Got a secret? Not on the Internet

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

Everybody’s got a secret.

So, why do we need to share them on the Internet?  I speak specifically of PostSecret, a “community art project” in which one creates a postcard-size piece of artwork containing a confession and then sends it into Frank Warren, who then posts about 20 secrets every Sunday on the PostSecret blog (there have also been four PostSecret books and a fifth arriving in October). People send in secrets about everything from small social transgressions or oddities to the darkest recesses of depression and self-harm.

“My wife won’t brush her dog,” one person writes in, on top of a photo of a dog. “So I put the dog’s hair in her food.”

Another person writes: “I cheated on my eye exam to get the glasses I always wanted.” And another: “I religiously read the blogs of 2 women who have recently given birth to their first children. It distracts me from the fact that my husband doesn’t want to have children.”

All the secrets on PostSecret, confessions to the anonymous Internet gods, are carefully constructed by the confessor. Each secret’s presentation is "aesthetic-ized," through word choice and drawing and graphic design, like the confessor is trying to make their secrets (which are too ugly for their immediate social circle) beautiful for the entire world. This highlights the inherent tension between the artifice of the medium and the supposed honesty of the content.

But there are other sites like it. My personal favorite these days is Dear Old Love, where contributors send in “pithy, specific” notes directed to their former flames.  It is a more literary pursuit, as opposed to the visual beauty of PostSecret, where writers are trying to outwit and out write each other on the subject of old, lost or future paramours.

“I taught you how to fold towels and properly iron shirts,” writes in one disappointed woman. “Didn’t you know you were in training to be my husband, not hers?”

They’re all only a few lines each — I doubt many are longer than the 140 characters of a tweet, and yet they all tell a story within them. It’s like the anonymous writer wants the intended recipient of the note to know, but be unable to confirm, that it was he or she who sent it.

It’s a little strange to turn our deepest secrets, the ones that would normally only be whispered to the most dear of confidantes after a few glasses of wine, into small spectacles for public viewing. But for generations of Americans forced to read “The Scarlet Letter” in high school (or college or both), secrets are seen as destroyers of personal psyches. Hester Prynne, at the very least, had her secret out in the open. She couldn’t hide it — her symbol of a child and the letter she was forced to wear were evidence of her sin, her secret. But Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester’s partner in adultery, was left unexposed and thus tortured himself as penance.

Dimmesdale’s brand of self-flagellation, I suspect, is not nearly as popular as anonymous truth telling. I think that the popularity of PostSecret and other incognito secret Web sites (SecretTweet, FMyLife, Txt Frm Lst Nght, Group Hug) has a lot to do with an open type of voyeurism. Finding amusement in the pain and humiliation of others is a lot more acceptable when the pain and humiliation is willingly packaged for public consumption — it takes the taboo out of looking in secret at secrets.

Looking at or reading the secrets is a cathartic experience. The human intricacies brought to light through self-examination invite the voyeur to identify with the secret. The writer/artist/confessor is seeking that affirmation from the reader: See me, hear me and love my secret.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and current page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.



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Erin K. O'Neill September 23, 2009 | 12:27 a.m.

Please read this Txt Frm Lst Nght: I rest my case.

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