This Mysterious Website Generates Weird Short Stories About Phone Numbers

The unsettling text may have a simple explanation—what’s interesting is what it says about us as readers

The Internet is a strange labyrinth. It can be beautiful, and terrible, and downright bizarre. There are corridors you can stumble down without remembering how you even got there in the first place. You can set off looking for Tessa Thompson’s birthday and end up elbow-deep in time travel theory on Wikipedia. Or you can try to Google a phone number and end up on a site filled with a disjointed, ever-shifting short story.

When you go to http://5613273737.phonesear.ch/ — where the ten-digit number can be swapped out for many functional phone numbers — the first three sections you see are standard. Phone number, location, phone company. But below these is a section simply labelled “Comments,” filled with hundreds of words of text assembled like a short story. Each sentence, sometimes two, stands alone, jumbled into paragraphs with unrelated sentences.

Some are mundane: “The logs are being floated down the river. This road needs to be repaved.” Some, taken together, are biting: “I want you to think about what really matters to you. That was a good joke. Tell us another one.” And some — especially the outward-facing sentences that seem to speak directly to the reader — send a chill up your spine: “His eyes are glowing. Is anybody looking for you?”

Sometimes, pointed messages stand out in their own paragraphs:

“Time is up now.”

“If you see this message, write me.”

“I feel like I can tell you anything.”

Each time you refresh the page, a whole new batch of text generates. “We actually have four legs. Are you supposed to be here? He was reconciled to his fate.”

Some seem to be pulled from novels, short stories, or creeds; I spotted the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety, sentences from Tolstoy and Donne, and a line from a Ralph Waldo Emerson journal. There are references to modern-day politicians and direct questions. When you search many of the sentences, you realize that they’re being pulled from translation websites, example sentences lifted and then scrambled.

But some sentences only appear here, or on one of the 200+ different urls that redirect to this website. “Call Vic and Phiroze this evening” is unique to the site. Disturbingly, so is “If the Americans hire you to kill children in Iraq, that would obviously make you happy, right?” And this strange piece of vampire lore: “With adequate lighting, one can easily discern Nosferatu, with his pointed incisors and extremely long-limbed fingers, known as arachnodaktyly, from common vampires.”

On Reddit — as is always the case — users scramble to construct theories. Many people seem to agree that the texts are compelling, evocative, even poetic, and that they would make great writing prompts — but surely they’re not there for inspiration or literary value. So what are they? One wonders if there’s a code to be broken inside the text. Another thinks it’s a sign of a neural network getting just a little smarter, or the beginning of the end for us via the singularity.

The texts would make great writing prompts — but surely they’re not there for inspiration or literary value. So what are they?

The real answer is (probably) the most straightforward of the theories: text spinning. Started in the mid-2000s as a way to trawl for Google hits, this SEO technique tricks search engines into thinking that the site is full of actual content. The more unique text you have, the higher Google’s algorithm will put you in the search rankings. There are four banner ads on the phonesearch website, spaced in between the phone number, the location, and the phone company; on a laptop, the comments aren’t even visible unless you scroll down to look at them. Each time you refresh the page, the text shifts, and whoever owns the website gets a little bit more ad revenue.

But even with a simple answer, there’s something about these texts that refuses to unravel itself. Why write original sentences? And why does it sometimes seem like the text is speaking directly to you, like a prophet or a prisoner sending messages between the lines?

The explanation behind the text is ordinary human ingenuity (or greed), but the breadth of reactions to it tell a much more fascinating story — and one more psychologically and existentially complicated than “people will believe anything.”

More than one Reddit user, after reading the text, has become convinced that the program has listened in on their phone or text conversations, uncovering their names or the names of people in their lives. “Creepy AF… there’s something weird going on,” writes Herbert16. One user, Em-Cee-Cree, is convinced that each generation of the text began to circle a little closer to their own life. “If you keep refreshing and reading, eventually you will see something familiar,” they say.

And they’re right — but it’s (hopefully) not because the program is watching your every move. We see ourselves and feel seen in these uncanny paragraphs of texts for the same reason that we remember all the times our horoscopes were right but forget the times they weren’t. It’s the confirmation bias of a Rorschach test, a Buzzfeed quiz, a certain song coming on the radio at exactly the right time. We tend to slot new information directly into our existing opinions and worldviews, discarding the things that don’t fit and pocketing the things that do. When we take an online quiz and the answer doesn’t fit, we shrug and move on to the next one; when it does, we’re pleased that it could understand us so intimately. When we read five hundred words that don’t apply to us, we think it’s strange; when we come across one sentence that does, we’re struck with fear that the algorithm is studying us.

We see ourselves and feel seen in these uncanny paragraphs of texts for the same reason that we remember all the times our horoscopes were right but forget the times they weren’t.

Is the jolt of recognition we feel when we skim the words of this website and see ourselves a sign of our own self-importance? Not exactly. Identifying patterns is a basic human trait, our way of creating order out of randomly shuffled images or sentences. We’re better at it than most animals, and in many ways, even than machines. We’re wired to tie everything together — and tie everything to ourselves — in a web of connections, like red string on a corkboard. An article in Frontiers in Neuroscience calls “superior pattern processing… the essence of the evolved human brain.” Recognizing patterns literally keeps us alive (eating brightly colored frogs will kill me), but it also allows us to solve complex problems (how do I react in an emergency?) and form bonds with each other (Sarah loves kettle corn, so I’ll bring her some tomorrow). It makes us feel secure in the way that we navigate the world. It also, not for nothing, helps us tell stories to ourselves and each other.

The specific bias at play with the scrambled text is called subjective validation, which means we quickly draw lines between ourselves and unrelated events if these events relate back to our own lives — like when you reblog a chain post that tells you you’ll get money soon and then your tax rebate comes through. Did you give yourself money by putting the chain post on your blog? Probably not. This is directly adjacent to the Barnum effect, which primes us to accept a statement as true if we’re told that it’s been tailored to us.

In short, the phone lookup texts aren’t just good writing prompts; they’re tiny crucibles for our ability to project ourselves into words, our storytelling instinct. The human brain wants to find patterns where they don’t exist: we see shapes in clouds, faces in the backs of chairs, a winning streak in a casino, or a personal message in a wall of randomly generated text.

To steal a phrase from The X-Files: we want to believe.

Belief is what sits in the center of the Venn diagram between knowledge and mystery, and these dueling impulses are both at play when you look at the text on this website.

We want to be certain of something in a world that seems to be built on uncertainty. We assemble clues from scraps hoping that something will tell us, definitively, that we’re doing the right thing. In the past, people have sought oracles, rolled bones, looked inside the guts of animals, opened books to random pages, tallied numbers, peeled apples, watched the movement of children and animals. And today we flip coins, take quizzes, or hit the Wikipedia “random article” button until we find something that means something to us. We have always been desperate to know.

We assemble clues from scraps hoping that something will tell us, definitively, that we’re doing the right thing.

But we don’t just want a straight answer; we want a knowledge that matches our own biases. I wanted to know the meaning behind the creepy, generated text on this website, but when I discovered the answer, I found myself disappointed.

There’s something about a mystery — about knowledge withheld — that draws and captures our attention like nothing else. At first glance, religion might seem to be a solution to people who are searching for answers. But at the heart, many religions are really about the process of interpreting a central question. In Christianity, it’s called “the mystery of faith,” a phrase to describe the impossible possibility of Christ’s death and resurrection. “Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water,” says C.S. Lewis, “but thick and dark like blood.” It’s opaque. In Judaism, asking questions is necessary to the practice of faith.

We do want to know — but we also want to wrestle. We want things to be connected so that we can unravel them.

Our lives tend to be devoid of the kinds of mysteries or conspiracies that we love to read about. In this absence, we’ve begun to create them. Not only do we read about mysteries, but we also build ourselves games to give us the chance to solve them, to go through the motions of being a very specific kind of a detective — one that really only exists in the realm of fiction.

We frantically search for clues in escape rooms, embark on scavenger hunts, and order packages to our homes that tell us it’s up to us to solve the case. We bring mystery-solving into the physical space, where making these connections thrills us and unites us.

This eye for mystery can lead people to make fascinating connections; more than one cold case has been closed thanks to Reddit sleuthing. But the tendency to bend something “creepy” into a full-blown conspiracy can have real consequences: in 2017, members of the “My Favorite Murder” Facebook group became convinced that something suspicious was happening on a woman’s Facebook page, reaching out to her family members to ask if she was being abused until she spoke up to ask them to stop. And on a larger level, malicious conspiracy theories have stoked dangerous stereotypes and caused real harm to innocent people.

Maybe the strangeness of the stories that the phone lookup website creates doesn’t have to dig this deep. Maybe it’s just raw curiosity, or the humor in the unexpected way each sentence pairs with the ones around it. The site is what you make of it. But maybe the comments section on the site is more than the sum of its parts in the same way that an algorithm can make art that moves human people. Maybe it doesn’t matter how a certain phrase or sign comes to you in a certain moment; maybe it just matters that it comes to you when you need to hear it.

As the algorithm says: “Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. Jamie is wearing a party hat.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER ADVERTISEMENT

About the Author

More Like This

“Infinite Detail” Imagines an Apocalypse Many of Us Long For

Tim Maughan and Annalee Newitz discuss whether a world without the internet is a dystopia or a utopia

May 13 - Annalee Newitz

What If Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy Were a Teenage Steampunk Vampire Platypus?

Our favorite "Pride and Prejudice" variations imagine Darcy as a pirate, dragon tamer, AI, and more

Apr 24 - Erin Bartnett

Welcome to Electric Literature’s New Website

Like any self-respecting ten-year-old, we've gotten a facelift

Mar 22 - Halimah Marcus