Search engines which have long provided answers to the topics people prefer not to ask fellow humans are now showing the precise questions that are most frequently asked.
Google and Bing are giving everyone a chance to peer virtually over one another's shoulders at private curiosities.
The questions come from a feature that Google calls "autocomplete" and Microsoft calls "autosuggest". These anticipate what a person are likely to ask based on questions that other people have asked, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.
"Your search engine is your best friend, and you talk to it about everything, even things you might not talk about to your real best friends. It's a way that search engines reflect society," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers the search industry.
Nick In't Ven, senior program manager at Microsoft's Bing search engine, said that the returns reflect the collective curiosities of its users. He could not say how many times people have to type in a question for it to dominate the feature but said that for popular single terms, like "Facebook", it is well into the millions.
Search engine experts said they cannot rule out that the phenomenon is the result of some bug in the system, but they added that it seems very unlikely.
One category of question comes up with puzzling frequency in autocomplete - whether a certain person is gay: Is Elton John gay? Is Paul Ryan gay? Is Michael Bloomberg gay? The question pops up often, too, when starting searches about George Clooney, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, actress Ellen Page, Genghis Khan, several cartoon characters and even the Pope.
"We base it on experience, what users have asked about around the world. We're trying to reflect the world's collective intentions. If people wonder whether other people are gay, that is the collective intention, and we abide with it," In't Ven said.
The development of the autocomplete feature reflects the insatiable demand for speed among computer users. A reason the search engines offer the service is to cut down on misspellings, so web pages can be delivered more quickly and accurately. But another is to help people just feel as though things are moving faster, saving them the time of typing a few extra words, the paper said.