Confession used to be good for the soul.
On the Internet, it may be good for business, as well, judging from the proliferation of websites where reading about the errant ways of others provides both online therapy and a bit of voyeuristic entertainment.
At least two dozen sites are active, many launched in the past few months; some give a nod toward repentance, but others are akin to soft porn. What they have in common is their focus on unthinkable deeds, abhorrent acts or secret longings that likely involve sex or relationships, embarrassing moments or inner demons. Some of the revelations verge on the indecent. Others are outright illegal.
"I was just immediately addicted," says Joni Velasco, 48, of Omaha, the single mother of a teenage daughter.
"Men don't understand women, and women don't understand men. Men don't get enough sex, and women don't get enough help with the kids and housework. There is nothing groundbreaking. It's just a confirmation of what we all really knew," she says. "Some of the confessions are hysterically funny, and some are shocking, and some are kind of sad."
Some samples from the sites:
• "I used to be a supervisor at a fast-food restaurant. One day while counting the cash drawer I stole a $100 bill and stuck it in my sock. Ever since that day I stole money by deleting orders. I must have stole at least $2,000 if not more dollars, and not to mention all the food and supplies I stole." — from dailyconfession.com.
•"I think I really hate my husband and I dream of having an affair with someone, anyone I don't care who it is. I'm just really bored with him and I can't stand looking at him anymore, but I don't want a divorce." — from grouphug.us
•"I'm only dating my boyfriend just to get material items from him and I am going to dump him after my birthday. I feel so bad, but he is rich." — from ivescrewedup.com.
Confessions are nothing new in American culture, but today there are many more ways to unload. In the 1920s, True Confessions magazine was an outlet for transgressors to clear their consciences. In the '50s, Dear Abby and Ann Landers offered more than advice; readers could sympathize or chastise others for their wayward lives. Daytime talk shows such as Oprah, Dr. Phil and TheJerry Springer Show thrive on the failings of their guests. Reality TV such as Survivor, Amazing Race, Big Brother and America's Next Top Model have confessional segments.
It didn't take long for the Internet to provide yet another avenue — and an anonymous one at that.
"The word 'confession' is going to evoke secrets and guilt. Everybody feels guilty about something," says Susan Herring, a linguist at Indiana University in Bloomington. "It's a universal term that may trigger an emotional reaction in everyone."
And on the Web, there's feedback. But those who study behavior say a larger issue is at stake.
"It's treating people as objects of amusement or entertainment," says Robert Kraut, a social psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "It leads to a voyeuristic culture, and it seems like there's more commercialization of this voyeurism than in the past."
Online, people feel less inhibited and are more likely to get overly involved in the personal lives of strangers, says Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology at California State University-Dominguez Hills.