#10 The French Connection
January 21, 2015
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In the early 80's, way before the world wide web existed, the French government shipped a $200 terminal to every home with a phone line, and created a service that for decades ran alongside the internet. It was called The Minitel. Producer Carla Green speaks to reporter Jean-Marc Manach, who, in the early 90's, made a living posing as a woman in sex chat rooms on Minitel.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: So PJ, you are not...much younger than me, but younger enough that you come from like a different internet generation than I do.
PJ VOGT: Yeah.
ALEX: When I started using the internet it was like ‘91, ‘92 and it was sort of before the world wide web. I would dial in to a local bulletin board there was...four phone lines and I would just get hours and hours of busy signals while everyone desperately jockeyed for one of those four phonelines and then I would connect and then my dad would get call waiting and fifteen minutes later I would get bumped off which was unbelievably frustrating.
PJ: Wait and also when you started going on the internet wasn’t it like...you could log onto a bulletin board and only you could be on it and you’d leave a message and somebody else would go on it.
ALEX: They had four so four people could be on at the same time. It was preeetty fancy.
PJ: I used AOL like every normal person. Which meant that I could talk to Americans from anywhere in the world...uh...who had gotten a disk in the magazine.
ALEX: Wow, that’s pretty cool. You were pretty futuristic.
PJ: I have a memory of going into a chat room and talking to some adult woman who...I guess she was flirting with me but I didn’t understand flirting and she was like “hey, do you want to talk in a private chat room?” and I was like yeah and she said age, sex, location and I was like “12 years old, male, Haverford” and she was like “I got bigger fish to fry.” And then she logged off.
ALEX: Those were her exact words?!
PJ: “I got bigger fish to fry.”
ALEX: Uhh! That’s so brutal!
PJ: I felt like so lonely and also I was like “yeah, I understand that.”
ALEX: Wait, once she said that, did you realize what was happening?
PJ: I realized that I disappointed her in some way but it took me a long time to figure out how and why.
ALEX: When I first connected, my first conversation was with an Iraq war vet about the band Black Flag.
PJ: That’s pretty good.
ALEX: Yeah. I was way cool, even back in 1991.
PJ: Don’t you also feel like we both had kind of typical experiences early on. Like, mine was lonely and alienated and yours was pop culture, weird stuff?
ALEX: When you say typical, you mean like typical of us as human beings?
ALEX: I think you give yourself too much credit as a lonely, alienated person. I think you...I think you think…
PJ: You’re going to take that away from me?!
ALEX: You’re damn right.
PJ: [laughing] Jesus!
ALEX: I think that you think that you...you’re like a way more popular and sociable and friendly than I am.
ALEX: It’s not a compliment.
ALEX: But the reason we’re talking about it is because we have a story this week from producer Carla Green. It’s about the back-in-the-day internet in France, which is, in some ways, very similar to the back-in-the-day internet me and PJ experienced but, in a lot of ways, much weirder. Carla’ll take it from here.
CARLA GREEN: In 1982 France’s national telephone company – France Télécom – decided it was spending too much money printing phonebooks. So it put the phone books online. Well, kind of. What it actually did was convince the French government to distribute a $200 computer to every French household with a phone number. It was an ungainly, clumsy piece of technology, just a little CRT monitor with a keyboard. When you wanted to use it, you plugged it into the telephone line, meaning you couldn’t use the phone at the same time. France Télécom called it the Minitel. Here’s a French newscast from the Minitel launch:
NEWSCASTER: Now, we’re going to talk about something that’s relevant to you, or at least, will be relevant to you very soon, in your daily life. It was unveiled yesterday by the Minister of Telecommunications, it was – the electronic phonebook!
CARLA: At first, you couldn’t use them for much. You could look up phone numbers and addresses – banking information, the weather, stock prices, things like that. The Minitel charged by the the minute, and each minute could cost anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar or more. Companies that provided these services would split the proceeds with France Telecom, and quickly everyone was making a ton of money. But what the Minitel lacked, crucially, was a feature so integral to today’s internet that sometimes we don’t even notice it. The ability for users to interact with each other. So not long after its release - a teenager who was never identified, as the story goes – hacked the Minitel and added a messaging feature. People liked it. And since they liked it, usage of the Minitel increased. More time online meant more money. So France Telecom integrated chatrooms into the Minitel’s design. Those chatrooms quickly became the single biggest reason people logged on. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the chatrooms French people most loved were the sex chatrooms. They were called Minitel rose – French for “Pink Minitel”.
[AD SOUNDS, A WOMAN SPEAKING IN FRENCH]
CARLA: This is a TV ad for a chat room called Le Diable au Corps, or “The Devil Inside.” It’s just a still photo of a woman looking suggestively over her shoulder, and the phone number for the server. Of course, the ad was kind of a lie.
JEAN-MARC MANACH: My name is Jean Marc Manach, when I was a student, to pay my bills, I used to tell people I was a beautiful girl on Minitel
CARLA: Jean Marc, as you can probably tell, is a man. And he, along with thousands of other students and struggling artists, was a Minitel animatrice. Animatrice is the feminine form of a frustratingly un-translatable word. It means, at once, radio host and camp counselor. And somehow, it also came to mean what Jean Marc did with his Wednesday nights for a couple of months in the mid-nineties. Jean Marc worked on the seventeenth floor of a tall building in Paris. During the daytime, the room would be full of animatrices – fifteen or twenty at a time. Almost all of them men. Jean Marc preferred to work nights, when he was often alone. There was a great view of Paris from the office building he worked in, and it was quiet. He sat in front of an array of four Minitels. He was a different woman on each. Jean Marc’s English isn’t great, so we did the rest of the interview in French.
JEAN-MARC: I ate beforehand, because it was hard to eat when you’re on four Minitels at once. We didn’t have time. I think I filled up a bottle of water, I’d turn on the Minitels and log onto the forums, and then I was off for the whole night… I think I started around 10 PM or midnight, and I would leave around five or six AM to go sleep. And I’d run into all these people waking up, going to work, and I’d just spent the night talking about sex with people all over the bizarre-to-normal spectrum. There was such a disconnect between me and the commuters, who were half-asleep. And I wondered if the people I’d been talking with all night were there, among the commuters, right in front of me.
CARLA: During the day, the boss would breathe over the animatrices’ shoulders, pressuring them to finish up with each partner more quickly so they could move onto the next. Being romantic – or engaging in anything that would slow them down, really – was strictly forbidden. Industrial work, Jean Marc called it. But he was – in his words – un artisan – a budding cyber-féministe.
He’s only using that word – artisan – half-ironically. You can hear it in his voice – he’s proud of his stint as a night-shift, artisan, animatrice. So he tried to incorporate his own unique world view, his artisan, cyber-feministe politics into every aspect of the job, even the identities that he chose to inhabit as a woman.
JEAN-MARC: On one Minitel I was a 56-year-old woman, on another I was a 35-year-old woman named Brigitte, and on the other I was a 19-year-old bisexual student.
CARLA: Unsurprisingly, the 19-year-old bisexual was far and away the most popular. But Jean Marc was insistent on subverting expectations.
JEAN-MARC: I liked refusing to only be blonde girls with giant breasts.
CARLA: And being a cyber-feministe also meant that Jean Marc insisted on pushing past the verbal abuse that most men used to open the conversation.
JEAN-MARC: Guys would log on and say “blow me whore” -- but I’d say no, you say “bonjour, madame.” And that always worked quite well.
CARLA: Once he managed to get past the abuse, he found Minitel Pink to be a uniquely raw and emotional place.
JEAN-MARC: People told me things that they’d never told anyone, and other things that they never would’ve told a man. So it was interesting to discover these secrets. They trusted me with their secrets – their sexual fantasies, their fears, their life dramas. There were people who were genuinely traumatized who told me about their trauma.
CARLA: Maybe they told him those things because he was Brigitte or the 19-year-old bisexual co-ed. But it was also probably because they were reveling in the newfound anonymity of typing from behind a screen, said Jean Marc. That anonymity revealed an intimate side of people he’d never really seen before.
JEAN-MARC: I got a lot of people who were suicidal – there were even a couple of women, young women, who were really freaking out. I wasn’t face to face with them, so I don’t know how much of what they told me was the truth. But what I do know is that the Minitel cost money, and the longer you were connected, the more expensive it was. I don’t get the point of lying when you’re paying so much to be connected in the first place.
CARLA: One time, he said, a man logged on and immediately pelted him with a clod of vitriol and verbal abuse.
JEAN-MARC: He started out – “bitch” – and was really violent. And I managed to calm him down, I said, you can’t talk that way. And after 15 minutes of this, he told me that his daughter had gotten hit by a car leaving school. And that he’d come on the Minitel to let off steam. And it was really touching.
CARLA: And discovering how open people would be with him on the Minitel chatrooms was a revelation for Jean Marc.
JEAN-MARC: I really didn’t expect for people to reveal so much of themselves emotionally. It kind of changed my life. It helped me to understand that what we call “internet networks” today, is first and foremost just people – human beings. It’s not cables and computers; it’s not technology. It’s humans.
JEAN-MARC: Not many women were animatrices – they had a hard time with it. It was pretty violent...and they didn’t have the perspective that I did on men’s fantasies. I had enough distance from it, and enough of a sense of irony about what I was doing, to not get depressed about the human race, because I was a heterosexual guy. I wasn’t going to think that all men were like that.
CARLA:In fact, Jean Marc could see himself in the men he talked to, because he’d been them when he was younger.
JEAN-MARC: Like all teenage boys, I managed to get onto Minitel rose when it was just starting to get really big. To see what it was. So I was on the other side of the equation, too. So when I was a teenager, I made up women’s usernames to see what it was like. And it was much more interesting, because all the men wanted to talk to you, since there weren’t many women. So even before I was paid to pass myself off as a woman on the Minitel, I had already done it – just to see.
CARLA: Jean Marc’s tenure as an animatrice was short lived - not because he was sick of the cybersex. It was for a different reason.
JEAN-MARC: They moved us to another building, and stuck us next to fortune tellers and astrologers. I mean, fortune telling, that’s going too far. Fortune telling is just stupid.
CARLA: That’s right - Jean Marc had no problem staying up all night impersonating a woman in sex chat rooms for money. Fortune telling, though, was more than he could bear. But while Jean Marc only lasted six months, the Minitel lasted quite a bit longer. In fact, when the internet did come along, France Telecom viewed it as a competitive rival.
In 1995, a French journalist asked to interview one France Télécom executive for a book he was writing about the Internet. The executive famously replied, “The Internet? But we’re going to ban the Internet, and create a French one. Internet 2.0.”
That plan, of course, didn’t work. For a company that was cashing in on fortune telling, France Telecom proved to be awful at actually predicting the future. In the end, when the world wide web finally beat the France wide web, the only real surprise was that it took as long as it did. The Minitel network was shut down in the summer of 2012, turning the 400,000 remaining Minitel terminals into permanently blank screens.
As for Jean Marc -- he’s a writer now, covering tech for Le Monde. He says we shouldn’t miss the Minitel. It was too expensive, too limited. Nostalgia for internets long passed? That’s an American indulgence.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Carla Green is a radio producer living in New Zealand. Coming up, we humiliate an old man. Stay tuned.
This week we’re trying a brand new feature on Reply All which we call Yes Yes No. We have found that our boss, Alex Blumberg comes to us so frequently with questions about internet arcana that we just thought we’d record one to see how it goes. Take it away, Alex.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Hey guys. So I was on Twitter and I came across this tweet. It’s from somebody named Laura June and it says: “What if Leah gets a Pulitzer for doxxing the fridge?” Do you know what that means?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: PJ, do you know what that means?
PJ: Yes. Blumberg, do you know what that means?
ALEX BLUMBERG: No.
PJ: Ok, [laughs] let’s...before we give an explanation, which of the words in that sentence do make sense to you?
ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughing] Pulitzer. Pulitzer.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You’ve heard of fridges, right?
ALEX BLUMBERG: I don’t know...I’ve heard of fridges.
PJ: But you can tell that’s a specific fridge.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I don’t know what “the fridge” is, I don’t know who Leah is, and I don’t REALLY know what doxxing is--I sort of know what doxxing is but I thought it had something to do with computers and not fridges.
ALEX GOLDMAN: It DOES have something to do with computers.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright. As a public service to me and all the listeners who might be like me, as old as me, what does this tweet mean?
PJ: So, Leah Finnegan is a writer at Gawker and she wrote a piece guessing at the identity of an anonymous Twitter account called NYTfridge.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And NYTfridge is supposed to be...I guess it’s like a parody...it’s supposed to be like witty stuff from inside the New York Times building.
PJ: Right, because a few years ago there was like a trend of...there was like Goldman Sachs elevator which was like “things you might overhear at Goldman Sachs.” And so it was the institutional gossip-y voice of Goldman Sachs. And NYTfridge started like that, at the New York Times but it’s morphed into something grumpier and weirder which is just like...a mean media critic who hates everything except Michael Wolf’s columns.
ALEX BLUMBERG: But there is a joke Twitter account called @NYTfridge.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok, good. Fact number 1 I now know. So then, there’s a woman named Leah Finnegan?
PJ: Yes. She writes at Gawker. She like writing about the media and so she didn’t say who’s behind the fridge, she wrote a piece being like “here’s the evidence we have, here’s who we know it’s not.”
ALEX BLUMBERG: So she...basically what she did is, essentially, wrote an article, essentially, trying to actually get to the bottom of who the NYT...it’s like…
PJ: They’re trying to flesh it out. Like they’re trying to say…
ALEX BLUMBERG: Like, who is Deep Throat?
PJ: Yes, exactly. But unimportant.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, nothing like “who is Deep Throat.”
PJ: Exactly. There are a number of internet personalities who are anonymous, who interact with the media a lot. Like the opposite of NYTfridge is this account called Darth. Darth has 20,000 followers, he talks a lot to, like, Claire Jeffery at Mother Jones, like people like that. Like editors. And he’ll do, sort of, cute, Photoshops. It’ll be like Mitt Romney with a Photoshopped dog. They’re sort of funny and a little critical. So people like him because he’s a helpful sprite of the internet. He’ll like whip up a photoshop for you. And Gawker, I think last winter, was like “we’re going to dox Darth.” And people were mad like they said they were going to murder Santa Claus. Like “how dare you,” “Darth doesn’t want to be public,” “there’s no journalistic value in this.” Daddadadaa. So now Gawker doxxing unimportant, anonymous media figures is like its own institutional reporting in joke, but they’re kind of serious about it and they’re kind of...they do get a lot of traffic for it because people do want to know.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, I’m going to try to explain it now, now that you’ve explained it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Explain it in a sentence.
PJ: It doesn’t have to be in a sentence.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So “what if Leah gets a Pulitzer for doxxing the fridge.” What this is is a...is a humorous tweet filled with…
ALEX GOLDMAN: [laughing] you got it so far.
ALEX BLUMBERG: And it refers to a article that was written on Gawker in which the author is trying to uncover the true person behind an anonymous Twitter account which is called the NYTfridge and it’s funny because Gawker has a history of going after somewhat annoying or somewhat friendly, but ultimately benign and unimportant Twitter handles and trying to uncover their true identities with the seriousness that is, to some people on the internet, mockable.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Pretty good.
PJ: Yeah. I think we’re at yes yes yes.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Thanks a lot, guys.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you feel better informed about the world?
PJ: Yeah, are you glad you know this?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you feel happy that you know this? Or do you just feel like now there’s just another piece of information in my brain that’s probably crowding out another memory of my childrens’...one of the amazing experiences I had with my kids? That’s, like, how I feel about this stuff.
ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, I don’t think I’m happy that I know this.
ALEX GOLDMAN AND PJ: [laughs]
ALEX BLUMBERG: But that’s ok. I think we should do another segment.
ALEX BLUMBERG: So, thanks very much for listening to Yes Yes No and we’ll be back with more Yes Yes No on future episodes of Reply All.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Unless you absolutely hate it.
PJ: And let us know in the comments. Don’t let us know in the comments.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced by Lina Misitzis and Chris Neary and edited by Alex Blumberg. Matt Leiber is the lone voice of reason in an otherwise insane world. Our theme music and scoring are by Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Special thanks this week to Rachel Emily and to Anthony Perowski who provided the American voice of Jean Marc Menach and to Sean Ramisfarm for playing the voice of the newscaster. And thanks to Squarespace. For a limited time, use the new Squarespace 7 for 10% off by going to squarespace.com and entering offer code “reply” at checkout. Thanks also to stamps.com where you can use that same offer code, “reply,” right now for a no risk trial plus $110 bonus offer which includes a digital scale and up to $55 free postage. Do it. Do it now. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.