In retrospect, it was rather obvious: I was intrigued by Cultural Studies before I even knew what it was. My fascination with PostSecret—a site that began as a public art project wherein people anonymously mailed in secrets on postcards—began in early 2005, particularly timely given that I was just about to graduate from college and was feeling no small amount of anxiety about what would become of my life. Beyond an emotional connection, however, I also loved looking at the way in which the simple declarative statements combined with typography and associated images to produce a rather powerful artifact; the choices that people made in displaying their secrets—these innermost thoughts—fascinated me and I started down my path toward becoming a sort of amateur semiotician.
Over the years, the site has floated around in my head but one of the foundations of the project/website also serves as one of its greatest barriers to study: the anonymous submission process. All postcards are sent to an intermediary, Frank Warren, who selects and uploads the images to the site—this means that the original authors are impossible to study without violating users’ trust (and possibly a few laws). As a result, I cannot ascertain who feels compelled to create a postcard and, at times, that failure troubles me for these are the people who most need support.
I don’t mean to imply that I wish to know exactly who wrote which card but I would love to get an analysis of the demographics for the makers. What types of people feel the need to create cards and send them in? Are these individuals who feel as though they cannot express their voice through other channels? How does the population of makers compare to the population of readers? One might argue that there is likely to be a certain amount of overlap but the very notion that one set is driven to craft something is intriguing to me. And even if we were able to recruit study participants (ignoring likely IRB complications for a moment), we would have to suspect a kind of volunteer bias, particularly given the nature of the material being disclosed on the site.
So instead I endeavor to study the way in which the site and its associated products (museum exhibits, books, and speaking engagements) intersect with, and create, culture. The project raises a number of questions for me, specifically how it reflects our current culture of confession. In particular, I often wonder how the current state of media might have affected the success of a movement like PostSecret.
Growing up, I remember watching the first seasons of The Real World and Road Rules on MTV and was always entranced by the confessional monologues. As a teen, the confessionals possessed a conspiratorial allure, for I was now privy to insider information about the inner workings of the group. However, looking back, I wonder if this constant exposure to the format of the confessional has changed the way that I think about my secrets.
The confessional has become rather commonplace on the slew of reality shows that have filled the airwaves of the past decade and the practice creates, for me, an interesting metaphor for how Americans have to come to deal with our struggles. As confessors sit in an isolation booth, they simultaneously talk to nobody and to everybody; place this in stark contrast to the typical connotation of “confession” and its associated images of an intimate discussion with a priest.
PostSecret, in some ways, is merely a more vivid take on St. Augustine’s seemingly far-removed literary testimony in Confessions and yet also an extension of the modern practice of mediated confession: we hold our secrets in until we get the chance to broadcast them across media channels. We exist in a culture that has transformed the act of confession into a spectacle—we celebrate press conference apologies and revelations of sexual orientation make the front page. Has our desire for information transformed us into a society that hounds after secrets, compelling others to confess the things they hope to keep to themselves? Are secrets worth something only in their threat to expose or reveal? What does this whole practice of secret keeping tell us about the way that we relate to ourselves and to others? We oscillate between silence and shouting—perhaps we’ve forgotten how to talk—and we are desperate to make connections, to find validation, and to be heard. Are we so consumed with tending to our own secrets and revealing those of others that we have, in some ways, become nothing more than a site of secrets? How does this intersect with notions of empathy and narcissism?
These questions are, of course, not unique to PostSecret but I think that the project does offer a slightly different entry point into a community that can be secretive. Moreover, the development of an iPhone app might cause us to reflect on what is represented by the barrier of physically making and sending a postcard—does convenience lower the barrier to what might be considered a “secret”? As of yet, there does not seem to be a noticeable difference between the secrets sent in through the postal mail and those generated by the app but this might be due to the fact that secrets are screened and selected prior to their public display.
The various Occupy movements that have sprung up around the country have an interesting name that certainly harken back to the American practice of the sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. And although those in the movement choose to occupy places with their physical bodies, I also wonder how the very visual nature of Occupy works to demonstrate a claim over space in a different manner. Complementing the drum circles that serve to claim space through sound, we also see a high incidence of banners, posters, and signs.
The signs serve as the nexus of a complicated set of messages: in addition to planting an ideological flag in the ground (which occasionally manifests as a literal flag) for media outlets and in-person viewers alike, the choice of motifs and thematic elements gives us some insight into who the protesters are. Take, for example, the images displayed in the Tea Party rallies and those of the protests against Scott Walker in Wisconsin alongside those of Occupy and we begin to see points of contrast.
And, in a way, perhaps it is no surprise that the Occupy movement is so highly visible, given its roots in Adbusters and the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous—both examples of ways in which images are played with in order to create memorable (and powerful) figures. To this history we add a likely population of individuals steeped in a culture of parody and satire (e.g., The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, Funny or Die, and Saturday Night Live) and one might argue that individuals in this movement possess a visual fluency that differs from previous generations of protest and concordantly deploy their visual aids with a different intent.
Through all of this, I wonder about how our mainstream media outlets manage to keep pace with the recent changes in protests (or hasn’t). As we have unpacked the events of Tahrir Square and the “Arab Spring,” we have come to see that although social media played a role in organizing and dissemination of information, it was not a “Twitter Revolution” in the sense that the movement was born on an online platform. Was the moniker simply something catchy and representative of the protest’s novelty? How much of the name was a desire by the media to collapse the complexity of the movement into a sound bite that could be readily conveyed? Similarly, I think about the media’s efforts to pin down the purpose of Occupy with many voices wondering aloud in the early stages. If we think about the recent set of unrests as a modified form of political protest, how much of the media’s vagueness (or our own for that matter) can be explained by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that our ability to comprehend the world depends on what we have language for? Are we struggling to develop a language for the different ways in which signs, symbols, and images are being used in political protests?