Some people go to church. Others call their therapists. And then there are those – millions of them – who, when the urge arises to confess the frank, dirty, embarrassing, humbling, and troubling details of their lives, visit GroupHug.us.
Sound crazy? Even Jamaica Plain graphic designer Gabriel Jeffrey, who launched the Web site on a whim in the fall of 2003, never expected that within its first three months, GroupHug would receive 13 million hits. He didn't anticipate that thousands of strangers, drawn to the promise of complete anonymity, would post confessions ranging from the mundane ("I really like the taste of turkey Gerber baby food") to the momentous ("I live the kind of life that lots of others envy, but I think of suicide every day").
Now, a year and a half after its initial meteoric rise, GroupHug is still thriving – and has recently spawned a book, Stoned, Naked, and Looking in My Neighbor's Window: The Best Confessions from GroupHug.us (Justin, Charles; 2004). But Jeffrey's own confession? He's ready to move on to other projects. "My interest in it is done," admits the 25-year-old entrepreneur. "It's like a record that I really liked in high school."
How'd you come up with the idea for GroupHug?
Now and then I'll do some random project. I've been a freelance designer; while I was freelancing, I would do random projects just to keep things interesting. So I'd been wanting to do sort of a community-built magazine, and I thought anonymity would be kind of a cool feature. After distilling the idea, I wound up coming up with the idea of confessions. I figured it was a good, concise way to have a bunch of personal stories that were anonymous. So I thought about it, not really too hard, actually, for a couple of weeks before I just sat down and scribbled down my ideas and made the thing. Total, I probably spent four hours making it.
Who did you originally think would post their confessions?
Oh, just friends and friends of friends. I put it online and sent the link out to half a dozen friends, maybe, and it just started that way.
When did you first realize it was spreading beyond that?
Within a matter of days. I mean, on the first day it was up, there were 30 confessions. The second day there were maybe 50, the third day I think 150. Within a week, I was looking at thousands. Just from the third week alone, there were around 2.5 million hits.
Did you ever feel like you'd gotten in over your head?
Oh yeah, definitely. When I first started it, you would post a confession and it would go immediately to the web site. That worked fine when it was sort of a controlled group, or peers who got it. Very quickly I had to hack together a moderation system; all that did was, somebody would submit a confession, and I would have to go in and approve each one. By the end of the third week, obviously, that became unmanageable. So I got my brother and a couple of friends to start helping me moderate, and at the same time, I put out a little classified ad looking for a programmer to basically work with me for free, to figure out a better way to do it. I actually got, I think, 30 qualified applicants who wanted to do it for free, which was amazing.
Why do you think that is?
Programmers are divas, and they want their name on something big. If that means putting in some free time to build on your portfolio, it's worth it. And by that time, certainly in the web world, GroupHug was starting to be known after a few weeks. A month later I was able to launch the new one with the help of Adam Bregenzer. There have been some refinements since then, but it's really held up pretty well.
What do you think the appeal is? Obviously you didn't expect it to become so huge; why do you think it has?
I think it's kind of the whole package. When I started, I thought it was a terribly original idea, and then of course the first thing anyone does when people start to pay you any attention is to try to burst your bubble. So I got dozens of e-mails saying, "Hey, there's this site that already does that, and that site that already does that." But it was clear after a few weeks that GroupHug, for whatever reason, had caught on in a way that others hadn't.
From a design standpoint, it was very simple, very easy to use. The name, GroupHug, it's fairly disarming, I think. It just felt right to people, fun and safe. It had some serious momentum pretty quickly, and once there was that kind of momentum, it just kept going. I think there was an element of luck, an element of timing, and possibly just having the right friends who had enough friends to keep forwarding it around.
Do you think the popularity of GroupHug goes hand-in-hand with the popularity of reality TV? The whole voyeurism thing?
Definitely. People are eating that stuff up. Everybody wants to be a part of it. For whatever reason, right now the cultural Zeitgeist dictates that everybody wants to be a porn star, and everyone wants to let it all hang out.
Tell me about your encounter with the Secret Service.
It was pretty early on; I think it might've been the same month that I started. I was out of town, and early in the morning I was walking to get coffee, and I got a call from my friend who actually owned the machine that the site was living on, saying that the Secret Service had contacted him, and he'd given them my information. Five minutes later, somebody from the Secret Service called me and asked a bunch of questions about how anonymous is it, what kind of information did I keep? And then they wanted to talk about a specific confession threatening the commander in chief, and if there was any information I could give them. I explained exactly what I did have and what I didn't have, and it satisfied them enough that I didn't hear from them again.
Did that experience make you think, what the hell am I doing?
That certainly made me do a little research as far as my responsibilities with something like this. What I found out, more or less, was that I should be prepared to cooperate.
How do you determine if a confession is real or made up? Or doesn't it matter?
My guidelines have been the same since day one, the guidelines for submitting it and the guidelines for approving it and all that. They're pretty basic. The first one's that it should be a confession. The second and third are basically no violent crimes, no sex crimes. Then no identifying information; it really has to be anonymous. Other than that, it's kind of up to people's best judgment. It's a public-moderation system now, so people sort of vote. I do encourage them to weed out the obvious lies, but that's not so easy. I think the final round of moderation is when people are reading it, and kind of get to decide for themselves. I'm sure there are some really poignant, interesting confessions that are completely made up, but then, I don't know how much that matters, because the point isn't really that this person exists and this exact situation happened.
Aside from the presidential threat, do you ever get confessions that seem dangerous, like someone's thinking of hurting someone else? Is there anything you can do when that happens?
There's nothing I can do. That's probably the biggest dilemma with this whole thing. You can make an argument that because it's anonymous, and because people can post anything, that it's doing more harm than good. But I don't know. If people actually are doing horrible things and confessing about them, they've already done it. I'm providing a public bulletin board. I certainly hope it's not encouraging any kind of unethical behavior.
So you don't ever get confessions from people saying they're planning to do something bad, and then you're left feeling like, oh no, there's nothing I can do to stop this?
That's probably one of the reasons I don't read the thing anymore.
You don't read it at all?
I know initially GroupHug was a spare-time project for you. What were you doing with the bulk of your time then, and what about now?
Then I was a freelance graphic designer. [GroupHug] has never made me any money. Hopefully, the book will make some money. But it's never been a job. As much time as I may have put into it, it was always in my free time. Now I probably spend less time than ever dealing with it. I'm personally moving into a full-time job that's going to really require all of my time. I'm an art director at Arnold Worldwide. So I probably won't have a whole lot of time to coddle my little web baby.
Well, it sounds like you're somewhat bored with it at this point, anyway.
Yeah. The nice thing about the book, for example, was that by necessity I reached a point where I was done with it. Now I just sit back and wait for my millions to roll in. Whereas with something like a web site, it's an indefinite kind of project. I didn't know how long I would keep it around. I've kind of thrown together other little experiments that I got bored enough with to where I shut them down or they just didn't catch on. This one, people are still interested in, so it'll be up, as far as I know, forever. My interest in it is done. I had my fun with it. As far as a social experiment goes, I guess it was a success: it caught on, created a meme. People are still really interested in it. I suppose I'd probably be interested in finding somebody who was more genuinely interested in the topic matter to keep it running.
Who chose which confessions would be in the book?
I did. At that point I was much more familiar with the content than I am now, so I handpicked all of them for the book.
Did you have favorites that had stuck with you?
Yeah, there were a few that I had bookmarked, just because I thought they were particularly funny or interesting. Now none of them stick with me. It's like a record that I really liked in high school.
That you never want to listen to again.
So are you tired of talking about it?
Honestly, sometimes, yeah. I like it when somebody recognizes it, or maybe knows who I am in relation to it. Some people have asked me if it bums me out that it might be one of my major life accomplishments. Not really. I don't expect it to follow me in any kind of negative way.
People are probably asking you to talk about it a lot right now because of the book.
Yeah, exactly. And I'm certainly interested in promoting the book. But as far as the whole concept of the site and all that, I kind of feel like I've talked it to death. I don't have any new analysis on it.
Well, maybe you can talk to me about this: your publisher's publicist says "the concept of the online confessional has numerous social, cultural, and religious ramifications worth exploring." Tell me about that quote.
I think that's probably true. Other people have explored it in far more depth than I have. I've been sent several papers that people have written about it, and some people have written some sort of interesting things in the press. I think what was interesting to me about it in the first place was having a successful project and just seeing what people would do with it. I don't think it has any ramifications, really. People have been doing the exact same thing forever, like messages in a bottle or hobo signs on trains or graffiti or letters to the editor. I think it's one in a long line of people telling stories. I suspect that somebody will do something more interesting with the concept at some point in the future.