Sitting down in front of her computer, Becky Hart took a deep breath and began typing. After 20 minutes, with her heart racing, she pressed Return, then sat back and cried.
A few months earlier, in April 2014, her fiancé Glen had died suddenly at their home. Now Becky was seeking comfort, but not from friends and family. Unable to tell them about the bitterness and resentment she was feeling, she was pouring her heart out to complete strangers online.
‘After Glen died, I put on a brave face. I’m naturally bubbly and I didn’t want to upset or burden anyone,’ says Becky, 26. ‘But it became overwhelming and I struggled to cope. Then I came across Pencourage.com, a website for people to share their innermost thoughts anonymously. That was the start of my healing process.’
More than 10 million words have been posted to Pencourage since it was set up in the UK two years ago. Conceived as an ‘anti-social’ network to expose the difference between what we say online and what we actually think, it has amassed over 26,000 entries, with the average user spending 42 minutes on it daily – the longest of any social media site.
Users write an entry of up to 200 words, with names and emails private to everyone including the website’s staff. Others can comment and ‘like’ posts, and trolling is rare – surprising, considering posts often include topics that usually whip online bullies into a frenzy, such as infidelity or confessions of low self-esteem. One woman even wrote about the guilt she’d suffered for 30 years after her best friend died in a car crash where she was the driver.
It’s the complete opposite of other social media platforms, in which humblebrags and over-sharing are the norm – so why has it taken off? Pencourage founder Peter Clayton says: ‘There is a real need for a safe space to preserve and share the true chronicles and lessons of our lives. There has never been more over-sharing in the world, but little of it is of value. It takes seconds to put up a Facebook post, but when you look back, how much of it was real? How many posts were actually a true reflection of what was going on in your head? Spending some time writing your real thoughts is a great way of being honest and having integrity.’
Becky and Glen, 29, an engineer from Southampton, UK, had been together for two years and were planning their wedding when he suddenly fell ill early last year.
‘Glen had been having heart palpitations for months and the GP told him to cut out caffeine. But a few months later he had a heart attack in our living room as I was putting our eight-month-old daughter Skye to bed,’ says Becky, who is also mum to Naomi, seven, from a previous relationship. ‘I dialled 999 and paramedics came quickly, but they were struggling to resuscitate him. I was taken with Skye in another ambulance as they worked on Glen, but by the time we arrived at the hospital, doctors told us, ‘‘Nothing is happening. We have to switch off the machines”.’
Becky says, ‘There are no words to describe the shock and grief I felt. The next few weeks passed in a blur as I struggled to get through the day. Friends and family rallied around, but my world was completely shattered.’
During the grieving process, Becky found herself fixating on the empty chair where Glen used to sit and play video games. ‘I couldn’t seem to explain how I felt to anyone in real life,’ she says. ‘Then, two months after Glen’s death, I stumbled across Pencourage on the internet. I sat down and started to type. The words came pouring out of me.
‘I wrote about my anger that he’d wasted so much of his life on that chair, when we had such little time together. I missed him so much, but also felt resentful our life wasn’t as good as it could have been. Readers reacted much better than I thought they would and came up with good advice, like focusing on getting through one day at a time and remembering all the good memories we’d shared.’
Opening up helped Becky come to terms with her grief much faster and encouraged her to see a counsellor, something she’s not sure she would have considered before. ‘Without a doubt, it was a turning point. It helped me to deal with how I was really feeling,’ she says. ‘I never could have opened up like that on Facebook, simply because it’s not anonymous.’
According to British social media expert Sofie Sandell, the rise of anonymous online confessions is fuelled by a human desire to connect with others. ‘For all the ways we connect through social media, we can end up more disconnected than ever,’ she says. ‘With confessional websites, we have a place for genuine honesty. Many of us simply don’t have enough people in our lives to confide in. Writing heals, and collecting your thoughts can help you make up your mind on what to do with an issue. Many people in crisis need a listener who will not judge them.’
Judy Body, 51, an administrator from Axbridge, also turned to Pencourage hoping to find compassion. She spotted an article about confessional websites while reading a magazine during chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer in 2013 and went online.
‘I was single at the time, so I didn’t have a partner to talk to, and although I’d spoken to friends about what I was going through, I found myself just repeating the same things,’ she says. ‘Because you have to keep your posts to a concise 200 words, it helped me to get to the heart of how I was feeling. I’d vent in detail about my colostomy bag, then its removal and my subsequent treatment.
‘By the end, I’d written 160 chapters, and others said I was helping them with their own struggles, which was such a privilege. I’m cancer-free today and have the support of my partner Paul, but I still write on Pencourage occasionally. I’ll never forget the hope it gave me when things seemed so dark.’
Like Pencourage, hugely popular smartphone apps have also sprung up, encouraging users to post short, anonymous messages. Yik Yak allows people within a 10-mile (16km) radius to view others’ confessions, while Secret lets people share messages anonymously within their circle of friends, family and friends of friends. But the biggest is Whisper. Claiming to publish around 2.6 million anonymous messages a day, it hit the headlines last year after US soldiers returning from Iraq turned to the app to express their suffering. “Right now, my heart is breaking in pure pain as I question if I really fought the right fight. I am crying as I write these words, knowing I’ve lost good men there,” wrote one.
The confessional craze has not been without its pitfalls, however – even for celebs. Last year, an anonymous posting on Whisper claimed that Gwyneth Paltrow was cheating on her husband Chris Martin with Hollywood lawyer Kevin Yorn. Gwyneth’s publicist denied the rumour – but also admitted he didn’t know what Whisper was – and Chris and Gwynnie “consciously uncoupled” shortly afterwards.
According to social media experts, online anonymity can be a double-edged sword: as well as letting people reveal their true selves, it can also encourage deception or bullying.
‘Anonymity can feel powerful, in that we can say things online we wouldn’t say to people’s faces,’ explains Sofie. ‘It’s important to remember that by posting online, we are inviting a response, either good or bad. If you’re feeling vulnerable and write about something that’s causing you suffering, there’s no guarantee how it will be received.
‘At the moment, sites like these may appear supportive, but trolls will undoubtedly rear their ugly heads. People need to consider how to deal with negative reactions – especially at such a fragile time.’