2005 was the year that I became a fan. It was a year full of turmoil for me: within a few months I had graduated from college, learned how to bribe Mexican police, started a serious relationship, started a new job, and moved. Quite a lot for a 22-year-old with plenty of education but no real life skills.
And then, PostSecret happened.
PostSecret started out as an art project in 2005 that simply asked people to submit a secret anonymously on a decorated postcard. These secrets were then published on the Internet through the PostSecret blog or in a series of books. No real guidelines were given to participants—they merely had to reveal something about themselves that they had never shared before.
I soon found myself anxious as I waited for the weekend to roll around, specifically Sunday morning, bringing with it a new batch of secrets. I was fascinated with the statements on these cards. Many of the images reflected my own fears and hopes (some I didn’t even know I had) and ranged in topic from secret crushes to quiet crises to guilty consciences.
Over the years, I have been exposed to hundreds of images, but, in particular, there is probably one card that I will never forget. It said, “I wish I had been a better sister than you were a brother. Yours was not the only life you took. I miss you. I hate you. I love you. I am sorry.”
Despite its humble beginnings, PostSecret has developed into a full-fledged community with over 300 million site visits, eventually resulting in a movement with an interest in suicide prevention. Although some members surely embrace this philosophy more than others, the director, Frank Warren, has occasionally mobilized the group in support of the Kristin Brooks Hope Center and its teen crisis line.
We can measure civic engagement by the number of dollars raised for suicide prevention, but we can also think about how this particular community has allowed for the development of an individual’s empathy. This group has permitted members to feel what it means to be a part of a community and surely that has some value in developing the skills necessary for participatory culture. Movements like PostSecret have the power to allow our young people to realize how they relate to others in society.
Frank put forth this idea in the form of a statement followed by a question: “Everyone, no matter how long you’ve known them, probably has a secret, that, if he or she told you, would break your heart. How does this change the way that you interact with those around you?” I ask, “How does this change the way that you think about those around you?”
A year after I saw this image, my friend’s brother killed himself. This card, written by an anonymous stranger, allowed me to connect with my friend in a way that had previously seemed impossible. An only child, I had no idea what it was like to lose a sibling, much less to have a loved one commit suicide. But this card—this image—elicited feelings that are the closest that I will get to understanding my friend’s pain in that moment.
Seeing that card allowed me to engage in a dialogue instead of being scared or overwhelmed. Seeing that card pushed me to work though a script in a space where I felt safe to explore my emotional limits. Being a fan of this community had equipped me to handle this unforeseen situation and gave me tools that afforded action. This, on a very personal level, is the potential power of fandom.
Participation in this community can cause members to undergo a paradigm shift as they see the world through entirely different lenses. My inherent cynic and college admission officer wonders if these sorts of affiliations result from mystique or ambiance rather than inherent virtue. I’d argue that, in some ways, young people have become much better at manipulating their image and that the joining of these clubs can represent a form of brand management; students leverage their brand in order to gain social capital.
Communities of participation like PostSecret develop their own knowledge base but also a common language and a shared understanding. Projects like these brand themselves and their participants as part of a movement—affiliation with the group implies that you have incorporated certain things into your identity.