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|August 27 - September 2, 2009
with secrets they can’t tell friends, an online refuge
by David Accomazzo
In 2004, researchers asked more than 1,000 Americans a simple question, and the results shocked nearly everyone: 25 years ago, people had more friends.
The results, published in 2006 journal article called, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” stated that, on average, Americans have slightly more than two trusted confidants, down from nearly three in 1984.
Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that as the popularity of Web-based social-networking sites increases, people are beginning to express their innermost problems and feelings not to a trusted friend, but to an anonymous online audience.
That’s the premise behind BuffSecret.com, a website created by University of Colorado graduates Craig Durham and Zach Cohn.
The two have created a website targeting CU students encouraging the perpetually lonely, the hopelessly nerdy, the painfully shy and the tearfully bored members of the student body to come together online and reveal their secrets for an anonymous Web audience to read and discuss.
The website offers a simple palette for self-expression. Users choose from eight different colors and nine different fonts and can upload a picture as a background. The results can be plain, poetic, artistic and sometimes petty, but as word of the website spreads, universally they’re becoming one more thing: popular. What started as a whisper of an idea shared between two friends has amplified into a localized phenomenon attracting more than 1,000 students a day seeking to browse the secrets of others and, by doing so, maybe discover insight into their own, as well.
“That’s the appeal: people showing up and reading secrets and you don’t know who’s writing it, but they’ve had the same experience and you can share that experience and not feel so burdened by it,” Durham says.
The story of BuffSecret.com begins with a muse. By summer of 2008, Cohn and Durham had become die-hard fans of Postsecret.com, the site that eventually would inspire Cohn’s and Durham’s creation. Frank Warren, the site’s founder, passed out thousands of postcards with his address and asked people to write their deepest secrets and send them to him. Five years later, people still send him postcards, and he scans and posts a select few on his blog once a week.
“We were fans of the website Postsecret, and our friend had turned us on to it. We’d go every Sunday and were frustrated that there weren’t more secrets,” Durham says.
They talked over the phone about making a localized version of Postsecret.com and discussed ways they could improve it. Specifically, Durham thought their site should be easier to use and the secrets easier to submit.
“The big thing for me was the ability to upload secrets instead of having to mail them in,” he says.
They bought the domain name, and as they traveled back to their homes in the northeast after graduating, they talked to a Web developer who agreed to make the site for cheap. Soon, BuffSecret.com was up and running.
“We thought it would be a fun thing,” Cohn says. “[At first] it was just our friends doing it, and it was just so funny. It hadn’t gotten scary and sad yet.”
In February, Cohn gave a handful of fliers to his little sister, a CU student, and told her to hand them out. They saw a bump in traffic and an increase in secrets submitted to them. Encouraged, they came to Boulder and spent a week promoting the site. The overwhelmingly positive response they received convinced them to quit their jobs back home and move back to Boulder and devote themselves full-time to the site. They crashed on couches and worked tirelessly at promotion, and by May, more than 1,000 people were visiting the site daily.
As the site’s traffic increased, something changed. The secrets posted to the site became darker, expressing not just humor but sadness, frustration, torment, regret. People had begun using the website as a mouthpiece for their own personal demons, and to Cohn and Durham, the results were unexpected and frightening.
“We were naive in that we didn’t realize that the nature of secrets is dark,” Cohn says.
They both felt unqualified to deal with the searing mental-health problems that were surfacing in the secrets submitted by strangers, and so Cohn made a call to the Jed Foundation — a mental-health and suicide prevention nonprofit aimed at college students — and reached Anita Schillhorn van Veen, the organization’s online and interactive programs manager.
“Zach called me and had some questions about mental-health issues,” she says. “I heard what they were doing and was really excited.”
She encouraged them to enter their website for consideration for one of the Jed Foundation’s annual awards, and BuffSecret.com ended up receiving an honorable mention for the foundation’s Student Voice of Mental Health Award.
“I think that the therapeutic benefit is really powerful,” Schillhorn van Veen says. “I think for people who are visiting BuffSecret, it’s really helpful to see that they are not alone, as well as that other people are harboring their secrets about their feelings, and they can see and identify with other people who have put their problems out there.”
One of the pieces of advice the Jed Foundation gave Cohn and Durham was that all they could do was provide distressed users of their site with a path to find help for their mental problems. The website now contains a “Support” tab linking to various suicide hot lines and counseling services, even a site promoting meditation.
The secrets contained within BuffSecret.com are a colorful kaleidoscope offering sparkling bits of insight into the minds of unhappy college students. In one untitled secret, a lone Marine in full uniform leans on his rifle resting on the ground, looking outwards from a bluff overlooking the San Francisco Bay towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The text stretches wistfully over the entire picture and reads, “I blame / myself / for you / joining.” Another begins, “I found God while I was rolling a joint with Bible paper,” and another says, “I LOVE BILL O’REILLY.”
Site user and CU student Celia Anderson said she likes the variety and that the broad spectrum of secrets is part of what keeps her coming back to the site.
“Some stuff is really, really funny and some stuff is really, really serious, so you get the best of both worlds,” she says. “You definitely have your fair share of crap on it, too, but that’s what makes it so funny.”
Her favorite, she said, expresses succinctly the community and shared experience that make her love the site. It reads, “We’re all very busy being alone tonight — I’m glad I’m not alone in it ;) And it’s a beautiful night, at that.”
The identities of the secret posters and the commenters are completely anonymous. So it can be a little strange to read a secret about sex or relationships and notice that the comment section contains two or three responses replying to the secret in the first person, as if it were directed towards them. For example, one secret saying, “I’m sorry I bit you last night,” elicited three responses:
“So is my nipple,” “I liked it!!!” and “that’s ok, it was fun.” When asked why this occurred so frequently, perhaps as a result of some exhibitionist or narcissistic tendencies of the commenters, Cohn guessed maybe people just didn’t realize how many people used the website or maybe that there was something therapeutic in responding to a secret that struck home emotionally. After all, sharing a secret for others to read is somewhat a performance in itself.
“If you post a secret, what the website has done is give a person a small stage and a small audience,” Cohn says. “I wouldn’t call it narcissism ... [but] self-expression.”
Cohn and Durham screen all the comments and secrets before posting them on the site to prevent unnecessary vitriol from hitting the site. They won’t allow comments they consider unconstructive or secrets that negatively generalize a large group of people.
“We don’t want to be posting a secret that could inspire someone to become anorexic,” Durham says.
“People are sharing what is often a sensitive, deep part of themselves and we don’t think it’s right to make fun of them,” Cohn says.
Cohn and Durham are now trying to turn BuffSecret.com into a full-time enterprise. Durham, now living in Boston, is starting a version of BuffSecret.com for the colleges in his area, and plans are in the works to get sites launched in Vermont and Missouri, as well. Durham and Cohn have maintained the site out of their own pocket so far, and they are hoping local businesses will pay for ad space following an upcoming redesign. They are optimistic their idea will catch on at other colleges.
It is ironic that young people today, who find themselves with fewer friends, are finding solace and companionship in the impenetrable anonymity of the Internet on sites like BuffSecret.com. However, Frank Warren, whose website PostSecret.com inspired Cohn and Durham’s site, told National Public Radio that the increasing availability of new forms of communication are more likely to bring people together than pull them apart.
“I am so optimistic about the Web in general,” Warren said. “I feel that these new tools of communication, like Twitter, blogs and social media, allow us to have new kinds of conversations — conversations that have never been possible before, conversations where we can hear unheard voices and share untold stories that hopefully, in the end, help us understand them. Even though someone else’s secret is individualistic like a fingerprint, there’s this deeper unity that connects us all that sometimes we forget about in our everyday lives.”
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