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August 1, 2006

Get What You Want Without Spending A Dime

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"It's an unspoken policy at many companies that you will never make it to the upper echelons if you haven't worked abroad," says Chris White, executive director of international work-exchange organization AIESEC US, active on 40 U.S. college campuses. Each year, AIESEC sends 300 students and recent grads to internships in 93 countries. And the salary nearly always covers program costs. Andrea Lo, a senior at the University of Texas-Austin, took part in the AIESEC Salaam program, teaching English in Tunisia. "Many of the students asked me about the U.S. and what Americans think of Arabs and Muslims," she says. "They also want to know about me-how I differ from the stereotypes they have about Americans. It allows for peaceful exchange." How about IMing to improve international relations? The latest technology is helping students swap perspectives without leaving campus. Americans for an Informed Democracy (AID) has gathered some 4000 young leaders, from Connecticut to Cairo, over broadband connections for "Face to Face Meetings," in which they discuss global issues from a global perspective. "They also exchange music and IMs," says Seth Green, founder and chair of AID. "It's creating a very small world."

So why do we swap stuff to begin with? Well, there's the financial motivation, for starters: It's an easy way to get what you want-without spending a red cent. But then, you have to factor in the "red paper clip effect." A year ago this month, Montreal native Kyle MacDonald, 27, created a blog, OneRedPaperClip.com, announcing his intention to trade one red paper clip until he got . . . a house. While the economics don't add up, the barter-nomics do: Experiments like MacDonald's appeal to people. At press time, his paper clip had been traded- and then the new object traded again- 12 times. The simple clip is now worth a small role in an upcoming movie. The social incentive of the swap can be attributed to an idea referred to as reciprocal altruism. "We're a cooperating species," says Clay Shirky, a faculty member at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. But we like to help others get what they want, in part because, someday, they might return the favor. Another social benefit of swapping? "People are looking for an excuse to communicate," Shirky adds. "You can't do it generically, but if someone creates an environment where you can step outside of your anonymous self and close a social synapse, you will." So as it turns out, not only does barter pad our bottom line, it seems the process also brings us together- one red paper clip at a time.

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