How France Invented a Popular, Profitable Internet of Its Own in the 80s: The Rise and Fall of Minitel

“When I get back from school I basi­cal­ly bar­ri­cade myself in the apart­ment and nev­er go out at night,” says the nar­ra­tor of Michel Houelle­bec­q’s Les Par­tic­ules élé­men­taires. “Some­times I go on the Mini­tel and check out the sex sites, that’s about it.” Here those read­ing the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the nov­el (in this case Frank Wyn­ne’s, called Atom­ised) will tilt their heads: the “Mini­tel”? Though he writes more or less real­is­tic nov­els, Houelle­becq does come out with the occa­sion­al sci­ence-fic­tion­al flour­ish. But in France, the Mini­tel was a very real tech­no­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non. “What the TGV was to train trav­el, the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre to art, and the Ari­ane project to rock­etry,” writes BBC News’ Hugh Schofield, “in the ear­ly 1980s the Mini­tel was to the world of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions.”

Com­bin­ing a mon­i­tor, key­board, and modem all in one beige plas­tic pack­age, the Mini­tel ter­mi­nal — known as the “Lit­tle French Box” — was once a com­mon sight in French house­holds. With it, writes Julien Mail­land in the Atlantic, “one could read the news, engage in mul­ti-play­er inter­ac­tive gam­ing, gro­cery shop for same-day deliv­ery, sub­mit nat­ur­al lan­guage requests like ‘reserve the­ater tick­ets in Paris,’ pur­chase said tick­ets using a cred­it card, remote­ly con­trol ther­mostats and oth­er home appli­ances, man­age a bank account, chat, and date.” All this at a time when, as Schofield puts it, “the rest of us were being put on hold by the bank man­ag­er or queue­ing for tick­ets at the sta­tion.” And what’s more, the French got their Mini­tel ter­mi­nals for free.

Con­ceived in the “white heat of Pres­i­dent Valery Gis­card d’Es­taing’s tech­no­log­i­cal great leap for­ward of the late 1970s,” Mini­tel appeared as one of the sig­nal efforts of a nation­wide devel­op­men­tal project. “France was lag­ging behind on telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions,” writes the Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis, “with the nation’s homes under­served by tele­phones – par­tic­u­lar­ly in rur­al areas.” But soon after the roll­out of the Mini­tel, usage explod­ed such that, “at the height of its glo­ry in the mid-1990s, the French owned about 9m Mini­tel devices, with 25m users con­nect­ing to more than 23,000 ser­vices.” Ini­tial­ly pitched to the pub­lic as a replace­ment for the paper tele­phone direc­to­ry, the Mini­tel evolved to pro­vide many of the ser­vices for which most of the world now relies on the mod­ern inter­net.

Though devel­oped and imple­ment­ed by the French gov­ern­ment, Mini­tel incor­po­rat­ed ser­vices by inde­pen­dent providers. “The most lucra­tive ser­vice turned out to be some­thing no-one had envis­aged — the so-called Mini­tel Rose,” writes Schofield. “With names like 3615-Cum (actu­al­ly it’s from the Latin for ‘with’), these were sexy chat-lines in which men” — Houelle­becq-pro­tag­o­nist types and oth­er — “paid to type out their fan­tasies to anony­mous ‘dates.’ ” Not long before Minitel’s dis­con­tin­u­a­tion in 2012, when more than 800,000 ter­mi­nals were still active, “bill­boards fea­tur­ing lip-pout­ing lovelies adver­tis­ing the delights of 3615-some­thing were ubiq­ui­tous across the coun­try.” 3615, as every one­time Mini­tel user knows, were the most com­mon ini­tial dig­its for Mini­tel ser­vices, each of which had to be hand-dialed on a tele­phone before the ter­mi­nal could con­nect to it.

You can see this process in the Retro Man Cave video at the top of the post, which tells the sto­ry of the Mini­tel and shows how its ter­mi­nals actu­al­ly worked. (Retro-mind­ed Fran­coph­o­nes may also enjoy the 1985 TV doc­u­men­tary just above.) The host draws a com­par­i­son between Mini­tel and the much less suc­cess­ful Pres­tel, a sim­i­lar ser­vice launched in the Unit­ed King­dom in 1979. It might also remind Cana­di­ans of a cer­tain age of Telidon, which we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. But no oth­er oth­er pre-inter­net video­tex sys­tem made any­where the impact of Mini­tel, which lives on in France as a cul­tur­al touch­stone, if no longer as a fix­ture of every­day life. As Valérie Schafer, co-author of the book Mini­tel: France’s Dig­i­tal Child­hood puts it to Chri­asafis, “There’s a nos­tal­gia for an era when the French devel­oped new ideas, took risks on ideas that did­n’t just look to the US or out­side mod­els; a time when we want­ed to invent our own voice.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

From the Annals of Opti­mism: The News­pa­per Indus­try in 1981 Imag­ines its Dig­i­tal Future

Dis­cov­er the Lost Ear­ly Com­put­er Art of Telidon, Canada’s TV Pro­to-Inter­net from the 1970s

How to Send an E‑mail: A 1984 British Tele­vi­sion Broad­cast Explains This “Sim­ple” Process

The Sto­ry of Habi­tat, the Very First Large-Scale Online Role-Play­ing Game (1986)

John Tur­tur­ro Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to the World Wide Web in 1999: Watch A Beginner’s Guide To The Inter­net

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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