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Online friends can be lifelines for the unemployed

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Last July, Jenny Hong of Columbia, S.C., realized that being unemployed was very isolating. She would send out résumés and apply for jobs online, but sometimes long periods would go by without much human contact, other than with her immediate family.

She decided to start a website called Unemployed-Friends.com so other people in the same position could talk with one another. Now, Ms. Hong has more than 3,000 registered users and thousands of "guests" who visit each day.

"The goal of the site is to keep a positive attitude, to stick together and support each other," Hong says. "But I didn't think it would grow like this."

With the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent and the number of long-term unemployed at record levels, the Web and social media are becoming a new lifeline – sometimes a medium through which the jobless can bolster one another and sometimes a way that potential employers can see a person's skills and talents. Compared with the last recession in 2001, there are now many more ways for the jobless to electronically hang out, tweet their US representative to ask for expanded benefits, or monitor job boards.

It's important that the unemployed flock together to keep their spirits up or even vent their frustrations, job experts say. Many have been through difficult job cutbacks, and after months of unemployment, some struggle with a loss of confidence.

"After we've lost a job, we turn inward on ourselves and wonder what we could have done differently, and feel that part of our lives have been taken away from us," says Leslie Hild, a vice president at Right Management in New York, a career-management division of Manpower Inc. "So being able to talk to other people in the same situation helps you understand you're not the only one this is happening to. Interaction is really important."

Chat sites on the Internet field plenty of cries for help from the unemployed. In December, on a forum on Yelp.com, a Chicago-area woman named "Andrea" remarked that since she had lost her job, which had been some time before, all her friends had disappeared.

"I don't have money to go out anymore and I guess I'm a downer," she writes. "My Facebook posts consist of me saying, 'Hey, I'm still out of work, keep me in mind.' "

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Andrea's comment resulted in a long "conversation" on the website, which is better known for its consumer reviews. Some participants admonished her to try to be more positive, while others said she should blame the economy, not her friends. The conversation string ended with Andrea saying she was trying to stay positive, but was finding it hard to smile when things were bad – "like can't-pay-your-rent bad."

Support from friends, even if they are online friends, is important, say people who have been out of work. Becky Blanton of Richmond, Va., says her online conversations with friends helped take away a sense of desperation.

"Employers can smell it on you," says Ms. Blanton, who figures she has tried dozens of jobs and was recently hired as a blogger for Change.org.

For some of the unemployed, social media can be the way to alert friends to their job search – and can also lead to actual work. Take Lisa Travnik, who as a Detroit resident used LinkedIn and Facebook to let friends and associates know she was looking for work. She moved to New York, where she ultimately heard about a public-relations job from a college friend.

"I think all the jobs I've had have been from networking, perhaps from a recommendation," she says. "Very rarely have I had to rely on cold calling, which I don't think works very well."

In the new-media age, many job candidates have set up their own blogs. Last year, Laura Zanzal, now in public relations, started 89thandbroke.com, which highlights bargains in New York.

"It's helped me get a job," she says. "I [brought] it up in interviews, and it shows dedication, creativity, and personality," says Ms. Zanzal, who will start a new job shortly.

Social media can also allow job seekers to connect to decisionmakers much faster, says Ms. Hild of Right Management. "It can be a great tool at finding specific connections that might give you entry in a target company," she says.

Yet some professionals caution that job hunting on the Internet has a downside. One of those raising warning signs is Michael Jeans, president of New Directions, a career-management company in Boston.

"It's an easy trap for job seekers to sit down and think if they search long enough and hard enough on the Web, they will find the right jobs for them," he explains. "The reality is that, yes, there are a lot of jobs posted on the Internet – and if you apply for one of them, you may be one of hundreds applying."

It's understandable that people want to use the Web, Mr. Jeans says, because rejection tends to be softer. But his firm cautions job seekers not to make scanning the Web their day job. "Between 8 and 5, you should be out meeting people," Jeans says.

Sometimes that's not easy. Hong and her husband moved to South Carolina from Michigan, where they were involved with auto-related businesses. He has found a job. But right now, Hong's main job is running her family – and providing a website so that the unemployed have a friend.

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