One of the most popular blogs tracked by Technorati (currently #14) is PostSecret. It’s a “community art project” where people anonymously submit their secrets on postcards, and it’s quite compelling, in an emotionally voyeuristic kind of way. You find all the juicy stuff you’d expect to find: confessions and accusations of infidelity, descriptions of other real and imagined transgressions, proclamations of love, self-destructive and suicidal thoughts, blasphemy. There’s also funny and just plain weird stuff.
The name PostSecret is pretty straightforward, but also unsettling in a way that’s appropriate for this material. There’s just something a little strange about it. The issue is ambiguity, and the way it complicates the structure and pronunciation of the name.
The big culprit here is the word post. It has not one, not two, but three meanings that are pressed into duty in this name. First there’s the meaning that makes this word a synonym of mail, which we find in the expressions post office and, of course, postcard. Then there’s the meaning that we use when we talk about posting to our blogs. Finally, there’s the meaning that we find in expressions like postmodern.
These three meanings tug us in different directions when we’re trying to combine post with secret to make sense of the name. Matters are complicated further by the fact that secret is both a noun and an adjective. We might think of the name PostSecret as being analogous to postcard, in which case secret is a noun that replaces card. We might try to think of post as a verb, but then the name would be more natural if it were PostSecrets or PostASecret or PostYourSecrets–the bare noun secret just doesn’t fit. Finally, we can think of the name as being like postmodern, in which case secret is an adjective, and the post- prefix suggests that these things are no longer ordinary secrets once they appear on the site.
When we interpret this name as being analogous to postmodern, we are likely to want place the main emphasis on the first syllable of secret. But the prevalence of compound names creates a pressure to treat this name as a compound, like postcard, and put the main emphasis on post. An internal struggle ensues.
The postmodern-like interpretation of the name is the most complex and satisfying. Just as postmodern doesn’t simply mean ‘no longer modern’, but rather describes something after modernism that incorporates and/or reacts to a modernist perspective, PostSecret seems to indicate a new type of thing made possible by the web: freely shared “secrets” that are secret only in the sense that they can’t be connected to individual people. These deep dark “secrets” take on a new life when viewed in the aggregate–patterns emerge, people’s common preoccupations are revealed, and things start to seem a little less dark, if not less deep. As the Name Inspector’s spouse says, “Well, we live in a post-secret age, don’t we?”.