Before there was AOL, Amazon, Groupon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo! or any of today’s other Internet titans, there was the Minitel: the boxy little terminal that allowed French clients to access a wide array of services – including, “bien sûr,” hot chat rooms – through a France Telecom phone line.
Minitel, France’s Videotex telecommunication system, was introduced experimentally in 1981 in Britanny and was rolled out nationally in 1982. It was implemented by France Telecom’s Teletel network. Designed initially to replace the expensive-to-print and distribute French telephone directory, it rapidly evolved and became a news-media/weather, booking, information service and online sex kiosk phenomenon. Minitel was distributed to households for free across the country and soon the French were using it to check exam results, apply to university, book trains and chat online, years before the Internet’s blogs or social networking.
At its peak, it was earning and sharing the equivalent of 1 billion Euros a year between its state -owned operator and those who sold services or provided content through it. All users had to do was dial up a number on the keyboard to connect to the database of the chosen content provider, then follow instructions that juddered out in black and white across the screen.
Customers were billed per minute to their phone bill, by the state-owned network operator which then passed subscription fees back to content service providers. It was a network of pay-walls similar to those used today by for example the Apple app store. It is generally overlooked that many of the ideas that formed the Internet were, first of all, tried out on Minitel. — BBC
By the time it hit its peak in 1994, roughly 20 million users were connecting to 25,000 services through 6.5 million terminals. Minitel had made online, rudimentary interactive, real-time navigation a daily part of French life at a time when few people had heard much about the World Wide Web.
But its earlier inception and popularity did not allow Minitel to keep up with the internet – whose super fast connections and multimedia sites left Minitel’s sluggish, text-only format looking seriously dated. Despite the fact that it had become obsolete Minitel still held on to life and in 2012 the year of its final demise an estimated 400,000 people were still logging into the Minitel. It’s main uses by then were for accessing the telephone directory, farmers exchanging information on cattle and doctors transmitting patient details to the national health service. — R.F.I
In 1994, 30% of French households had a Minitel terminal attached to their phones. In contrast, fewer than 6% of American households made use of online services during the same period. The Minitel had created in the French population a new way of thinking, an awareness of the power of information and the will to use it. “It is something to be used in daily life. It is easy. So much more simple than hooking up a computer and a modem,” a writer said speaking to The Inquirer newspaper. In the same article, an environmental engineer says he prefers using the Minitel for researching as opposed to the more sophisticated services available on his high powered Apple Macintosh.
A Minitel is not a real computer, just a terminal that responds to signals coming from a telephone line. It does not have a memory or computing capabilities. Despite its underlying technology being outdated to sacrifice modernity for simplicity, new Minitel terminal’s were equipped with credit card slots to facilitate home shopping. As a system that was initially implemented to give access to directory information, it gave birth to an entirely new $1 Billion-a-year industry of companies that sell their products and services over the Minitel.
There were caterers and sex-talk services, real estate brokers and travel agents, movie kiosks and weather bureaus, professionals from a wide range of fields from retail to psychics and meteorologists used the Minitel, plying their trades over the phone links. Availability of online banking and stock market quotes too made the system popular with businessmen and shopkeepers. France Telecom annually published a directory that listed nearly 23,000 different services that can be accessed through codes.
But unlike the Internet, which was developed by the International Computer Communications Network funded by a Pentagon computer network in the U.S, the Minitel could not be adopted to carry live video or sound. It is far slower and primitive compared to computer products in the U.S. “The Minitel,” said French Communications Minister “may be obsolete, but it has prepared people for what is to come in regards to the information superhighway.The Minitel has become a cultural habit.” — Inquirer, Sep 1994
Doc Introduction to diffrent uses
Publicity cartoon 1
Minitel Publicity general services
Minitel garage directory
Minitel fly ad
amstal computer ad
The Minitel rose
Indisputably the real stars of the Minitel were the world’s first electronic adult chat rooms, where people using pseudonyms patiently exchanged steamy messages that took what would now seem an eternity to appear on screen.
Several of today’s most influential media bosses made huge fortunes on the “pink messaging” services with their chatroom startup companies. Services advertised on billboards, with names such as Ulla gaining mythical status in France. Thousands of French households saw their telephone bills rise as men logged endless Minitel hours on hot-chat services (usually, it turned out, with male employees paid to pose as aroused and prowling women). Such erotic services were known collectively as Minitel “rose” became so profitable that traditional media outlets hired specialized companies to create libido-throttling platforms of their own.
The musician Gerome Nox told the newspaper Libération how he had worked on one of the services posing as a hostess called Julie to attract men and keep them online as long as possible. He compared the men replying to his messages to “starving piranhas, no bonjour, no pleasantries, it was direct and crude”. He said he decided to stop as “my Julie had become more and more disagreeable and hateful”. — Time
By 1989 the reputation of France’s Minitel “rose” had spread and in a news article entitled “Minitel: miracle or monster,” the L.A times called it a network of crime and prostitution, reporting on the lawsuit filed by The Federation of French Families which contended that it had transgressed into a service in which “anonymous video conversations take place between callers and prostitution networks that often involve children.
The complaint lists a series of serious crimes, ranging from child prostitution to murder, that has been linked to the system. In one well known case in Paris, for example, a 24-year-old call girl, Anne Trinh, was tortured and killed by a sadomasochist who made contact with her through one of the Pink Minitel message services. The Trinh murder was detailed in a book entitled “The Black File on the Pink Minitel” by journalist Denis Perier.
Ironically, the author notes, the Trinh case was also solved in part through the use of a Minitel. Using the sophisticated Minitel electronic telephone directory, a friend of the dead woman was able to locate Trinh’s dentist, enabling police to identify her severely burned body.
The lawsuit also cited the case of a 40-year-old man in Bordeaux who was using a Minitel service to “lease” the 6-year-old son of his common-law wife for sexual purposes. “Because of its huge potential audience and the anonymity provided by the government, the Minitel is relatively safe and effective criminal tool. And as with the introduction of the telephone more than a century ago, criminals have been among the first to exploit it.” — L.A Times
Demonstration operating a minitel
Shutting down and recycling the Minitel
Modern Websites like facebook, youtube running on the minitel
The Minitel serial killer
During the months of October and November 1990, Rémy Roy murdered three men he met through the pink Minitel. His criminal route begins October 11, 1990, with a 46-year-old insurance agent who went by the pseudonym of “hpoilu75.” He had many contacts and practiced sadomasochism. The day after their meeting he was found dead, his skull smashed.
Rémy Roy struck again a week later on the 19 October 1990. His second victim was an astrologer who appeared on television under the name Nathaniel Mage. His partner found him dead, lying naked on his bed, his head covered with a leather hood, arms folded and crossed in the back. He had suffered several blows to the head with a sharp instrument. He went under the synonymous of Daisy or Coralie on the pink Minitel network.
His third victim was discovered dead by his wife in their home with a bag containing sadomasochistic instruments.The fourth victim was a 32-year-old man who’s profile stated that he was possibly looking for love. When the man refused to partake in Rémy sadistic routine he was hit over the head with a stone lamp and fainted. He was found alive and taken to the hospital in a coma. He was able to recount to police what happened a few days later.
In the days leading up to his arrest, Rémy made purchases at two video equipment stores with stolen checks belonging to his last victim. The seller asked for ID and Roy used his victim’s driving license which he had doctored with a picture of himself. The seller made a photocopy of it. Hours later, he made another purchase at another video equipment store, where he is recorded on the store’s CCTV. Rémy was arrested soon after and cited homophobic motivations, which he claimed stemmed from having been the victim of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of other men. These claims were refuted in court. Psychologists said these claims stemmed from the killer’s sadomasochistic fantasies. Rémy also claimed in court to have been taken advantage of or tricked by all four of his victims.
In 28 June 1996, Rémy Roy gets sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 18 years. He was divorced and a father of two. He claims to have turned to using the Minitel extensively after depression which sprung from the failure of his video production company and over-eating.
Info or intox?
News program on minitel rose
Minitel Ulla demonstration
Minitel rose adverts compilation
Minitel rose online dating doc
The Minitel creates first online queer platform
With its capacity for email, chat, press reviews, news, forums and listings the Minitel enabled instant communication, group dialogue, and information access. It is widely overlooked in Gay cyber studies that the history of online gay activity and interaction began with the Minitel. Internet scholars claim that lesbian chat spaces only appeared in 1993 with the Internet when in fact lesbians were already interacting online on the Minitel nearly a decade before. The first Lesbian Minitel site “Les Goudous” was created in 1985 in stark contrast to the Gay male content service providers who were profit driven like the heterosexual service counterparts.
Les Goudous Telematiques (The GT’s) were more interested in political organization and listed the first ever gay orientated service directory. In an effort to convert their readership to using their Minitel site they published an animated advertisement in Lesbia magazine in 1986. The captions read: “Tell me, Annie, specialist of the Minitel,” sighs Charlotte, our imaginary user, “what key should I hit?” Annie explains: “You fold down the keyboard, you turn on the screen, you pick up the telephone, and you dial 3614 91 66. Suddenly; you’ll hear a dial tone. Okay? Now press on the key “Connect” and then hang up the phone.” Amazed Charlotte gasps: “It worked! Wow! I’m on the Minitel!”
Despite immense efforts and personal financial investment by The GT’s to form and keep alive an online community of politically minded lesbians on the Minitel, the enterprise was not successful. For a brief period of three years however Les Guides was exemplary in its anti-capitalistic stance and social activism, serving as a precursor of lesbian communities on the internet and provided “a safe space for lesbians to be out without having their sexuality commodified. By the end of the eighties, a plethora of lesbian sites premised on sexual entertainment was active on the Minitel. — Lesbians online, Journal of the History of sexuality, University of Texas
In France, The National Confederation of Catholic Family Association opposed the gay use of the Minitel “rose” disputing that it would result in France becoming the country most affected by the Aids virus. In the period when the virus was becoming an epidemic, it was disputed whether these services cashed in on and promoted promiscuity among men or created a safe space where sexual games could be played.
The Court of Auditors in France also warned that the Minitel network of erotic and other message services makes the government an unwitting accomplice in criminal acts from which it profits. Amidst the Minitel “rose” controversy and uproar that dismissed it as a tool for thieves and prostitutes, its defenders pointed out that new tools of communication have always been quick to be adopted for sexual purposes. In the beginning, the telephone in France was synonymous with prostitutes and some assigned the success of home video as being fuelled by the porn industry.
In 1983 the same year that the American Usenet internet service created its members of the same sex newsgroup (net.motss) the French gay male community recognized the Minitel as the new way to hook up. Within a year the popular gay male magazine Gai Pied set up its own Minitel site, and in record time was logging about a thousand use hours per day, ranking in an inexhaustible source of revenue.
By 1986 using the code 36 15 GPH users could access an online kiosk service where the latest issue of the magazine was summarized, along with horoscopes, latest movie outings, gay-related news aswell as an AIDS folder with advice from the Association of Gay Doctors. However, the main draw of its Minitel site was the gay chat room which had the capacity for 192 members to connect simultaneously.
“There’s a bit of everything,” Gai Peid explains in their January 1986 issue concerning their successful Minitel site: “hards, softs, masochists, the vulgar, the tender, and lonely.” Messaging is alive, the magazine reports, allowing others the opportunity to pass for what they are not. Even “straight slumming” happens. When all goes well during an online interaction, the anonymous participants end up exchanging phone numbers. Others, however, may disappear suddenly leaving the other correspondent frustrated. Gai Pied announced that from December 1989, members will be able to send their own picture to the magazine which will then be put online with the use of pixellisera. — Gai Pied n°198 (14 Décember 1985) and Gai Pied Hebdo n°261 (14 March 1987).
“Homosexuals found a new form of conviviality that suited them, a new sociability of desire. Sexual difference could be abolished; role playing thrived within a permanent carnival where masks were required. Cruising on Minitel, with its combination of secretiveness and invisibility – since it required the use of pseudonyms –allowed for every sort of transvestism. It replaced the personal ad. In every city, and often among people who did not acknowledge their homosexuality, it was possible to find at any hour of the day or night, someone for a brief encounter or for a lifetime. Minitel’s role as a meeting place was a major development in the history of homosexuals in France. A cruising place “outside of the ghetto,’” it allowed them to find companions. It put gays in touch with one another. In the provinces, the homosexual emerged from his isolation. — The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968
Smaller gay channels started competing against the popular content providers like Gai Pied with exaggerated descriptions of services offered and often abused the anonymous character of Minitel communication by passing on descriptions of illegal activities such as “12-year-old boy sucks off for a tenner.” In 1987 the police had their own Minitel installed and announced that all sexual content service providers falling under the wider name of Minitel Rose will from now on be under continuous surveillance. As a result, Gai Pied employed their own moderators to weed out the mimicry of minors, illicit intimacies, and illegal fantasies. — Gay Studies from the French Cultures Vol 25
The pink office
“SLT. H or F? I JH23”
“SLT. I F.21,Paris”
“Blonde,1m71, 51 kg, 85-60-90. Student. You c. what?
“Meet. What are you wearing?”
Stephane was a super nice guy with long hair and a denim jacket with badges of bands like Slayer.It was in the early 90’s. He had a student job that required a Minitel and a calling card (it was called a Pastel card in those days) He was connected to the back office of a “pink” Minitel service and transformed into Mistress Caroline, Master JF, Soumise75, studentSC, jf69 and twenty other characters for a few nights a week.
“Slt. You like sandals?” – Spartacus
Stephane introduced me to his boss, Alain, who asked me to work for him. The office, where I became a cyber-dominatrix, was surreal and filled with big tables and Minitels and behind them mostly boys between 20 and 30 playing women and managing a dozen messages from anonymous male users at the same time. “With each exchanged message, our screen displayed the previous message and the connected answer with space for the next response. The screen also included a “memo” area which displayed the information of character you played as well as those of the other message operators in order to successfully distinguish yourself.”
“I’ll take you to construction sites..” *
“Some want to be on a leash while others want to be the CEO banging his secretary on his desk. Sometimes while your busy introducing the use of a big candle as SevereNatacha45a, you are also conversing with tourist types, cool guys, the type you could even be friends with.” Programmed dialogue was also implemented which was designed to lead the client through erotic scenarios. “In the beginning it was sometimes hard to keep up role play with men who wanted to be humiliated, it took discipline not to laugh and sneer at them, and to keep them online as long as possible while catering to their flabbergasting fantasies.” – “Bye fantasmeur!” Putthebraindown.com
“Your a dick garage..” *
“It was while working for a Minitel rose service that I first learned to type on a keyboard. It helped me to take my first step on the networks and getting paid to communicate. I was a facilitator and had four or five Minitels in front of me with which to converse simultaneously with as many users as possible. One Minitel was dedicated to naughty scenarios or general messages sent to all who were connected, and the other Minitel’s were used to interact with individual users on a one to one basis.”
“Many users addressed me as “little bitch” or asked “do you suck?” by way of greeting, which annoyed me. “Is that how you greet the ladies'” I often responded. Women operators on the Minitel “rose” in fact were rare. It was essentially a role assumed by men. People were less informed on the Minitel than on the Internet.” The test from suspicious clients would be the common question “what are you wearing?” A woman would answer the question convincingly and without faltering, men assumed. “Other’s merely ignored the deception,” says Stephane who worked as a facilitator from the age of 20 to 28. He remembers talking philosophy all night to one client phone sex. “On the human level, it was fascinating. It allowed me to see facets of human nature that people kept hidden. It is a very effective tool to drain perversions” — www.20minutes.fr
*Quotes taken from Hot, hot Minitel. Gay Letters November 1994
It was a closed network, there were no click-able links or spam, you merely interacted with the specific database you accessed through your Minitel terminal. Legend has it that in 1982 the system’s emailing between-user-function was implemented after a user hacked into the real-time communication feature on an erotic service provider known as Gretel. This help function between a service provider and the user was hijacked by the user who was then able to chat directly with other users. Thus in 1982 direct online messaging between users was created on the Minitel. Although competitive technology was developed by Calvados and Apple Macintosh between ’82 -’86, online interaction between these Macintosh users did not happen on the same national scale as it did with the Minitel, which thrived during the 80’s and early 90’s. The boxy terminal with its closed system served as an alternative to the internet until its inevitable demise in 2012.
Minitel: further links and reading
A cultural battle: French minitel, the internet and information highway:
Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide-web: (BBC 2012)
The politics of information: a study on the french minitel
Between communication and information vol 4 – Transaction Publishers 1993
Minitel, La grande aventure. Collectif. Edité par Larousse (1987
Minitel: miracle or monster: (L.A Times 1989)
Minitel, the “French Internet” That Came Before the Web
(Internet history podcast)
How steve jobs was inspired by the minitel: mail online
Tech savvy family from 1982 talks internet (France TV)
Minitel 10 year anniversary: diffrent minitels displayed:(France TV)
Institut national de l’audiovisuel
Justine, de Sade. Minitel adaptation made by JET7
p.s. Hey. Our pal Ferdinand has put together this fascinating collection of info, insights, back stories, inside scoops, and visuals about the early French internet precursor Minitel, and it’s really something. Even residing here in France, as I mostly do, I had only known the very minimum about Minitel until Ferdinand filled me in, and, yeah, I think you’ll learn a lot and have a very fine time here this weekend, so please do. Thanks, and thank you ever so much, Ferdinand! Now, as prefaced yesterday, today’s post and p.s. will be your last new, fresh ones for the next 11 days. (Wait, amidst the upcoming revived dead posts, there will be two brand new ones, so never mind. ) I’ll be away from here and from home in the Eastern US where I’m doing two events, the first on this coming Monday the 7th at the Museum of Modern Art, and the second on the 16th at the New Museum in NYC. If anyone reading this is in or near NYC, please come to one or another of the events if you can and like. The blog will return live with me in charge on Saturday, Nov. 19th. Between now and then, as always, please feel far more than free to leave comments for me and hang out here to talk with each other. I will respond to every comment that’s directed towards me on the 19th. Thanks! ** Bernard, Hi, Bernard! A belated very happy birthday to you, old pal! Did your extrication happen and smoothly enough? I know, it bites hard indeed that we can’t cross paths in NYC. I promise to make that away time count if you do. ** Lee, Well, hi there, Lee! Not quite top of the morning, through no fault of ours, to you! It rained like mad here yesterday too. In this weird, un-Paris-like non-pausing way. Is stuff awesome with you and yours, I’m imagining? Have a great time while I’m seemingly having a great time over yonder. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Thanks for the condolences. I feel quite sickened by it. The Shaye Saint John doc is finished? Sucks that they didn’t include you, the dummies. Still, I’m obviously very curious to see that somehow. I hope everything goes splendidly for you while I’m off, my friend. ** Jamie, Hi, Jamie! Yeah, the video situation is gross. It feels very much like we’re not being told the whole story. My only goal at this point is to not have done all that work for nothing. We really like the video, and I want to be able to show it to people, so I guess trying to get the powers that be to let us show it as some kind of unofficial video or something is the best we can hope for. I don’t know. But that’s definitely the first and last time that Zac and I will agree to make a music video, that’s for sure. I’m glad the Peggy Ahwesh post fed you stuff. We (Zac and me) leave for the trip early tomorrow morning. I’m excited about the GIF event at the New Museum. Discovering how all of those very interesting artists will choose to ‘read’ my GIF fiction has my imagination doing very interesting tricks. I’m glad your night with your singing friend went well. Gotcha, single mom with two kids, that’s tricky, timewise. Could you get around that by making her kids your back-up singers or something, ha ha? Or not ha ha? Thank you for the bon voyage, my friend. I hope your next 11 or whatever number of days it is are joy-packed, and I look forward to seeing you and mutually catching up ere long. Love quadrupled, me. ** Steevee, Hi. The problem isn’t that the video we made is too ‘Dennis Cooper’. It’s actually a very fun, bright, friendly, odd video. And the artist knew exactly what we were doing and seemed very happy to be filmed in the way we were filming him. It’s not like the video is not what we said it would be and what he knew it would be. I honestly don’t know what the problem is exactly. Everyone on that end is being very tight-lipped about the whys and what’s going on. Never again re: making a music video, that’s definite. I hope the med adjustment helps as much as your doctor suggests, of course. And have a lovely next week and a half, and maybe I’ll see you in NYC. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Well, we definitely shouldn’t have been given total creative freedom, and the artist shouldn’t have participated in what we were doing with full knowledge of what we were doing with apparent happiness and complete support, if they were then going to turn around afterwards and say that what we did is not what they want. Ugh. We figured out our in-between trip yesterday. We’re going to do this ridiculous thing and go to Orlando and spend five days blowing ourselves out on all the many amusement parks there. It’s pretty extravagant, but Zac and I are both heavy theme park enthusiasts, and neither one of us have ever been to those parks, so we’re going to go for it. So I’m excited. Plus, we’ll be traveling there on the day of the utterly terrifying US election, so hopefully that will prove to be a good distraction. I hope … well, I know … that you’ll have a great and productive time with your writer friend today. Gee, I hope everything goes really, really well with you while I’m away from this place, and do report here if you like while I’m gone because I will be checking in and reading the comments, and, in any case, I look forward greatly to catching up with you when I get back. Best to the best of you! ** David Ehrenstein, Thanks, David. Yes, I’ve known about the Carax/Sparks film for quite a while because Gisele is friendly with Carax, and I’m very happy that it has been cemented enough to be announced. From what I know about it, it’s going to be wild. I read your Fandor piece this morning. Excellent! Major kudos to you! Everyone, Mr. David Ehrenstein has written a very, very fine and must-read piece for Fandor. Its title is ‘Evidence of Things Not Seen’, and it’s subtitle is ‘Why is it so hard to make a film about black lives that both critics and the public love?’, and I highly recommend it to you. It’s here ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I’m not mentioning the artist’s name because I don’t want this to become some widespread thing. I feel like I can talk a little about it here because all of us here are like family. It’s all very mysterious thus far in a very unpleasant way, and I hope that the mystery gets solved at the very least. Yes, they finally officially announced the Carax/Sparks film! Like I said to David, I know something about it due to Gisele’s friendliness with Carax, and it certainly sounds to be potentially amazing and very, very strange. ** Jeff Jackson, Hi, Jeff. You would think the artist should be able to push that through, yes, which begs the question. I don’t believe I know Andrei Bitov’s work, unless I’m forgetting. Huh, well, if he was put in context with those other writers, he definitely is worth investigating, and I will do that. Thank you a lot for passing that along, man. Yeah, as I told Dora, we’ve decided to go whole hog and do the Orlando theme park maxing out experience for five days, which is nuts, but … ha ha. Take care, man, and I’ll write to you on FB today. ** B, Hi! Thanks for the commiseration. No, we decided to do it even though what we were offered was far less than what it would cost to make it, and I think we just have to eat the self-imposed loss, as far as I can tell. Thanks for the safe travel wish. And I’ll hope to get to see you on the 16th. Have a fine week-plus! ** James Nulick, Hi, James! Welcome home! I don’t know if the artist has overriding power, and I don’t know if he’s exercising it if he does. We’re in the dark. That time change is nuts. I’m getting phantom severe jet lag just thinking about it. I’m so glad you had such a blast in Tokyo. It’s a very additive place if you’re susceptible to its glories. I miss it all the time, and I’m hoping and pretty much planning to get back there this spring after we finish shooting our new film, as I think I might have already said. Try to enjoy your re-ensconcing within the US, and hopefully we’ll all still be around in one piece after Tuesday, gulp. ** Okay. Again, enjoy Ferdinand’s shebang. And enjoy the next 11 or so day when I won’t have the privilege to speak with you. And please do hang out here and tell me and each other stuff while I’m in absentia. The blog will see you on Monday, as usual, and I will see you ‘in-person’ on the 19th. Take good care, everybody!