Joe Dellosa

The Alligator Columns

Art project puts message over money

Notes & Context

A very heavily truncated Q&A with Frank Warren was published separately in the Alligator's entertainment section. (The unedited transcript of my interview with Warren was more than 4,000 words long; the Q&A as published has fewer than 650.) And yes, Warren seems like such an incredibly nice, cool guy.

The text below is the version of the article I originally submitted for publication, with some editing for clarity and errors on my end. The print and online versions contained stylistic edits and some errors introduced during editing.

PostSecret, the popular community art project created by Frank Warren, is the opposite of advertising. And that's a damn good thing.

The premise of the project is simple: Warren invites people to write a secret that they've never told anybody before on a postcard; people then mail the postcard to his home address (13345 Copper Ridge Road, Germantown, Md. 20874). Every Sunday, Warren picks about 20 secrets and posts them on the PostSecret Web site.

The results are often beautiful. The secrets people choose to share run the gamut of human emotion — from silly to tragic, from hopeful to pained — and if nothing else, the project provides very vibrant proof that, whatever our inner demons and private joys, we are not alone.

One of the more surprising things about PostSecret is that the Web site has no advertisements at all. Warren steadfastly refuses to monetize the PostSecret Web site with ads, an atypical move considering that, according to Warren, the site has received more than 250 million hits since its inception in 2004.

I talked with Warren about this in a phone interview last week as a part of his book tour for the latest PostSecret compilation, "PostSecret: Confessions of Life, Death, and God," which was released last week.

He said that "having never accepted a dollar for a paid advertisement" helps foster a sense of trust between the people sending secrets and himself.

"I think it's a site where commercializing it would have a different feel to it," Warren said. He went on to say that "there's a purity to PostSecret that would be jeopardized by having ads" on the Web site.

He also said that he thinks our culture is becoming overcommercialized.

"I think the prevalence of commercials everywhere is very concerning," he said, "and in some ways, it causes us to shut down what we let in. ... I sometimes feel we aren't as open to the world as we might be, because we've become accustomed to trying to shut out some of those stimuli, because there are so many ads and commercials bombarding us all the time."

The more cynical may dismiss PostSecret as an exercise in self-absorption and narcissism — very creative and sometimes touching navel-gazing, perhaps, but navel-gazing nonetheless. (It's almost as narcissistic as, say, thinking your opinion is worth shoving into newsprint every week.)

And to some degree, they're not wrong. But projects like PostSecret seem almost necessary in our pervasively media-driven world. It's easy to feel unheard and isolated when countless TV channels and radio stations clamor for attention, and millions upon millions of tweets, status updates and blog entries float around the Internet. It's a cacophony that grows only louder and more soul-deadening when it's laced with pitches from companies trying to convince you that Axe Body Spray will totally get you laid or that using Miracle Whip is an act of badass rebellion. Closing yourself off to all that is understandable, and being closed off from other people because of this is an unfortunate form of collateral cultural damage.

I understand the role advertising plays in our economy, and I'm not interested in challenging the assertion that advertising is necessary to spur economic growth or to create an aspirational society. I do believe, though, that some advertising folks hide behind that excuse — "We help the economy chug along! We inform consumers of the things they want!" — to impinge upon culture, desensitize consumers, and monetize whimsy far too often.

I'm convinced that what Frank Warren does is utterly remarkable. He's created a hauntingly moving art project that seems to exist for some reason other than to be a vehicle by which to disseminate ads — an unusual thing in an era of product placement in movies, TV, football games and song lyrics. I just wish it weren't so remarkable.

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