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Secrets can take many forms: Frank Warren at TED2012

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“Hi, my name’s Frank, and I collect secrets.” That’s Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret.

He started with a crazy idea. In November 2005, he made 3000 postcards with simple instructions. It was blank on one side, and on the other instructions telling them to write an anonymous secret and mail it to him. He passed the postcards out randomly. It took off. People began to buy the postcards — they began to make their own. Secrets began arriving with postmarks from all over the nation, then the world.

His crazy idea didn’t seem so crazy. PostSecret is now the most visited advertisement-free blog in the world, and there are many, many secrets. He shows a photo of his wife, stacking bricks of postcards on a pyramid of over a half a million.

Then, he shares some secrets.

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“I give decaf to customers who are rude to me.” This one, says Warren, shows the creativity of secrets. It was mailed in on a Starbucks coffee cup that someone had cut apart and addressed to him.

“Dear birthmother – I have great parents. I’ve found love. I’m happy.” 

“Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.” (There is a profound silence in the room.) Says Warren: “Secrets can remind us of the countless human dramas, playing out silently in the lives of people all around us.”

They can even be personal to him, as audience members at a different talk sent him, “Your mic wasn’t off during sound-check. We all heard you pee.”

“Inside this envelope is the ripped up remains of a suicidde note I didn’t use. I feel like the happiest person on Earth now.”

“That Saturday when you wondered where I was, well, I was getting your ring. It’s in my pocket right now.” That one was a proposal from a man who read PostSecret every Sunday with his girlfriend. They later sent Warren a postcard showing her answer: “Yes.”

“One of these men is the father of my son. He pays me a a lot to keep it a secret.”

Secrets inspire others. “I found your camera at lollapolooza this summer. I finally got the pictures, and wanted to give your camera back to you.” The camera never made it back, but it inspired something else: I Found Your Camera, a simple website by Mathew Preprost, where people are reunited with their pictures. Warren read a letter from a woman whose camera was returned after four years — including photos of her son’s birth, and of her then-ailing grandmother.

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“When people I love leave voicemails on my phone I always save them in case they die tomorrow and I have no other way of hearing their voice ever again.” When he posted this secret, dozens of people sent voicemails from their phones, some that they’d been keeping for years. (Sniffles in the audience, from all around.)

Warren repeats a phrase from earlier in his talk, “Secrets can take many forms. They can be shocking, silly, and soulful. They can connect us with our deepest humanity, or with people we’ll never meet again.”

And he finishes by playing a voicemail, a message from a grandmother to a young girl, the last time the girl heard her voice. In the message, she sang a happy birthday song. (The audience was in tears, as was the host, June Cohen, and this author.)