Secret Machines


PostSecret—an elegantly engrossing gallery of hand-illustrated postcards mailed in by unnamed contributors, each purporting to reveal a genuine personal secret (“He’s been in prison for 2 years because of what I did“; “I wished on a dandelion for my husband to die”)—is an online confessional the same way The Sopranos is a primetime crime show. Beloved of NPR, the New York Times, and other tony outlets, PostSecret gets its upper-middlebrow props not for perfecting its somewhat disreputable genre (God forbid) but for transcending it.

Which admittedly it does. Where other varieties of online confession (from the routine self-disclosure of Web diaries to the more insistent soul-baring of anonymized bulletin boards like tend to emphasize the deed or thought revealed, PostSecret’s formal constraints, as the Times‘s Sarah Boxer recently observed, require its confessors to attend equally to the aesthetics of their revelations. The requirement pays off. One postcard’s stark Braille lettering turns the unremarkable confession it encodes (“god is the only one who loves me no one on earth does”) into a grave, poetic distillation of loneliness. Another handwrites two clauses (“I considered pressing statutory rape charges,” “just so he’d regret breaking my heart”) on separate scraps of college-ruled paper pasted over the faces of a prom-night couple, a 5×4-inch mininovel of adolescent misery.

No wonder Boxer shakes her head at the breathless fans whose feedback, posted on the site, extolls the postcards as windows into the souls of their fellow humans, free of artifice and “fakeness.” Yet Boxer’s more sophisticated admiration for the sheer artfulness of the secret-tellers comes no closer to getting the point. Like all online confession worth paying attention to, PostSecret thrives on the ambiguity of digital communication itself. It’s a double-dutch dance between the astonishing intimacy and the inherent fictionality of any online connection.