R.I.P. MINITEL: THE FIRST COMMERCIAL INTERNET

Paris in the Spring: 1981.

Some time prior, I’d left the comfort of friends and family in Manhattan to follow my bliss – which quickly devolved into a desperate search for work from a small bohemian flat in the 16th Arrondissement. Of course, a woman was involved… but that’s not the story here.

In my ongoing mission to not starve to death, the telephone played a crucial role in identifying job prospects, fielding replies (or rather, rejections, due to my spotty French) and generally providing a reasonably stable command center… just like it does anywhere else. Unlike other places though – even the good old USA – I had an unexpected weapon in the job-search arsenal: the wondrous Minitel terminal. And there was my first lesson in the power of the ‘Internet’.

A Minitel Terminal Similar To The One I First Used

Although not remotely as media rich as the Internet we know (ASCII only, thanks), Minitel was a forward-facing leap into a future of online possibilities. You could book train and airline reservations (securely, with credit cards!) and locate companies via a decent search engine. And just like the Internet of today, sex played a major role in the service – in fact, from the beginning, detractors of Minitel complained that it was mostly used for obtaining sex. C’est la vie… some things never change.

Like being in summer camp and staying up late to watch the lunar landing in 1969, using Minitel for the first time was nothing short of a revelation to me. Growing up as a NASA geek and gadget nerd, this new toy was like stepping into the magic zone. Looking deeply into it’s relentlessly black and white cathode-ray universe, one could easily envision a wild new someday when TV and radio would blend together in this interactive environment and produce unimaginable new ways of communicating. Sadly, I lacked the technical skills at the time to make that a reality myself… but this idea, laser-etched into my consciousness, was forefront in my thinking when opening my first digital agency in 1994.

The Modern Minitel Unit

We’ve come a long way since then. Minitel peaked in users (at around 7 million) several years ago, and has been in a steady decline thanks to the advance of the Internet. But in truth, the modern Minitel actually has certain advantages over the global Web, the foremost being it does not suffer from viral attacks – perhaps due to the famously nationalistic French being loathe to mess with their own “invented here” proto-Web. However, the answer probably has  more to do with it being a closed system maintained by both the state phone company and post office. With a small, finite number of users, Minitel is infinitely easier to police and monitor, and its standards are uniform and tested over 30 years. Plus, no hacker gets famous for crippling what amounts to a small user group – no cred in that.

But despite everything, Minitel remains a decent (albeit elderly) earner, clocking millions of Euros from only around 2 million subscribers who doggedly hang on to the past.

A French Billboard From the 80's Selling Minitel's Access To Escort Services. Still Better Than Village Voice Ads.

Minitel virtually kept me alive by eliminate some of the barriers experienced due to my middling French-speaking skills. I credit the service for keeping job doors open and helping me to not starve, or worse, creeping back home in shame and embarrassment over not having found a way to survive on my own.

But as they say, all true love is touched by sadness, and my relationship with  Mintiel is no exception. The service is due to be phased out in September of this year. My heartbreak is not because I’m a rabid Francophile (I’m not), nor because I have even used it since its very early days (I haven’t).

I will miss it like the misty remembrances one has when learning of the demise of a childhood love. The girl I followed to Paris has become a distant dream of youth… my lasting memory of those days is now a retrospective understanding of the art of the possible. A glimpse into a future… a first digital kiss. And the spark it ignited.

Springtime in Paris can have that effect.