The anonymous nature of the internet has lent itself well to indiscriminate levels of frankness. Often, this manifests in strong opinions or even cruelty. However, another (more touching) offshoot has been communities of secret sharing, where users flock to reveal their most embarrassing, shameful, painful, and sincere thoughts and experiences.
PostSecret is perhaps one of the most popular of these, but is not the only refuge for those taxed by something unspoken. The reddit r/confession was noted by Mashable for its members’ candor. Secrets range from everything as trivial as one poster feeling guilt for releasing a pet snail to those as heavy as one poster regretting keeping his baby.
Disclosure is uncomfortable for most people, so the success of these communities may seem counterintuitive. What function can broadcasting a secret serve?
The feeling of isolation because of secrecy is not a new one. The ways in which we can cope with it, however, have been revolutionized. Anna Poletti states, “The knowledge-power formation of confession mapped by Foucault…where subjects confessed to an individual who had the power to heal them by hearing the truth, has undergone a kind of democratization.”
Sites like PostSecret and the confession subreddit fill the human need to be heard and understood on a new and distinctly modern level. For those without a trusted ear, it goes beyond the step of writing a secret down. Poletti explains that a site like “PostSecret demonstrates how the form of the confession is used to normalize a structure of feeling—relief, a feeling of being seen and recognized for who one really is.”
In layman’s terms, this means that the internet has brought the catharsis of disclosure to the masses, but with the safety net of anonymity. Initially, not knowing the identity of a poster would seem to detract from the power of confession. However, as Poletti explains, the key unifying factor isn’t knowing the person behind the secret; it’s knowing another person has a secret, suggesting, “the authenticity of the [PostSecret] postcards is secured through two distinct strategies: materiality, and the discourse of confession.”
While some secrets may be melodramatic or distinctive (affairs, transgressions, assault), the underlying thread of many confessions resonate across lives and experiences. “Many secrets in the project are about the failure of the individual in relation to normative concepts of a (Western) life: home, heterosexuality and its attendant institutions, work, financial security, friendship, and love.”
The power of these communities isn’t confined to the digital sphere. At PostSecret shows, users have even proposed to their significant others. Many have walked into stores and left physical postcards in the physical copies of PostSecret books, hoping others will find them. Digital confession translates to offline action. On the main PostSecret page, there’s a permanent link to suicide hotlines, and users have written describing how PostSecret prompted them to get help, or even saved their lives. Poletti explains the importance of the online confession: “a very simple subtext is clear here—we all have secrets, and our secrets can kill us.”