Misery Loves (Cyber) Company

Lonesome web users are getting intimate with their search engines, taking literally the classic advice offered by know-it-all netheads – “Google is your friend.”

Hundreds of wandering souls have formed an ad hoc support community by each typing into the popular search site the same heartfelt expression: “I am lonely.”

The confessional query takes searchers to a page titled “i am lonely will anyone speak to me” at MovieCodec.com, a forum for digital-video enthusiasts.

An anonymous lonely heart first started the thread with the statement of solitude almost a year ago. Now, thanks to the way in which Google indexes pages, the forum has become a sanctuary for the terminally lonesome, who have co-opted the site with almost 1,500 posts and 70 pages of downbeat stories.

“I used to have a big family and now am down to a few aunts and uncles,” wrote one contributor, nicknamed rampage85, in a typically sorry tale. “The friends I have had moved on and got married. I must have done something to deserve this.”

But many whose loneliness has drawn them to the forum have found solace in discovering they are not so alone in being alone.

“It is a sad thing that there are so many of us that will type ‘I am lonely’ on Google,” wrote another. “But the happy part is now we have a chance — if anyone is sad, if anyone is really lonely, drop me a line; then maybe we won’t be so lonely anymore.”

MovieCodec.com, which lets participants post anonymously, has become a kind of pseudo-Samaritan. But Bjarne Ljundgren, the site’s Danish webmaster, said he had not expected his forum would become the web’s top hangout for lonely folk.

“The website is about video and audio codecs, editing and conversion — that this topic has gotten this amount of popularity has surprised me a lot,” he said.

“Like-minded people tend to flock together and, in this case, Google helped in flocking them together on my site,” he added.

Ljundgren, 27, conceded he was a “shy, reclusive type” who finds it hard to make friends and that he, too, has posted to the community about his own solitude. The thread is high in Google’s index because it uses code optimized by Ljundgren to make the site easier to crawl by spiders like Google’s.

But the creation of the “I’m so lonely” community owes just as much to the new and strange ways in which some are beginning to use search engines. Website referrer logs reveal secret searches that show how some are regarding the leading search site as a friend, and not just a tool.

Dan Stecz, a New Jersey supermarket stocker, said his personal website regularly receives traffic from Google users mysteriously asking: “Are you there?

Stecz used his site to document an experiment called “Jenny, are you there?,” in which he tried to trace the main character in the Tommy Tutone song “867-5309/Jenny” by calling that number in every U.S. state.

“I have no idea what type of people were entering these searches, but I was dumbfounded to see the results,” he said.

“‘Are you there?’ doesn’t have much of a reason for being typed into a search engine,” said Stecz. “If they were trying to find a person via the net, I would think that they would use their name.”

Some searches are even more heartbreaking. New Yorker Chris Conroy said his site, Do You Feel Loved, is constantly getting hit from people asking Google “when will i be loved?

“Sometimes, I even get e-mail from people feeling lonely and unloved, despite the fact that my site is clearly a personal blog largely about comics and music, and not an advice column,” he told the MetaFilter community weblog.

“I’ve gotten a couple of -emails around the holidays that are just heartbreaking — I feel like I can’t write back without making the person feel stupid — they (must have) thought I was some kind of therapist.”

The web is a veritable couch for the distressed because it offers an anonymous outlet for negative emotions, according to professor Mark Griffiths, a researcher in internet psychology at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University.

“There are a lot of lonely people out there,” Griffiths said. “Some people rely heavily on technology and end up treating it as an electronic friend, a sounding board — just writing it down can make you feel better.

He added, “That doesn’t change their psychological world at that moment, but creating a kinship with like-minded people can help. You’re all in this virtual space together.”