Frank Warren of PostSecret and Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen discuss the instability of sudden Internet celebrity
Hannah Hart: What were you doing before you started PostSecret? How did you think about PostSecret before the internet caught it?
Frank Warren: I always had this interest in post cards. I also had this entrepreneurial spirit where I liked being in control of my own projects and not having a boss. And that’s not where I was at the time when I started PostSecret. I was doing this monotonous job that was boring and dull. I actually should be thankful for having a job that dull, because otherwise I probably would’ve just gotten into my work. This way I had to find other outlets for being creative, doing something meaningful, finding something different and special. On the weekends after work I would pursue these postcard projects. And PostSecret was one, not the first one, but it was the one that really caught fire.
HH: What was the first one?
FW: I had this project where I was putting postcards in a bottle and throwing them in this lake. I did that every Sunday for a year. It was kinda cool because looking back, what was so special about that project was how it got picked up by the media. Local media did pieces on it, it was picked up by Washington Post, AP picked it up, there are some television pieces on these mysterious bottles. What do they mean? Where were they coming from?
HH: And here you were: the guy, the man behind the mask…er bottle.
FW: It was this piece where people could kinda understand it any way they wanted to. So that led me to PostSecret. I had ideas for other postcard projects too but this one just stuck and it has so much depth so I keep mining it.
HH: If you think about an approach, I wonder if anybody opened bottles and took out the message, and how many people put the message back in and threw the bottle back out, or wrote their own message. I think that that is what’s key about PostSecret, and that’s why the project has taken off. People are contributing and people are joining the conversation. But where did your interest in postcards come from?
FW: When I was in 4th grade I went on a church sleep-away camp for a week. Before I left my mom gave me three postcards that she had self-addressed to our house and she said ‘If anything interesting ever happens put it on a card and mail it to me’, and I said, ‘okay mom.’ And the whole camp of course was life-changing brutality and humiliation, real sexual stuff.
HH: A kid spit in my eye.
FW: You know what happens at camp.
HH: I woke up there’s another little boy in my bed what happened? Whats going on?
FW: Every night crazy stuff was happening, but I didn’t write my mom about any of it until the last day when I thought ‘oh I’ve got these postcards.’ I knew I had to mail them back because she put the effort in. So I did, I wrote something like, ‘everything’s great see you soon’ and put them in the mail pouch to be delivered back home. The next day I got back home and then a couple days later I was checking the mail and I received these postcards that I had written. It created all these questions in my mind about ‘what would I put on a postcard if I could send it to my future self or my past self or this idea of home?’ Just the power that postcards can have and so that always stayed with me. In fact a footnote to the whole Post Secret project is that when the first book was being printed was being put together, I wanted to put those three postcards from summer camp in it and tell that story. I contacted my mom and she didn’t like PostSecret at all. so she didn’t send me the postcards. That was her form of protest. But eventually did send me the postcards around when the 5th book was coming out.
HH: She was like ‘Okay. I see that you won’t give up.’
FW: You know what it was actually? I was on The Today Show with Meredith Viera. When Meredith Viera was interviewing me, she was very positive about the project, so that completely turned my mom around and she became a fan because of that.
HH: Your mom wasn’t seeing it as a legitimate thing until someone she respected…
FW: There’s something about ‘a prophet is never recognized in his home.’ My wife and my daughter, they don’t care about PostSecret, they just see husband or dad, and then I leave and go someplace else and there is sometimes an area of celebrity or speaking and it’s a totally different thing. Sometimes you have to leave your parents before you can be recognized for who you truly are.
HH: Honestly, that area of celebrity, that really intimidates me. I went to a bar the other night, last night, and I kept getting recognized, and it makes you, it makes you a little bit more self-aware. And of course I love it and of course I’m excited about everything that’s happening, and of course I like the fact that I’m reaching out to people and they’re reaching back to me…it’s great. But in my personal life, whenever I go out to a bar to catch up with friends, I’m really self-conscious about the topics I’m talking about or how loudly I’m talking.
FW: What are your best and worst experience in terms of being recognized?
HH: Well, the free drinks have been abundant. Obviously.
FW: That makes sense.
HH: I got a package from troops in Afghanistan, I can’t say who they are because they’d get in trouble for sending me this, but it’s their MREs and they said ‘we wanted to show you what we eat everyday so we sent you three packs of MREs.’ They sent me a picture of their squad they all signed, they sent me a little medallion.
FW: Do you get asked about money? People say ‘You spend so much time on this, it’s great, sure, I love it Hannah, but how do you make money?’ Don’t people ask you that? I find it kind of annoying myself. My website has gotten like half a billion hits, if I wanted to make money I would have ads all over the site.
HH: It’s difficult because…
FW: Nobody “discovered” us, I think that’s the key thing. In the past everybody had to be discovered.
HH: Yeah they get discovered and they get a team of people coming and they’re like ‘I’m gonna manufacture you into something. Here’s fame I’m giving it to you because I can make money off of that.’
FW: There’s also a lot of risk in that. You’re probably getting all sorts of temptation right now. I bet you can recognize some of the ways right now you’re being tempted to sell out but some of the things you probably can’t recognize. Because our learning curve is so steep.
HH: Way to make me paranoid, Frank.
FW: No, you need to be paranoid. Paranoia’s your friend. I made a lot of mistakes early on that I would’ve done things differently with.
HH: Like what? Anything in particular?
FW: When I signed for my book contract with PostSecret. PostSecret was one of the very first blogs turned into a book, so we had to do a lot of convincing and no one really understood the value. That’s what we do, we see value in ideas that people don’t. Whether it’s in a new kind of writing or sharing online…
FW: [laughs] Drinking, telling your story… I feel like in that world, just like the art world,
there are the technicians who can follow the rules very well and produce something that everyone expects, and there are the artists, those who produces something new. Maybe that’s what you’re doing. You’re challenging the ideas of who can create this work and what it can be, and that’s the most exciting place to be, but it’s also the scariest.
HH: I’m petrified of the future. What happened to me happened so suddenly. I wasn’t aiming for it. So, I’m scared it’s gonna disappear, I’m scared I’m gonna make the wrong choices. I’m playing in an arena I have no experience in whatsoever. I’m wary of just being the drunk girl. That’s a big fear. It’s interesting because there is something that is absolutely sacred about it to me, which is that its okay to be silly and free and have these moments. It’s unexpected truths, unexpected epiphanies. But I was in meetings with TV people in L.A. and they were like: ‘we think you should do my drunk laundry machine and my drunk pool and my drunk this and be the official drunk girl.’ And I remember being like ‘No. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in comedy, I’m interested in truth, I’m interested in relaxation and people letting themselves go and letting their hair down a little bit because it’s a safe place to do it.’
FW: Well there’s the temptation right? You’ve got very important people whispering in your ear that they can do this or do that for you. So its easy to say okay I’ll just be quiet and follow what you’re telling me to do. And you wind up doing exactly what they want you to do and you serve their purpose but you don’t serve the value of your idea in the long run, you don’t serve your community in the long run. You don’t share that special part of yourself that only you have a chance to do in your life.
HH: As television stands today, you can’t drink and be on TV. In America you cannot have actual drunkenness on television. It would immediately change the nature of the show because I would have to fake being drunk.
FW: What about cable?
HH: No cable networks really offered me anything. [laughs] I can’t get speaking engagements. No colleges, no advertisers, no one wants to sign on with ‘drunk.’ Even alcohol, big alcohol names, they want ‘my drinking kitchen.’ Just don’t call it drunk. Alcohol doesn’t make you drunk if you drink too much. You just get sexier.
FW: So what’s the next step for you? What would you like to do? Where do you see yourself going?
HH: I love MY DRUNK KITCHEN. It’s fun and I want it to stay how it is which is authentic and real and true. I want to get drunk in a kitchen and make a bunch of jokes, talk bout life, edit it together, and send it out to people. That’s what I want from that and any step in a direction that would make me ‘more money’ or make me ‘more famous’ involves me letting go of my control over that expression.
FW: What about in terms of performing?
HH: I’d love to perform. I’d love to host. In high school I hosted every talent show because you never had to rehearse, they let you do whatever you want.
FW: And your strength is spontaneity.
HH: Yeah, and in high school, I had two jobs, that first job at the video store and then at the ice cream store. There was no ‘I’m gonna be in the school play, wow, I’m a star!’ But with the talent show it was like I could have this dream. Like I get to be on stage and suddenly everyone’s like ‘Go for it, kid!’
FW: I’m kind of an emcee too. Everybody mails me these postcards and I sort them and assemble them and share them back out and tell the stories. There’s something of value to finding out whats special about you and connecting that with other people. So if you have other people come on your show that allows you to leverage whatever talents you might have, maybe it’s interesting people at a table, some drinks, and you just converse.
HH: That would be amazing. You know I’ve asked WME about that, they represent people across the spectrum and I would love to talk to their clients on camera, but the agency said no one would want to. So many actors and actresses are afraid of being that loose. So to have My Drunk Kitchen be a space of a real dialogue would be a different tool for them. Because they don’t really have any opinions they can express without checking with agents and managers. I feel like you’re a lot more free, to be honest. Once they say something, they’re stuck with it.
FW: With the Internet, I think the value of the live event is going to increase. The live event cannot be pirated or replicated. An album can, a movie can, a book can. Everything else can. Live events are special moments that are gonna ascend in value.
H: I completely agree. I think the phrase ‘This event will not be recorded, via video…’ or something like that is going to become very significant. Because it will make people, force people, to return back to this point, to be more present in their lives. To be like: ‘I do wanna go see that because I’m going to have that moment.’ The Internet makes things seem like they exist forever but maybe sometimes they shouldn’t.
F: For PostSecret events I always have posted ‘no pictures no video’, so if audience members stand and share a secret their privacy is protected, and now I’m thinking that adds value by saying that. I’ve never thought of it that way.
H: Now they want something that’s easily replicated. People want me to make one My Drunk Kitchen a week. And I don’t want to do that, and I cant. It would start to take away from the authenticity…
F: …be forced, be compromised…
H: If I’m making one My Drunk Kitchen a week I’m not…
F: Who’s they? Who has the power to tell you what to do?
H: …the reason My Drunk Kitchen works is because it’s not forced, I’m not doing it for anybody except the people who enjoy it.
F: And sometimes you can’t do it until you’re inspired to do it, if you’re forced to do it doesn’t happen. It’s not the same thing.
H: I’ve done some forced episodes, those are the episodes I don’t like so much. Some producers are likw: ‘This kid stumbled on a good joke. Do you want to buy this joke? It’s a great joke. Buy the joke!’ I don’t need someone to buy the joke! I have the Internet, I’m my own boss, I’m selling the joke. You want to help me do more? Maybe we can work on something else together.
H: So you mentioned another postcard project that you were trying to do, but Post Secret has been so creative, and so successful. Do you see it indefinitely being Post Secret?
F: There’s something about PostSecret that has allowed me to go into depth with this project, to drill down deeper, it started with the website but there are books, there are speaking projects, there’s a museum exhibit…
H:…there’s an app!…
F: It’s funny because the app just in some sense failed. The app was released four months ago. It was the number one app in the Apple Store in America, Canada and Australia when it broke. We sold over a quarter of a million copies. But we had to close it down last week because of content that was malicious and bullying and gruesome.
H: Well did you have to close it down? Or did you make that choice? Were you told to do it or did you decide to do it?
F: We chose to do it. So the app would allow you to share secrets with a virtual community. All these are secrets you can tap on and look at the secret, go from secret to secret.
H: And you can take a picture and type onto it right?
F: Right so you could take a picture, type your secret and then share it to the community. And we were getting 30-40 thousand secrets shared a day. And it was pretty phenomenal. I would’ve designed it differently now because there were some people who abused the app and worked hard to bring it down. And they succeeded. But it really was something special.
H: Well who came to bring it down? What’d they do? Using it to bully people?
F: Well we were getting 30-40,000 secrets a day and less than one percent of the people submitting secrets were submitting pictures of hardcore child pornography, images on the web that are unbelievailable, pictures of dead babies, decapitated heads, bullying people, there were threats made against moderators, other users, my family. So we tried to pre-screen the secrets, where every secret submitted had to be looked at by a moderator before it could be shared, but we’re talking 30-40k a day, it was untenable. So we had to close the app down. There were 17, 18 year-olds using the app, probably preteens using the app, breaking the rules but using it, so we had to make a decision about it and we decided the best thing to do in the interest and spirit of PostSecret was to close down the app. But having said that it wasn’t a bad experience. The app had a very short but important life.
Now there’s a Post Secret play I’m working on right now that I’m really excited about, so there’s something about finding other platforms for the same material that allows it to find a different expression and take advantage of that whatever platform it is and do new things with the idea that I’m really excited about. But like you, I have the freedom to do something with a much greater risk, but that’s a scary thing to do when you have to take that step out there. Where we are right now it’s very comfortable.
H: Its like the sweet spot. You’ve approved of this thing, that’s nice, I guess I’ll keep doing this thing. But in the end regardless of how precarious this position is, we’re risk takers. It’s comfortable, I’m safe doing this one thing. But life is about growth, life is about change. That’s the most natural thing to do. Staying stagnant, staying the same? That’s unnatural. That’s why one-trick ponies fail.
F: Well I’m kind of an Internet romantic. And I’m confident in the future there will be 100, 1000, 10,000, ideas just as potent and special as PostSecret telling other people’s stories, finding a new way to share our story, and I’m happy to be on that journey. For me personally, the project hasn’t just brought meaning into my life and intimacy with strangers and a sense of community, but also it’s been the most financially rewarding work I’ve ever done, which is crazy because for the 20 years I had my own business I was dedicated to this work that was supposed to bring money into my household. And it did, my business was lucrative and thankfully when I started PostSecret I was in a place where I didn’t have to make decisions about PostSecret that were just about generating revenue, I could make decisions about Post Secret that were in the interest of the project.
H: That’s a fortunate position. That helps.
F: If I’d been 25 maybe I would have had ads on the PostSecret website every week. For me it was helpful because I think those ads would’ve discouraged people from sharing their secrets with me or being open.
H: How do you not get sick of it?
F: In some ways I feel like I’m just the right person to be doing this because I never get tired of the postcards. Its been seven years and every day I’m going out to my mailbox too early, before the postcards even arrive, just to check and open because I want to see them. And part of that is because I don’t have a lot of intimate relationships with people, but this is a safe way to do that at a distance that is meaningful for me and allows me to express myself in a way that maybe my experiences as a child made it difficult to. And maybe that’s what art is, trying to satisfy those very natural primal urges that we have that have been repressed.
H: Absolutely. I myself am not an alcoholic, but there are plenty in my background. And in some way, when shooting The Kitchen, I feel able to say the things that I imagine their hearts wanting to say, ‘This is who I am. I’m frustrated by this, I’m happy about this, I’m trying, I’m failing, I’m trying again.’