Oct 31, 2008

Lifestyle - When confession takes place online

We all know confession is good for the soul. In the Internet age, it turns out, it is also good for Web traffic. In the past few years, a growing number of websites have popped up offering visitors a chance to anonymously post, read and, in some cases, comment on people's deepest and darkest secrets. Originally secular, the sites, with names like DailyConfession.com and GroupHug.us, have even inspired some pastors to adopt the online confessional to engage congregants.
Some churches' sites, like that of Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Fla., receive regular traffic year-round. Others, like the one from Impact Community Church in Elk Grove, Calif., draw visitors with specific sermon topics. Barry Smith, senior pastor at Impact, started an online confession board last spring to enhance his four-week sermon series on the theme of secrets. The idea, says Smith, "was not so much theological as psychological"--a way to aid people carrying the shame of long-held secrets. For at least two of his congregants, the effort was transformative. A former prison guard--let's call him Jack--had been unfaithful to his wife and says he was feeling "crushed" by guilt. A few days after Jack posted the site's first confession, he broke down at a church service and admitted the truth to his wife, only to discover that she too had strayed. The act of unveiling the secret online had what Jack calls a snowball effect, easing the way for a meaningful conversation. "The heaviness I had carried was almost physical," he says. And now? "It's like we're dating again."
Adherents say that despite the inevitable voyeurs, exhibitionists and fabricators drawn to the sites, online confessions have a fundamental appeal because they assure people that they are not alone in their misery or quirkiness, and for the confessor, the anonymous unburdening can be a first step toward facing up to a painful event. Frank Warren started the original online confessional, the distinctly secular PostSecret.com--which draws 5 million viewers a month--as an art installation in Washington. He handed out self-addressed postcards to strangers and asked them to write and decorate a secret that a) was true and b) had not yet been told to anyone. He ended up receiving hundreds of cards more than he had given out. Warren--who is currently on a speaking tour of colleges across the country and in 2009 will publish his fifth book of secrets since starting the project in 2004--posts 20 secrets culled from the 1,000 he still receives each week, choosing those with a "universal pull." He says he has been stunned by the power of the submissions, which are short and often elaborately illustrated ("I haven't spoken to my dad in 10 years, and it kills me every day"; "When I eat, I feel like a failure"; "I had gay sex at church camp, three times"). Three weeks into the project, Warren says, he posted his own "humiliating childhood event," which he later shared with his wife and kids. "There was something about seeing others have the courage to share their secrets that allowed me to post my own," he says.
To be sure, PostSecret's emulators, religious and secular, do not claim to replace the act of confession to God or sharing secrets with someone you know. In the case of the Catholic Church, which has seen dwindling numbers of members visiting confessionals over the past few decades, leaders have specifically rejected online confession, stressing that the rite, one of seven Catholic sacraments, demands a priest as an avenue to God and to absolution. Still, the sites flourish. In August, after Jack had worked things out with his wife, she was worried about her ill grandfather and took a trip out of state, something she had done numerous times in the past. "Before it was like, yeah, I missed her, but it was also nice to have a guys' week," Jack says. "This time, it was drastically different. It hurt. It was really bad." Which, he knows, is really good.

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