PostSecret's Frank Warren brings tears to SXSWi crowd

The founder of the PostSecret project has many people in his audience tearing up with tales of the courage behind the secrets put on the postcards sent to him.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
The PostSecret project encourages people to write secrets on postcards and send them to the project's curator, Frank Warren. Over the years, he has gotten more than 200,000 postcards and has published four compilations of the cards. PostSecret

AUSTIN, Texas--Here's my secret: I cried during Frank Warren's keynote speech.

Of course, I wasn't alone. All around the ballroom where Warren, the founder of the PostSecret project, was giving Monday's South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) keynote address, people were misty-eyed. And for me, things he said throughout his talk had tears rolling down my face.

It's not surprising, though. For those unfamiliar with PostSecret, it's the project Warren has been doing for several years where he encourages the public to send him anonymous postcards with some sort of personal secret. Over the years, he has collected more than 200,000 of the cards, published four compilations of them, and created a blog community where people can view many of those cards and the secrets they contain.

PostSecret project founder and curator Frank Warren delivering his keynote address at SXSWi on Monday in Austin, Texas. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Warren began his talk by explaining some of the things he's learned over the years since he began the project. In a short, emotionally moving video that expressed the three surprises that have emerged from the project: That he's seen so much "soulful" art incorporated into the postcards; that people have "tons" of secrets; and that he has been "astonished" by the frailty and heroism of ordinary people, Warren set the stage for the afternoon and for talking about what the project has meant to him and to so many of the people who have participated in it.

"I think we all have secrets," Warren said, "and I like to imagine us keeping them in a box. Each day we face a choice to bury (them) down deep inside it, or find the box, bring it out in the light, open it up, and share the secrets with the light."

To illustrate what he meant, and to show the audience how personal the secrets can be, he read a series of the postcards he had brought with him.

One, a picture of a sonogram with a child in it read, "I passed her at the store the other day. I wonder if she knows. I almost had his child. I wonder if I should tell her."

Another read, "My boyfriend is deaf, and when we have sex, I scream my ex's name."

Warren explained that the cards don't all come in a traditional postcard form. Many, in fact, take altogether different forms.

For example, he said he had received secrets on parking tickets and that he'd gotten six different secrets written--and jumbled--on mixed-up Rubik's cubes. For those, he said, he had to break the cubes open and put them back together in order to read the text properly.

One non-postcard favorite, he said, was written on a Starbuck's coffee cup, and read: "I serve decaf to customers who are rude to me."

Warren said he has always been impressed by the way PostSecret's participants incorporate art and imagery into their postcards. PostSecret

Still other cards express how angry people can be at the circumstances of their lives and the little things they do to strike back.

"I put lipstick on my boss' shirt," read Warren off one card, "so his wife would think we're having an affair, even though we're not."

And on the side of the card, its sender had added, "This sounds crazy even to me."

Still another card, from a baggage handler somewhere, read, "You called me an idiot, so I sent your bags to the wrong destination. Whoops! I guess you were right."

"There's a lot of wisdom and knowledge you can extract," Warren said, "from thoughtful, soulful confessions."

Before the keynote speech began, attendees had the opportunity to write their own secrets on cards and turn them in. So Warren read a few of the ones people had dropped off. Some of them were devastating in their honesty and their commentary on business and society.

"Work paid for me to come here," one attendee wrote, "but I'm actually here to find another job."

"My company, a large one, sent me to SXSW in order to steal ideas from start-ups," another card read. "I'm pretending to be a freelancer."

This one was greeted by loud hisses from the packed house.

One of the two large drawings based on Warren's keynote speech that artists created during his talk. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Warren said that over the years and with all the cards and secrets, he's felt that two themes have emerged from all he's seen.

The first, he explained, is that when people think they're keeping secrets, the truth may be that the secrets are keeping them, and could well be affecting relationships and the way people see the world.

"The other part of the story," he added, "is that it shows we all have the potential in one courageous moment to change our life...and to liberate ourselves."

He then explained how the PostSecret project began. He said that he had handed out cards on the streets of Washington, D.C., and had put some of the very first ones on the wall at an art gallery there.

"The most common" thing he encountered in handing out the cards, Warren said, "was people who said, 'I don't have any secrets.' But I always made sure they took a card, because they have the best secrets."

After exhibiting the cards and getting very positive responses, he said, the cards started to come from people he'd never even handed them out to. The project had taken on a life of its own, he explained, so he started his blog, a site that has now made it possible for anyone to see how bare people lay their souls when sending in the cards and the secrets they contain.

The second artistic drawing done based on Warren's keynote address at SXSWi. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

He then talked about how, after the blog became a phenomenon, HarperCollins publishers approached him about making a book out of the project. And while many of the early cards were included in the first book--there are now four--there were some that didn't get included for several reasons, including too much sexual content or potential copyright violations.

So he showed off a few of his favorite book reject cards.

One read: "I work with a bunch of uptight, religious people, so sometimes I don't wear panties, and I just have a big smile on my face."

Another said, "I like to watch Dr. Phil. Drunk."

And a third read, "All my life I wanted to look like Liz Taylor. Now Liz Taylor's starting to look like me."

To Warren, the most gratifying moment in the entire project's history was when he got an e-mail from the man who had founded a national suicide prevention hotline saying the hotline was out of money and needed help.

So Warren posted the plea on the blog and within a week, he said, readers had contributed more than $30,000, enough to keep the hotline afloat.

Warren opened up the talk to audience questions, and for anyone to reveal their secrets, and the first person to do so came up on stage and proposed to his girlfriend. She accepted the proposal, and the two walked off-stage engaged. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"So the next time someone says virtual communities don't make a difference in the real world," Warren said to cheers, "they do, every day."

One thing that comes up frequently with the project is that the cards arrive at Warren's house with bar code stickers added by the post office covering some of the words of the secrets.

That annoys a lot of the blog's readers, Warren explained.

"Frank, peel off the white stickers," pleaded one blog reader who wrote Warren. "The post office puts them on, not the people sending the cards."

"And then I can't read the rest of the message," Warren said, because it was hidden behind one of the post office's stickers.

The crowd erupted with laughter.

Finally, Warren finished his prepared remarks, and said he was ready to turn the microphone over to audience members with secrets to share.

And one had apparently gotten in touch with him before the talk, because he was standing in the wings, waiting to come on stage.

The man got in front of the audience and proceeded to propose to his girlfriend, holding out a large engagement ring.

After a brief pause, in which the man said, "I'm shaking up here, hurry up," the girlfriend came up on stage to join him where they embraced and he put the ring on her finger to huge applause.

And, as you might expect, the tears were everywhere. Including streaming down my cheeks.

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).