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.
"As a society, we're finding our intimacy or sense of knowing people deeply in different places than we used to," says Joel Robbins, chairman of the anthropology department at the University of California-San Diego. "You could know intimate details about people who aren't your close friends and aren't your family. It's a little bit of an illusion, of course, because you don't know them as people."
A feeling of togetherness
Cyberspace has created confusion, says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, whose recent work focuses on the relationship between humans and technology.
"We don't know when we're alone and when we're together anymore," she says. "We're looking for a feeling of being together with people, and confession leads to a communion with others."
But those who seek validation or virtual absolution also risk negative reader reaction, Rosen says.
"It can be very cathartic to disclose, but it depends on the comments. You can get hurt," he says.
And then there's the issue of dishonesty among the tell-all tales. Are they real or just fabricated to titillate?
"We assume when people are speaking confessionally, they are speaking the truth," says Tom Beaudoin, an assistant professor of theology at Santa Clara University in California. "That's why these confessional websites have so much power — because they're playing with the truth."
Rachel Burke, 26, of West Orange, N.J., says she's a private person who doesn't share much with her friends. But she has used online confession sites twice — both times to share good news — and she says the positive feedback made her feel good.
"I guess it's thinking 'I'm this small, insignificant person, and these people that don't even know me chose to respond to what I had to say,' " she says.
"Wow! Some stranger responded to me. I matter. I'm important."
'A little bit fun and sinful'
Burke and others like her are fueling increased interest in these sites. A shopping confessions video contest just wrapped up at shopandconfess.com, which will announce Dec. 13 the winner of $20,000 in cash for the best 30- to 60-second shopping confession. Toronto-based romance publisher Harlequin Enterprises Limited compiled online confessions to fuel its 2008 romance report on confession, to be released in January.
Harlequin editor Marleah Stout says confession is "a big part of the social landscape right now. It was edgy and felt a little bit fun and sinful to talk about this."
Romi Lassally of Pacific Palisades, Calif., has taken the confession franchise and run with it, launching a series of niche sites with the word "true" as the common element.
Truemilitarywivesconfessions.com is the most recent, premiering last month.
"It's entertainment combined with real self-help," she says. "We have dark thoughts. All people have very active inner lives, and I think people have been conditioned to think that if they have bad thoughts, they're bad people. I think this is about coming clean and saying, 'Life is complicated.' "
Marion Koleski, 31, of Portage, Mich., reads the new military confession site; her husband retired from the Marines last year.
"It's kind of like romance novels. It's a guilty pleasure. You recognize yourself in some things you'd perhaps maybe not rather admit to," she says. "It's kind of self-congratulatory — 'but at least I didn't.' It's commiseration and maybe a little air of superiority."
Confession websites overall have too few visitors for the minimum counts monitored by Internet tracking firms, but Lassally says her sites generate more than 100,000 unique visitors a month.
"As a group, it is growing, but it's growing from a very small number," says Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at New York measurement firm Hitwise.
He says among almost 20 confession sites reviewed, there has been a 139% growth in online traffic in a year's time.
A trailblazer in these sites premiered in 2000 as dailyconfession.com. It gets about 200 confessions daily. The 4,500-confession backlog is because the statements are vetted before posting, says creator Greg Fox of Orlando. He says every confession is reviewed for content with light editing for typos. Sexually graphic statements or gratuitous foul language are not posted.
Most of the sites encourage reader comments, but ivescrewedup.com does not.
Troy Gramling, pastor of the non-denominational Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City, Fla., launched the website to coincide with a teaching series on confession over Easter weekend.
Since then, the evangelical church site has generated more than 12,000 confessions and has logged almost 200,000 page views.
Most of the confessions are about sex.
"Sex is a big deal in the sense it's everywhere," he says. "It's only natural that if you have a confession site, that's what a lot of people are in bondage to — a lot of sexual experiences."
While Gramling's site is affiliated with his church, traditional confession among Roman Catholics (known as "reconciliation") seems to be declining.
A poll of 1,260 U.S. Catholics last spring by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., found just 2% receive the sacrament once a month or more; 14% receive it once a year; and 42% do not receive it at all.
There's an overall greater tolerance in society, which on the downside also has translated into a diminishing sense of sin, says David Roozen of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
"It's easy for them to convince themselves that what they did is not that bad," he says.
READERS: Where do you confess and why? Online? To a priest? To family and friends? Share your experiences.