WALNUT CREEK, Calif.--There probably aren't very many people in the world who could inspire someone to stand up in front of a crowd of 800 strangers and admit to a World of Warcraft addiction.
It might sound like a joke, but in the case of Frank Warren, the founder and curator of the ongoing PostSecret project, people are always baring their souls to him, either via the privacy of an anonymous postcard or letter, or in the case of his many public speaking engagements, in front of hundreds, or even thousands, of people they've never met before.
For four years, Warren has been collecting the secrets people send him--about a thousand a week, he says--and putting the most interesting of them up on the PostSecret blog, as well as publishing them in a series of best-selling books. A major theme of the project--which has millions of fans around the world--is helping people unmask their personal pain through the simple step of letting the secrets they've held inside out for the first time.
Many of the people in the the sold-out crowd at the Lesher Center here Wednesday night cheered wildly when a 39-year-old woman stood up to admit to her WoW addiction, apparently thinking she was joking. But really, it should have come as no surprise that she was deadly serious.
"My secret really is that online gaming really is an addiction," the woman said, "and it can destroy (families), and I think people should know that."
Over the four years of the PostSecret project, Warren has become what some have called "the most trusted stranger" in the world. And over those years, despite the fact that his project has an extremely altruistic nature--there's no advertising on the blog, even though its 220 million-plus page views would certainly earn a fortune, and the sales of the four best-selling books supports the National Suicide Prevention Hotline--many corporate entities have come to him asking if they could work together.
In almost every case, Warren has said no, regardless of the financial carrots offered him.
Most recently, HBO asked if it could use some of the secrets sent to Warren as part of a marketing campaign for its "Big Love" show about a polygamous family in Utah. But he said no, and since then, HBO has been operating its own site, called "Web of Secrets," where people can anonymously post secrets, which are then sent out via a Twitter feed.
I've been watching that feed for a couple of weeks now, and though many of the secrets that come through every 30 seconds or so express the same kind of pain and anguish and longing and loneliness as the postcards that Warren puts up every Sunday on his blog, and which appear in the books, those that are part of "Web of Secrets" are missing something. They seem kind of fake, and it's hard to believe they're real, even though most of them probably are.
"Have the confidence to be vulnerable"
Warren said he wasn't surprised when I told him that Wednesday night.
"You can't replicate the trust I've been able to engender" over the last four years, Warren said. "As long as I don't screw that up, I don't worry about" other secrets projects.
It probably has something to do with the fact that Warren himself is someone who comes across as trustworthy, and as someone who seems to share the same kinds of pain that most of us feel. And there's no way that entering text into a field on a Web site can replicate the personal expression of writing an emotional secret on a postcard and sending it to a Maryland address where an actual human being--Warren--will get it like he has so many thousands of others.
And that's especially true when it comes to helping people feel safe opening up their hearts in front of sold-out auditoriums.
"My mantra is, 'Have the confidence to be vulnerable,'" Warren said. "If I can do that, it gives people in the audience the confidence to be vulnerable."
On stage, Warren comes across as extremely vulnerable, even though he's been giving more or less the same version of his PostSecret talk for quite some time. He's a gentle man, and during his talks, he tells several secrets of his own. He is funny, open, and yes, vulnerable.
A big part of his standard talk is to go through a series of his favorites of the secrets he's received over the years, projecting them on a big screen from his computer. But backstage before getting up in front of the audience, Warren always spends time flipping through a tin full of postcards that he brings with him just in case.
"They're special, and I always carry them with me," Warren said. "They're backups in case something goes wrong" with his Mac during the presentation.
But despite his preparation for Mac meltdown, Warren professed to being an Apple loyalist, and said he had, in fact, just bought two new Macs.
"One of the things I like about Apple," he said in his backstage dressing room before his talk, "is (its products') minimalism."
Listening to the secrets of others
Due to a bit of a snafu, I ended up ticketless for Warren's Wednesday night talk here, and so, after talking to a few people, I wound up sitting in a dark room backstage where I was able to watch him speak on a monitor and listen to him through large speakers set up in the room.
It was strangely disassociative, listening to his words, and then the words of the many people who came up to microphones in the auditorium to share their own secrets. I've seen Warren speak before, and watched as a couple of dozen people stood up, like the woman admitting her WoW addiction, and open up their hearts. Seeing them do it brings context about them.
But only being able to hear their voices, and not see them, was odd. It was like their secrets were on postcards and I was hearing them narrate those hidden words.
Warren said that he usually speaks in front of audiences measured in the hundreds, most of whom are women. Indeed, Wednesday night's event here was just that.
But he said his biggest-ever audience was at last March's South by Southwest Interactive festival, where about 2,000 people crowded in to hear him speak at the Austin (Tex.) Convention Center. And that talk, he said, due to the nature of SXSW, which is a technology conference, had the gender mix turned on its head.
I was in the room for that talk, and the emotions bared that day have stayed with me ever since.
One of the most beautiful things about it was that the first audience member who spoke surprised us all by publicly proposing marriage to his girlfriend. It was an awesome moment, and the woman accepted. Warren said there's even a video of that moment on YouTube.
And then, witha big smile on his face, he told me Wednesday night that he got an e-mail from the man a couple of weeks ago, inviting him to the wedding.