Thursday, December 13

Deep dark secrets on World Wide Web


Internet users connect on anonymous sites for posting personal confessions and stories

The postcard bears a crayon sketch of a chili pepper with the words: “I eat spicy foods so that it will hurt on the way back up.”

Anonymously submitted to a Web site, this secret is among hundreds of thousands being circulated in a recently emerged market for human connection via Internet anonymity.

The newly minted “un-secrets” speak not only to our collective soft spot, but also to our need to reach out to strangers in hopes of finding community.

We crave empathy in a world that is filled simultaneously with a mass of new communication options and a deterioration of human understanding.

The aforementioned secret was made public on PostSecret.com by Frank Warren, who conceived his “community art project” in 2004. He haphazardly distributed self-addressed postcards, inviting strangers to send a personal anecdote to him.

Three years and over 140,000 postcards later, Warren’s Web site has surpassed its 100 millionth hit. “A Lifetime of Secrets,” the project’s fourth book, hits store shelves today.

His success is striking ““ even admirable ““ but not entirely unique.

Since the PostSecret project, the Internet has become a veritable minefield of hidden truths that people find not only captivating but also intrinsically unsettling.

Why is the world so desperate to turn its secrets into confessions?

Armen Berjikly, founder and CEO of ExperienceProject.com, a site that hosts not only confessions but also a wealth of personal stories and interactive groups, marvels at the “beautiful question” that is the role of secrets in society.

The anonymity of his site “satisfies a need,” in that, as Berjikly said, “It allows people to connect in a genuine manner ““ not because someone just wants to increase their Facebook friend list by one.”

Some of the secrets submitted to both Web sites are graphic. Some are heartbreaking. There are cries for help and calls to action.

It is a complicated situation, and perhaps the only number equal to the quantity of secrets that have been revealed is the number of possible reasons each one was submitted.

Some seem to be trying to stave off loneliness. Only a few weeks ago, Warren posted an e-mail response to a secret lamenting the lack of phone calls the sender receives. According to an article on ArgusLeader.com, the message, which contained a phone number, resulted in over 250 calls in two days.

Other secrets or confessions do not so much ask for anything as they carry a sense of exasperation.

In these situations, the sites offer a solution to the dilemma of finding oneself boiling over with the need to reveal a secret but having no one to share it with.

If a single reason for submitting a secret must be identified, all of the secrets concern the senders’ reconciliation with their life experiences.

Berjikly describes the confession portion of his site as a collection of “visceral, bite-sized” posts that are intended to be a “baby step to further interaction.”

It is an interaction that occurs with people who have profiles with false aliases (Experience Project prohibits users from using their true names).

The fact that relationships can be built without even knowing another’s name hearkens back to the nature of human understanding.

Apparently, we do not connect through hometowns or profile pictures but through reliving the pathos that we all feel ““ cathartic joys, extreme pain and lighthearted in-betweens.

This is why, while the reasons one may have for submitting a secret may be as varied as the colors of Warren’s postcards, there seems to be one overarching reason why we read them.

The secrets remind us of our common investment in humanity.

Ironically, they often do this through recounting experiences that are, at best, hyperboles to those of many who read them.

As Warren said, the cards themselves are “different, unique, like a fingerprint, but at a deeper level; the emotions are something we all share.”

In a world where an anonymous profile on a Web site might convey more about someone than their family could ever guess, we must not to fall ignorant to the struggles and elations of those around us.

After all, if we do, we may become the subject of one of Warren’s more disconcerting secrets: “I have tried telling you all I need help. But none have listened.”

Tell Makarechi your secret at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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