So, I played with a Minitel.
The Mintel, invented by the French in the 1980s, was a precursor to the internet as we know it. Shipped to you by the government, it was a little computer that hooked up to your phone line. You could chat with strangers, play games, search the phone directory, make online purchases…
It also became popular for steamy chatting, referred to as Minitel rose. Not long ago, the podcast Reply All interviewed a man who for a while posed as a girl and instant messaged with men as his job.
There were “racy” images online that were pixelated and hardly very enticing by today’s standards (it makes me think of the how at the Musée de l’Erotisme in Paris my friends and I saw an old black and white video of two women in bathing suits playing volleyball). Apparently there were poster advertisements in France that showed scantily clad women and directed people to the Minitel, whose images on the screen were a far cry from the quality of a photographic image.
Anyway, why was I, an American in the U.S. in 2018, hunched over a Minitel with a platter of charcuterie and cheese in the vicinity?
The author of a recently published book on the Minitel held an event in a hotel bar/café in New York. Three Minitels sat on a coffee table, available for public use. One appeared to be off, but the author explained to me that there was no backlight in the machine and therefore the screen was not visible in the dim light of the hotel lobby. He had asked hotel staff to bring a lamp, which they were now in search of. A young man sat in front of one of the other Minitels, whose chat feature appeared to be working, as my friend and I saw text appear on the third Minitel in front of us. She and I tried to type a response, but every time we hit “envoi” (“send”), the machine rebooted.
After the young man left momentarily, I moved to the working Minitel. With a lamp now shining on the previously dark Minitel, my friend and I were able to write to each other in the chatroom. What was funny is that users were displayed in numbered order of their arrival to the chatroom with what they had typed beneath their name, and the order didn’t change. Therefore, you might see a conversation that appeared thus:
How are you?
If you were more than two people and looked away from the screen for a moment, when you returned it would not be obvious in what order you should read the conversation.
At one point, at the top of the screen appeared, “Les préservatifs préservent de tout, sauf de l’amour.” It seemed funny to see that all of a sudden since it was unrelated to what was on the screen, but the former co-founder and coder of the site Minitel rose 3615 SM who was present explained to me that it was a message from the French government. The Minitel was invented in the 80s, when AIDS was a huge issue, so they included public announcements to promote protection.
There were seven options on the home screen, which included chat, games, humeur, and annonces, but only the chatroom and games seemed to work.
The keyboard was interesting—it had all the letters and numbers and some punctuation options, but I couldn’t find an exclamation point.
The Minitels kept malfunctioning, which was all part of the experience, in my opinion. The organizers of the event were a bit dismayed and would come around and try to fix them, but my friend and I thought it was hilarious. This is why I invite her to weird happenings like this—she is a good sport.
What amazed me is that the Minitel was only officially shut down in 2012. The telephone provider France Télécom no longer wanted to support it. My question was, who was still using the Minitel in 2012?
The coder told me that up till then, there were farmers who checked prices on it and elderly people who used it.
Hunched over the Minitel and typing “Ce truc est marrant,” I thought, my life is weird and wonderful.
The next day, a French friend who is in his mid-40s told me during a phone chat that even he had never used one. He was a kid when his parents had a Minitel at their house. It tickled me to tell him I had spent the previous evening tinkering with this French throwback.
Three Minitels, at least one of which belongs to the author, who owns fifteen
The guys around me who chose the user names had some kind of sense of humor