"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."