Le Web: As French As Freedom Fries

2403986095_5067cd8cf3Before the implosion of Web 1.0, Europe’s premiere Internet networking hub, First Tuesday, was run by an English guy who lived in the Bay Area. Web 2.0’s European nexus, Le Web, is run by a French guy who lives in — you guessed it — the Bay Area.

Just like First Tuesday, Le Web has grown exponentially over the years, to the point that it now fills a stadium-sized venue. Yet 10 years after First Tuesday, the look and feel of Le Web is the same, its attendees donning slim-fitting jackets and the kind of glasses that architects wear. But while they variously speak German, Finnish or French, they nevertheless still listen to talks in English, the lingua Franca of the web.

With markets around the world deteriorating, however, this is a watershed moment for Le Web and the Internet community in Europe overall. How is the European technology sector going to fare relative to the U.S.? And does Le Web offer any insight?

The fact that France’s biggest Internet conference is in English speaks volumes. To put this in perspective, the Academie Francaise at one point made it illegal for American universities in France not to have French versions of their web sites. Yet English has survived as the Internet language in Europe because it simply won’t die. The reason for this is simple, of course, for the web is about communication and so language is everything. No amount of free-trade agreements or European stimulus programs can overcome the fact that the marketplace of the borderless world of the web is largely defined by language. The U.S. has five times the number of people that speak the same language as any country in Europe, which means that you need to do five times better to succeed in Le Web-land.

But it’s not just about language. One of the few Americans here, Marc Canter, in a bright orange Hawaiian shirt, stands out against the sea of metrosexual black like a ray of sunshine. Canter typifies Silicon Valley, which has combined informal West Coast counter-culture with an organizational legacy from when the Bay Area was a series of military bases to produce a unique ethos of mind expansion and can-do.

Perhaps Europe, and France in particular, has neither the optimism, the classless meritocracy or the marketplace to dominate the web. But things will be different in the next five years. America is going to be more like France, with similar unemployment levels and large government spending. There is a bigger safety net in France, and there is more government-subsidized research. For people with a creative mind, Europe, and again, France in particular, may actually be an easier place for those who regard the Internet as their office.

But I’m not banking on it. I, after all, am a European technologist who lives in America. Le Web founder, Loic Le Meur, is too, so perhaps neither is he.

All You Need Is Love

Meanwhile, maybe because the mother of all economic bubbles has exploded, drenching everything with toxic, money-dissolving ectoplasm, many of the presentations given on Le Web’s opening day have been about love. It’s as if people are virtually crawling back into the womb to hide from it all. Either that or they’re just being French.

A panel on brands talked about spreading the love; Susan Wu, CEO of ohai, spoke of selling love in the form of virtual goods; conductor Itay Talgam discussed how to orchestrate it; and Helen Fisher of Rutgers talked about how to recreate it with drugs.

Clearly the drug talk was the most interesting. Love was split into categories according to the appropriate body chemicals that produce them: sex drive (testosterone), romantic love (dopamine, norephine, seratonin) and attachment (oxytocin, vasopressin), with estrogen later added to the mix. Most importantly, we learned that dour, seratonin-fueled “builder” archetypes as personified by Gordon Brown were the people needed to solve the “great recession.”

After all the love, there was death. The highlight of the first day of Le Web was legendary Israeli VC Yossi Vardi being interviewed by AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher. Vardi kicked things off by talking about a company idea based on death, pointing to the growth market, boxed product and lifetime guarantee. He was, of course, kidding, but the point was serious. Vardi said he didn’t need to see business plans (which he described as a sub-genre of science fiction) and that business models often didn’t matter because, like the hugely profitable discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, Internet companies are often entering uncharted waters. Swisher pointed out that Columbus died miserably of syphilis (though in fact, while he may have died miserably as a pauper, in chains, in a Spanish dungeon, it was not of syphilis).

Web 2.0 Conferences Le Web
Geek-Filled Hot Tubs Ginormous truck-borne Sauna driven from Finland
Iced Tea Booze (Le Web has copious amounts of wine)
Food with plates Fancy food and no plates (I got into a tug-of-war with a waitress when I tried to use a coffee cup saucer as a plate)
Threadless t-shirts and Jeans Tight-fitting black stuff (To be fair, you would freeze to death in a threadless t-shirt here, but there are ways of being warm without looking like Derek Zoolander).
Tall VCs Short VCs (American VCs tend to be unnaturally tall. Hummer Winblad was dominated by partners that played basketball in their spare time.)
VCs with lots of money and t-shirts and jeans VCs with lots of expensive clothes (in Europe, everyone in business looks like a banker – which could make for some unfortunate incidents)
Warm weather Why is it so cold here, even inside. (It’s snowing in Paris today, and the hard surfaces of the high-tech Le Blog venue radiate freezingness).
Coat Check Cloack Room [sic] (The first thing you see at the entrance to Le Web is the spelling mistake at the coat check, which is actually kind of reassuring as it shows how the Internet isn’t turning everything into homogenous gray goo).
All companies that would have been described as portals, 10 years ago, are now described as Social Media The same

David Galbraith is the founder of The Curations Network and co-inventor of RSS.

Photo of Loc Le Meur courtesy of Joi Ito via Flickr.