Meditation on Post Secret

PostSecret is an incredibly interesting phenomenon. It hinges on a simple concept- writing a secret on a postcard and sending it to the site’s post office box, so that it is, in turn, published on the site- but the implications for epistolarity and second person address are complex, especially given that many of the cards address an anonymous “you.” On a basic level, the website could be read as the publication of a misdirection- the cards are written to one person and sent to another, who then makes them public, addressing them to a wide and anonymous Internet audience, which may or may not include the original “you.” Yet the intent of the author is, very clearly, to create this misdirection- making it effectively not a misdirection at all. Is this an indirect act of communication with the “you” or a public expression of a personal secret? Can it be both? The eventual recipient (viewer of the site) must reconcile both addresses- one within the text of the card and another within the act of sending- to interpret the communication.

One postcard that demonstrated this contradiction perfectly is one that reads simply “I still write you letters. I just don’t send them anymore,” in the midst of scribbles. This card not only employs the “you” which complicates the address, but also refers to another body of correspondence that is separate but curiously related to the postcard. The author expresses a deliberate decision to transform the correspondence from a sent, “real” exchange to one composed of letters written to “you” but unsent- in other words, the realm of the fictional. At the same time, he/she enacts that change by writing a new form (postcard) to a different addressee (PostSecret), where it nonetheless functions by addressing the “you” that the author claims is no longer valid as the addressee of the correspondence. This triangulation (author- “you”- Internet viewer) upsets the binary of sender/recipient normally found in epistolarity.

The site subverts a number of other distinctions associated with epistolarity as well. The binary of online (virtual) vs. postal (“real”) correspondence is upset by the online publication of “real” postcards (sent through U.S. Mail). Each postcard, addressed to the administrator of the site, is literally virtualized to be published to a greater audience. The distinction between secret and public knowledge is also destabilized; indeed, the draw of the site is this exact contradiction in the event of publication- the public revelation of a private secret.

Gerald MacLean* has noted that, ““Whatever else they may be, letters are not and never can be an entirely private exchange involving only two people. Letters may contain or reveal secrets, but they can never themselves be secrets.” The act of sending is never private, although parts of the letter may be kept so. The postcard , however, collapses the distinction between public and private entirely. A traditional letter, sealed in an envelope, can only contain a secret because it has an interior space that some may access and others may not (or if they can, it is only by intrusion or violence). This convention even carries on into virtual correspondence- each email is represented by a symbol in the inbox, but the message can only be accessed by “opening” the file. The postcard offers no such protection- it lacks even a symbolic division of interior/exterior space realms so that the message and address are literally on the same plane.

Yet the postcards sent to postsecret do not demonstrate a total erasure of privacy- they do not necessarily reveal the secrets they display to those who are addressed as “you.” By the redirection of the postcard to a third party and on to anonymous publication, the secret is paradoxically both revealed and kept. This anonymity is not only preserved by the site’s administrator, but also by the use of the incredible and ambiguous “you” the authors employ. Pronouns are by design “shifters” (Jaksobson), because they can be shifted from person to person depending on their positions in a given speech situation. However, it should be noted that “you” is often particularly ambiguous. The pronoun “I” refers to one person, the speaker, but “you,” in English at least, may used in formal or informal address and be ascribed to singular or multiple addressees, or even a single addressee within a group. You is also most often ungendered, in contrast to third person pronouns. This ambiguity enables PostSecret to exist and continue to be an interesting source of triangulation in second-person address.

*MacLean, Gerald. “Re-siting the Subject.” Epistolary Histories. Ed. Amanda Gilroy and W.M. Verhoeven. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. p.177

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