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The Online Game of Trust

I still remember one of the lessons I learned in my ninth grade French class. It was about cultural differences and what we should be prepared for, assuming we ever A) made it through high school French, thus gaining an only slightly pathetic capacity to speak the language and then B) actually got to the Motherland one day, in which case we could use said pathetic French in our daily interactions with real, actual French people.

Among our required reading, I distinctly remember a three-word phrase that seemed to epitomize the mysterious Français at the time: “Stranger means Danger.” The line in one of our books told us that the French wouldn’t smile at us in line for the bank or sitting on the bus, but that we shouldn’t take it personally. They were just sussing us out before making sure they could trust us.

While I now, years later, try to figure out what sitting on a bus seat has to do with trust, I realize that this little phrase sums up quite a bit about how the French interact, in contrast to us American folk. But while “Stranger means Danger” was, at the time, most likely meant to refer to a trip to the bakery, it has larger implications for how the French live their lives today, specifically regarding the worldwide web.

Take Facebook, for example, which has become the most used social networking website in the world as of January 2009, according to ComScore. While America still wins big, with more than 700 million users, Facebook is steadily gaining momentum in France, where it recently edged out its main competitor Skyrock to become number one. With all these enthusiastic users, virtual friends must be hurtling through cyberspace at warp speed, right? Well…

Go on any American’s Facebook page and they’ve got upwards of 300 friends, maybe even 600. I know a guy who reached the 1000-friend mark last month. Ask him if he regularly sends personal messages or writes on the Wall of all these “friends” and he’ll laugh at you incredulously. But take your average French user, and you’ll find that each of their Facebook friends are real-life friends as well.

“I don’t understand people who accept or add me as a friend and then make no contact with me whatsoever,” spouts my French friend Jean, over a coffee. Our mutual friend Cecile agrees: “I had a guy from high school try to add me as a friend. But it’s been years since he’s contacted me so I ignored his request. If I barely know him then what’s the point?”

The point, for Americans, seems to be the opposite of the French: Add them as a friend first; make them a friend later. Or maybe never. My French co-workers were mildly horrified to hear that I had added many a Facebook friend with the click of my mouse, never to have any contact with them ever again.

So, who’s got it right? The French, who tend to take a guarded view of the intangible internet friend, or the open-armed, smiling American?

Being too trusting can cost more than just the unwanted online pal. In 2007, Katherine Ann Olsen of Minnesota lost her life after innocently responding to a babysitting ad on the online classifieds website, Craigslist, by a woman named “Amy.” However, Amy turned out to be 19-year-old John Michael Anderson, who lived with his parents, and was waiting to shoot Olsen in the back when she turned up. Craigslist again made headlines this past April, when a Boston University medical student allegedly killed a New York City masseuse after responding to her Craigslist ad for massages.

Of course, it’s not to say that the French don’t ever get themselves into online trouble. But, it just doesn’t seem to be quite to the same extent as the ol’ Americans. Or maybe, as the old adage goes, everything in France happens ten years later than in America. In this case, I hope not.

The online dating world seems to be the one area where France and the United States are at match point. With millions of users in each country, finding love online is no longer stigmatized as the lonely way to search for a mate.

Marc Simoncini, the founder of popular French site Meetic, says that online dating is different depending on your culture. In a 2007 Times Online article, he said, “There are only two philosophies in this business… the American philosophy and the French one. The Americans try to sell you love. We sell une rencontre [an encounter] and I don’t care what happens afterwards.”

So as French and American internet users attempt to navigate the online world successfully (dodging sexual predators, murderers and casual friends when necessary) it looks like love is still the one thing that connects us. Maybe strangers aren’t so dangerous anymore.

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