Swedes invite world to call 'random' citizens on new hotline

Karl Ritter - Associated Press

STOCKHOLM  — Ever felt like calling up a complete stranger in Sweden?

Now is your chance.

The Swedish Tourism Association has set up a hotline that lets callers worldwide "get connected to a random Swede."

On its website, the nonprofit group says the idea is "to spark people's curiosity about Sweden — our culture, nature and mindset. To help us do this, we have the people of Sweden."

It's not completely random. The Swedes who take the calls have volunteered by downloading an app. But they are not vetted or given any instructions about what to say.

"It's like when Swedes travel the world. You don't know who they're going to talk to and what they're going to say," said Magnus Ling, the head of the Swedish Tourism Association.

About 3,000 people had dialed the "Swedish Number" by midday Thursday, a day after it was launched, and roughly the same number of Swedes had signed up to answer calls, Ling said.

The website says the initiative honors the 250th anniversary of Sweden's 1766 Freedom of the Press Act, believed to be the world's first law supporting the freedom of expression.

Ling admitted there was another motive: recruiting members to the tourism association, which is funded through membership fees. Swedes who sign up to receive calls will receive an email inviting them to join the group, he said.

The calls are not monitored but they are recorded, "so that if someone says I was threatened or harassed we can go back and see who it was and even block that number," Ling said.

The website didn't say that calls are recorded when AP checked it Thursday. Ling said it was listed in the user terms, which those answering the calls — but not those making them — must agree to. He later called back saying the information would be added to the FAQ section of the website.

The biggest number of incoming calls has come from Turkey. Ling said he didn't know why, but thought it had to do with the initiative getting attention there both in traditional media and social media.

After signing up to test the service, this Stockholm-based AP reporter received four calls, about one an hour. The first was a woman from Turkey with limited English skills. The second hung up. The third was an engineering student from Britain. And the fourth was another journalist: Tim Nudd, creative editor at Adweek in New York.

"I just wanted to call and see how this whole thing works," said Nudd.

He, too, was writing an article about it.

The hotline follows a similar initiative on Twitter by the Swedish Institute, the government's own PR agency. Since 2011 it lets a different Swedish citizen manage its official @Sweden account every week.

Ling said the feedback he had received on the hotline was almost all positive, though he said a small number of callers were just trying to hook up with Swedish women.

"I've heard of just one or two such calls," Ling said.

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