Documenting Secrets and Lives: The Web's Immortal Effect

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

When we receive a postcard, we're receiving a piece of someone else's recent past: a photo and some text, sometimes from exciting places, mostly sharing ordinary details about weather, food or how much the person sending the postcard loves or misses us. Though postcards may seem antiquated for those who are digitally driven, most humans still love them. Even in the age of Instagram, it seems we as a species can't shake our love of preserving our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Whether it's through digital or material means appears unimportant.

Preservation, and its partner remembrance, are in part the subject of founder Frank Warren's TEDTalk, "Half a Million Secrets." For those that are unfamiliar, is a blog featuring images of anonymous postcards Warren receives with peoples' often-confessional secrets, thus preserving them for posterity as well as sharing them with a global community. What results today is an archive of human vulnerability, victory, and experience that's grown to over 500,000 secrets.

Some PostSecrets are sad and dark. Many are incredibly happy. Mostly, they simply expose everyday fears and hopes that many of us have but normally keep to ourselves. These are the thoughts we often push to the back of our minds, failing to identify them or unwilling to dive into them. These thoughts and revelations, in their long-kept silence, become like secrets.

It's this last group that I want to discuss, particularly about regarding how documenting and sharing in safe ways can remind us of life's fleeting nature, and urge us to live more lovingly and openly.

One of the secrets in the 'everyday-things' category provides a poignant ending to Warren's TEDTalk. He wraps up his lecture by showing a PostSecret postcard from a girl who writes that she saves voice mails from loved ones in case they die the next day and she can never hear their voices again. Then, Warren plays a follow-up to the PostSecret: a voice mail of the girl's now-deceased grandmother singing her happy birthday and letting her know she loves her. The familiarity of the message is emotionally striking. It also makes technology's powerful ability to save pieces of the recent past for us crystal clear. Who knew something as mundane as a saved voice mail could be such a simple yet profound document of life and death and love?

Perhaps an even more profound example of how seemingly simple actions, when documented and shared and viewed in retrospect, can expose life and death and love came yesterday in the news. During my morning check-in on blogs and sites I follow, I saw the now-viral picture of the Boston tragedy's 8-year old victim, Martin Richard. In the photo, the buzz-cutted, no doubt loose-toothed, and undeniably adorable kid is in a classroom, holding a handmade sign: "No more hurting people. Peace," it says. I was struck by how much it looked like a PostSecret, an essential hope put down on paper, presented digitally to me, preserved for us all.

Like the voice mail, the photo offers a window into moment that, as time progresses and loved ones are inevitably lost, becomes insightful when revisited. And, as in the voice mail, it is profound because of the memory's familiarity. Though we can't feel Martin's family's horrible pain, we are able to better empathize with them as neighbors because an image like this reminds us how precious human life is.

Our major successes, failures, joys and tragedies are perhaps the framing devices of our lives. But what we often see as minutia is what fills our time and defines us. -- Laura Cococcia

In life, we often notice the big things, in our lives, in the lives of others, in the news. Think about how your newsfeed goes crazy every time someone announces an engagement, a new home purchase, the attainment of their dream job. But when someone passes away, it's often the little things -- the secrets, the voice mails, the photos of and about everyday living -- that people remember, the day to day things that get a few "likes." After all, it's the details that make us individuals, and this is why eulogies don't read like resumes in most cases.

Our major successes, failures, joys and tragedies are perhaps the framing devices of our lives. But what we often see as minutia is what fills our time and defines us. The small things are also what our loved ones will probably remember the best when it comes time for them to memorialize us to themselves and the world.

Humans today have lots of practice memorializing. We do it every day. The Internet and social media give us a chance to digitally enshrine aspects of our lives in as pure a form tomorrow as when we first post them today. Unlike postcards, voice mails and digital images don't really fade. Likewise, when we share secrets on postcards that we hope will end up on a website, or provide the world with a photo of a beloved family member after a terrible tragedy, what we're really doing is cementing their memory collectively, meaningfully, and digitally.

While it's easy to see the birthday voice mail and the art class poster as prophetic and loaded with meaning now that the people behind them have both left the world, think of how simple the circumstances of being on the receiving end of these messages might seem to the recipients at the time. I think it says a lot about humans as a species that these are the moments we end up want to share, to let them speak for a life in its entirety, to remember once people are gone.

Ultimately, the thing that ties the grandmother and the 8-year-old together for me is the simple messages of love and peace that they left behind in unguarded and average moments. Picking up her phone to call her granddaughter, she didn't know she'd touch anyone's life, she just wanted to say "happy birthday, I love you." Picking up his crayon to make a poster at school, he probably just wanted to color something nice. Now, these memories of the recent past are important postcards, documents for us all in the present, reminding us of the things that matter, and matter so much, and that make us human in the first place.

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