaposition of the two to be fascinating. What a comparison between truth telling in the law (where we are supposed to never say anything but the truth, so help us God) and the truth we can identify with, so long as it is anonymous. This relationship seems to suggest an issue of ownership at the heart of truth-telling; we are more likely to value and speak truth when our identities can remain anonymous and unattached. When issues may require the 'truth', however, and these issues will necessitate legal consequences, chances are the "truth" is no where to be found. Worse yet, the assumption that our justice system exists to protect and seek restoration is sadly inadequate. But how then, do we restore our justice system? How can we transform courts into a space of restoration, if truth seems only possible (albeit with smaller truths usually) in a virtual space where identity is temporarily suspended?

I suppose the problem is that we can't escape the power and pull of politics in the law--another sphere in which truth is woefully far out of style.

Another comparison that occurred to me since writing this paper is that of PostSecret with 'F for Fake.' While Welles' documentary is not a community art project, the subject of art and the protection such a label gives ideas is really interesting claim. For instance, as you pointed out Anne, the founder of PostSecret values the postcards as art and therefore finds that the truth behind them is unimportant. However the viewing public assumes truth-- not only valuing it but identifying with it in their own lives. Indeed, I look forward to reading Sagan for his perspectives on truth, though I do think that a healthy dose of skepticism would break up the romantic notion of Frank Warren's PostSecrets floating through the USPS and among us everyday.

Shared values of truth also reminds me of 'Path to Paradise,' but I'll flush that out more in the course forum...

FatCatRex's picture

What perhaps could have been another WebPaper...

...would have been to explore how what we've learned from PostSecret (that anonymously and "authentically" telling the truth is hugely valuable for ourselves and our communities) can be applied to some of the other work we've done in this class. I wasn't sure how to work that into the scope of this paper without having it be just another paper, but as I look back on it, I want to acknowledge my consideration of that issue instead of just ignoring it.

I'm just trying to tell the truth here!

Ha ha...

So the truth then is, that I think this positive idea of truth is heavily contested by some of the reading and watching we've already done (duh FatCatRex, you're thinking). The top-of-my-head list for things we've looked at WITH a positive truth value, like PostSecret, includes the 9/11 Report, Thin Blue Line, Tarnation, all the reference materials, Fun Home. On the other side of the coin are works like F is for Fake, Reality Hunger, Solnit. There is much more to be said about all this, but I just wanted to publicly note how fascinating I find it that we have studied non-fiction prose for a few months now, and unwittingly worked with prose containing all kinds and notions of truth--the good, the bad, the healing, the fake, the lost, and more.

FatCatRex's picture

Wonky photos

I tried to work out how to put the photos in a better spot (ie centered) in text, but I struggled with the image assist a little so I just wanted to submit by 5pm. Apologies if it is difficult to read!

Oh technology, you win every time.