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But what the Minitel lacked, crucially, was a feature so integral to today’s internet that sometimes we don’t even notice it. So not long after its release – a teenager who was never identified, as the story goes – hacked the Minitel and added a messaging feature. And since they liked it, usage of the Minitel increased. So France Telecom integrated chatrooms into the Minitel’s design.Those chatrooms quickly became the single biggest reason people logged on.During the daytime, the room would be full of animatrices – fifteen or twenty at a time. Jean Marc preferred to work nights, when he was often alone. Jean Marc’s English isn’t great, so we did the rest of the interview in French.There was a great view of Paris from the office building he worked in, and it was quiet. JEAN-MARC: I ate beforehand, because it was hard to eat when you’re on four Minitels at once. 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…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.In the early 80’s, way before the world wide web existed, the French government shipped a 0 terminal to every home with a phone line, and created a service that for decades ran alongside the internet. 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. ALEX: I think that you think that you…you’re like a way more popular and sociable and friendly than I am. 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 GREEN: In 1982 France’s national telephone company – France Télécom – decided it was spending too much money printing phonebooks. It was an ungainly, clumsy piece of technology, just a little CRT monitor with a keyboard.
Jean Marc worked on the seventeenth floor of a tall building in Paris.
CARLA: Unsurprisingly, the 19-year-old bisexual was far and away the most popular.
But Jean Marc was insistent on subverting expectations.
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.