When you think about early Internet users, do you picture French people trying to find love and teens in after-school programs? Kevin Driscoll joins us for this edition of our history series “How They Imagined the Internet” to tell us about France’s nation-wide public Internet that ran for decades and how BBS laid the groundwork for the web to be a social place.
Kevin Driscoll is Assistant Professor or Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He Minitel: Welcome to the Internet with Julien Mailland and is currently finishing his second book The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media.
Kevin also maintains a digital museum dedicated to Minitel.
Hey, I’m Ethan Zuckerman. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. Our interview today is part of our series, our informal, multi-part, who-knows-how-long-it’s-going-to-last series called How They Imagined The Internet. It’s a series on internet history.
And in that context, I am thrilled to have with us Professor Kevin Driscoll. Kevin Driscoll is assistant professor in the department of media studies at the University of Virginia. He’s the co-author of a wonderful book, Minitel: Welcome To The Internet, with Julien Mailland.
And together they co-founded the Minitel Research Lab, which is a wonderful digital Minitel museum and resource center. And if you go to the University of Indiana, you can actually visit a collection of Minitels in person.
He’s the author of a forthcoming book that I have recently been reading called, The Modem World, a pre-history of social media. And he is someone who has really spent his academic career fascinated by what we might call jurasic internet tech. Kevin, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me on.
So, and I’m noticing over your shoulder some of said jurasic internet tech. I am a fan of this era of computing as well. For me, it is a bit of a nostalgia trip. I have a commod or a pet in the other room that I learned a program on in the early 1980s. What got you fascinated with sort of what we might think of as internet prehistory Minitel, which obviously you didn’t grow up with, but also the BBS culture of the 1980s. What made this a research interest for you?
Well, I start off having a bit of a personal interest just in the joy of learning about myths and folklore to do with early internet. And I kind of assumed all these things were already written down. And then when I went to find them on the shelves of the library they weren’t there. As time has gone on and I’ve been more and more interested and how we address the large and looming problems of our current era, I realize like in a lot of ways the stories we tell about the past are lacking in the power to explain or provide light on where we might go into the future.
So I’ve thought of this research as developing narrative resources, like story fragments that that other people can make use of to imagine new futures for the internet and ideally futures that are more just that are addressing some of the problems of bias and access and equity that we’ve documented so well in other areas of scholarship.
So I really want to get into depth on BBSs and sort of the birth of, of internet community, because I think the new book is so important at this moment where we are reconsidering the present and the future of the social web. But before we get there, I want to talk about that dominant narrative.
So I got on the internet for the first time in 1989. And I think one of the first things I read was one of these internet FAQs about the early history of the internet, which drags it back to 1969 and coming out of DARPA and sort of traces it through the development of these military and academic networks. And it feels like a very well developed history.
And I sort of felt in 1989 I was putting myself in the context of it, honestly, 20 years in, right, since we sort of start with 69 as a beginning date. What’s missing from that history. And how did that particular history of TCPIP this one networking protocol, this one particular internet, rather than all those other internets out there? How does this become the dominant narrative that any self-respecting geek knows today but which you go to some length in both of these books to explain is not the only narrative and actually a quite incomplete narrative?
Yeah. I love that anecdote about the FAQ, because that’s where I went in. My research also was trying to trace the root of that story. How did that become this story that we tell. There’s a few different pieces of it which are kind of interesting to break apart. The first is that the very word Internet meant different things to different people at different points in time.
So for a very particular, and I would say narrow definition of Internet, that was a really accurate history that traced the emergence of particular research community that was unusually open generative collaborative. I mean, it’s a really special moment for a lot of people in their careers. I mean this early internet and [APNET 00:04:54] community had major contributions from students. It had major contributions from people who we would see as staff, which is sometimes a lower status role in university environments.
And so from that point of view, this is really special and different from other research projects that are going on. And so we want to celebrate that by the end of the 1990s, of course, we have a different meaning of the term Internet. It’s come to me in something closer to what people were talking about as information super highway or even interactive television, global information infrastructure. There is like a number of words being circulated by different actors with different stakes, but we rewrote the definition of Internet, but didn’t change the history.
So we have the history for an earlier meaning of internet that just carries on forward. I was thinking a lot about that FAQ thing, because those FAQs end up being the kind of rough drafts of books like this. I brought some show and tell so internet for dumies, the big dumies guide to the internet. There’s a number of related books that get made. Almost all of them have a couple pages of history at the beginning and tell a variation of the like APNET to internet story.
All reworking of that same FAQ, which has been circulating around. Eric Scott Raymond was an editor for it at one point. I mean, we’ve all seen a few different versions of it. To the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t mention Minitel. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t mention BBSs, it doesn’t mention all of these corporate networks that turn out to be incredibly important in the early foundation of things like CompuServe, which turns out to be a computer time sharing network independent of the internet, which obviously must have existed but as an internet history geek guy I knew absolutely nothing about,
Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to put yourselves in the shoes of someone like Vint Cerf who’s an advocate for the internet both in the academy and at the side of telecoms, it’s like working for MCI. And he is advocating using these open protocols like TCPIP to build interconnection and gateway between networks. So if you’re in that position of advocacy, CompuServe is not the internet. By definition, it’s not using the internet protocols.
However, if we’re standing in 2022 and looking back, and we’re saying, what looks like the internet we inhabit today on the things that are happening on CompuServe are critically important to the history of the practices that we undertake today. Forums where you debate politics or meet other fans of TV shows and things that you like, trading files, getting pictures, getting news reports of breaking news from around the world. Those are things happening on commercial services.
They’re also happening on the academic networks too, but the reason they wouldn’t have been considered part of internet history is because they weren’t part of that version of the internet that’s defined by its technical infrastructure. But that’s not the definition of internet that any of my students are using. It’s not the definition of the internet that most policy makers are using.
So essentially this document that I very much grew up on, it sounds like you are also fascinated with is almost a protocol history, or it’s a social history of the internet, but defining the around the narrow protocol of TCPIP which I would hasen to remind our listeners is the sort of basic backbone protocol of the internet that we know and love today, but an actual rich social history of the internet includes many, many other threads. And the one that I want to bring in at this point is Minitel. First of all, what was Minitel and how did you learn about and start getting fascinated with Minitel?
Yeah. So Minitel is a public data network that was started in France and became accessible to people in the general public by the early 1980s. And it was in some ways supposed to be a major evolution of their telephone infrastructure. But it was done. So under a vision of combined telematics that would include television broadcast and two-way communications like telephones with data communications around computer infrastructure.
So it’s a really interesting design for a platform. It looks really different than what was happening elsewhere in Unix based networks like that we’re using TCPIP and also other related protocols. But it had this key piece switch was to put the Minitel terminals that is like the machines that you use to access the network in the homes and schools and offices of everyday people.
And that component of it, that public access and public interest aspect of the Minitel project wasn’t really a part of any of the major networks that we’ve been talking about so far.
How I got interested in it is a kind of funny biographical story, which is my colleague Julien Mailland. We were in grad school together, and we both were working on what we might think of as more present day issues like Julien was working a lot on speech censorship, also net neutrality. But we had this interested Minitel.
And Julian having grown up in France had firsthand experience with the Minitel terminals. And we started playing with Minitel for the joy of experimenting with it. And at the time Minitel still was an operating network. It continued to be in service until 2012. So for that purpose, we make the claim that this is one of our longest running public communication infrastructures. And from that point of view, it’s really striking just to think of its longevity. It almost invites us to be historical because of the long temporal scope for this project.
But at the time Minitel was kind of e-waste in France. And so anytime that Julien would visit his family, he would bring some Minitel hardware in his carryon luggage. And we started to build a collection and document our experiments at the Minitel Research Lab website, which was intentionally tongue in cheek. The full name is Minitel Research Lab, USA. And the URL is minitel.us because it was so odd that we would be looking at it from the living in Southern California at the time.
But then as we work were working on it, we realized how frequently the experiences of people on Minitel spoke directly to some of the problems that we were working on. And we started to see Minitel as a real working case study that provided an alternative example to the web and to other social media systems. We didn’t have to invent it or come up with hypotheticals or draw some kind of fictional case study. We had a system that was really used by millions of people day in and day out for years. And we we should be able to have those kinds of case studies richly laid out so that we can use them for comparison and contrast with some of the systems we rely on today.
I Love this notion of Minitel, it’s sort of a long array technical history that having three full decades there. And thinking back to ’82, I mean, ’82 was amazingly early in particularly tech in the home. And please correct me if I’m wrong here. Minitel was not necessarily very costly to use, although it did have a cost per minute, but I think the hardware was provided Gradys almost as if you would give people a telephone directory, is that correct?
Yeah. They thought about this as a chicken in the egg problem that the platform as we characterize it is a public infrastructure for private innovation. So this, most of the services on metel are provided by private people or organizations. And then most of the users are also private and then it a network in the middle that’s managed by the state.
And so to have anybody make a service, there has to be users and to get any users who need some services. So they found a way to both provide local manufacturers with a huge contract and to provide people with access to low cost access to this system, by making a very affordable to produce standard terminal, that was a screen, a keyboard and a mode that fit into a very nice box and was made to look good and look appropriate in your home in the early 1980s. So it has like this brown molded plastic. It has a handle on top that you can carry you. They kind of imagine you’re going to stick it in a cupboard when you’re not using it. And you could get it for free.
It took a few years to roll out. So between say, ’82 and ’86, it gradually becomes available nationwide and you would pick it up at the post office. This is a state agency providing access.
It was costly to use per minute. And that limit the number of people who could really get deeply into all of the nooks and crannies of Minitel, but some services were not. And so the electronic telephone book is a really important piece of Minitel history, where you could connect to the electronic telephone book for free for a certain number of minutes.
So virtually everybody in the country who was alive at this time from children to the elderly had some experience of Minitel by looking up names and addresses of businesses there. And actually enthusiasts have recreated aspects of the electronic telephone book that you can see on the web at 3611.re. It’s a really faithful recreation, but with present day data.
Oh, wow. Okay. Okay.
So you can go back and, and have the appropriate time honored experience of the phone directory, but done with essentially a Minitel simulator.
Yeah. And they, they made no assumptions that people would know how to use computers. There was a even debate about how to lay out the letters of the keyboard. So rather than AZAT, which is like the standard layout for French computers, maybe they should be A, B, C, D just like alphabetical, because if the people don’t know how to type it all, maybe it’s just as well that they would learn in some other form .
For everybody’s benefit, it turned out that they used AZAT which is like the standard keyboard layout on typewriters as well. But you can see how everything was on the table. This is such a brand new system that there were no standards in place and you weren’t rushing like running against people’s expectations on what it meant to go online, because they had none. A big part of the Minitel story is what happens when people go online for the very first time.
And so we’re also interested in how Minitel is represented and reflected in popular culture. Like police procedurals would have a storyline where the murderer is on the Minitel service. There, we have all these pop songs on our website that are about love stories or affairs that take place over Minitel.
So it really like diffuses in culture even if you’re not using it, because you can’t afford, or you can’t justify the cost of getting on there, you’re still like enveloped in a world that is in part shaped by the presence of Minitel.
We also see on Minitel very early on the idea that any sufficiently developed internet technology will be used for adult content. Can you talk briefly about pink Minitel?
Yeah. So the Minitel rose or the pink Minitel is like a unofficial category of Minitel services which are adult content, you could say. While there is some evidence of like animated pornography most of this adult content is not porn in the sense of porn hub. This is people chatting with other people. And so some of the popular media coverage of it talks about it as like the return of the masquerade ball. You go, and you can put on this other identity and you can chat with other people. You may or may not meet them offline.
A lot of the stories would appear in American popular media in the 1990s about like these two people were chatting and then can you believe they got married and now they have a baby. Like, those stories are prevalent in the 1980s Minitel case as well.
So probably the most memorable part of Minitel rose is not the use of it, but the advertising of it, which was all over the streets of Paris and on television. And if you look in the the national media archives of France you’ll find dozens of television ads for minute tele services, which from just seeing the ad, it’s hard to know even what happens on those services, because it’ll just be like a woman with spring the short code that you type in to get onto the service.
But some of those were some of the longest lasting services. So like [inaudible 00:17:42] which is one of the most well known pink services stayed online right up until the 2012, the conclusion of the platform.
So it is just remarkable that there’s this entire chapter of history which those of us who didn’t grow up in France tend not to know about, your more recent book, the book that’s coming out. I believe in March, the Modem World is a world that’s actually much closer. It’s the world very much that I grew up in, but was way too dark and dangerous for my parents to let me participate in. I was an America online kid, but the world that all of these close services like CompuServe and AOL came out of was a much more open world of bulletin board systems. What was a bulletin board system? And why should we care?
That’s a really interesting way to frame it. I’ll say the what first and then why you should care.
So what is, a bulletin board system is it’s basically a piece of software running on a computer that’s connected to a telephone. And in the vast majority of cases, the computer can answer the phone. And so it sits there and it you’re providing access to the computer to anybody who dials into your home telephone.
By and large, these started as mimicking the community bulletin board, like the cork and pins bulletin board you would see on a college campus or in the entryway to a grocery store or a church or something like that. You can post an announcement and you can read the announcements that other people have posted. So for the contemporary analogy is like a forum or a message board.
By the late 1980s, they had expanded to include most of the kinds of services that we associate with the early internet. So lot live chat rooms, MUDs and other online games, file downloading, and then a range of other kinds of online services like dating profiles, or other kinds of interactive things like astrology and stuff like that.
So bolting board systems are in some ways a for runner of some of the commercial that you’re describing, but they also run in parallel with it, and it’s a global phenomenon. And so, whereas my book focuses principally on north America for reasons that I’ll explain in a second, this is a global phenomenon. And I think conversation with researchers in many other parts of the world where BBSs is take on a different life in part because they are so independent.
They’re something that you attach to the existing telephone network and they run over standard telephone lines. And so for that reason, they have to use different protocols than the networks that have state support like APNET and others. But it also means that they’re not subject to surveillance and censorship in the same ways that state sponsored network might be.
One reason that I focus on North America is because of my experience talking about the Minitel work, which is lots of folks who are familiar with the dominant mythology of the internet would say like, “Oh, it’s so great to read Minitel because now we have this French story. And that like compliments the story from north America.” And I was like, but we also don’t really have the full story of what all was happening on this side of the world at the same time in many ways, because that standard APNET to web story leaps over at least 10 years of activity where a lot of the action on bolts and boards and related commercial services.
Yeah. So let’s start by kind of reminding people what computing looks like in the 1980s ’cause that’s really where this book focuses. The home computer to the extent that people have, it doesn’t really come with very much software, it has a very basic operating system. Most of these machines have an interpreter often for basic.
There’s a decent chance that if you have one of these machines you may be trying to teach yourself basic or some other programming language. You may be entering in software that printed in a magazine. And so you go down to the bookstore, buy the magazine and enter in as carefully as you can these programs. It’s very, very difficult to move data from machines. The dominant mechanism from moving data from machine to machine is via cassette tape where you’re are literally recording E or E or as ones and zeros that can be played back to load a program if you’re very, very lucky. How do bulletin boards sort of bridge the gap at this point where your computer is this very lonely very isolated machine alone by itself on your desktop?
Yeah. Let me add a couple details also to that-
That really rich historical portrait. One is that the machines really don’t come with any hardware for networking, which is something that’s like so outside of the norm for us over the last 10 or 20 years, the notion that you would buy a laptop without wifi is like preposterous, because what uses it if it can’t connect to other computers, but of course, modems are not standard issue and neither are networking cards.
And so in terms of your priorities of what to buy, you’d probably buy like a printer and a joystick and another disc drive before you throughout the $200 to get a modem. So even among the minority of people who own home computers, those who also own a modem is like yet another subset. And there is cultural reasons why you would be a modem owner. And so it becomes a kind of arc of distinction to even own a modem, to know why it’s useful to have one in the first place.
There’s nothing like the media phenomena around Minitel where you’re seeing the online world reflected back to you on television for bulletin boards. It’s very much like a subcultural activity and buying a modem is your ticket to entry. You really need another person to show you them going online on their modem to know why you would buy one in the first place.
So most bulletin and boards are created following on some offline relationships that already exist. So sometimes it’s like a computer club or after school program at a K12 school or a local newspaper, a magazine, fascine, some kind of like print publication who builds like an online addition to the thing that they’re doing. Ham radio clubs are another big source of interest in early bulletin boards.
So often what happens is people are a meeting in person and have friendships and they start talking about how to extend something like a monthly meeting into an ongoing activity, or they have a bunch of resources like articles that have been published in their [inaudible 00:24:36] and they want to put them somewhere. So they put them on the bulletin board.
Or they have massive amounts of pirated software and they want to share it with other people. I want to make sure that we’re actually being very clear about-
Oh, we’re going to get there.
Why a lot of people were spending time on bulletin boards in the 1980s and why my parents wouldn’t let me have about them. Yes.
But what happens in the early nineties is a lot of the people who are building bulletin boards are starting to figure out ways to make interconnection to the internet. And with the redefinition of internet, when your bulletin board becomes connected to the internet, the internet doesn’t become bulletin board net if your bulletin board becomes part of the internet and it vanishes into the internet in a real discursive sense.
So what happens is like, I think for folks who are building the early web, they’re used to having this like connection, whether it’s win sock or whatever that’s creating a packet switch connection to this network. And then they have a bunch of stuff that they run off it. They have like their email client, IRC, whatever.
And the web is one more tool that sits on top of their TCPIP connection. It’s not till later that the web is your like primary mode of accessing all of those other internet services. So initially the web are the purpose of having homepages and hypertext and things like that.
And bulletin board system operators, they’re used to bulletin boards serving multiple functions, but they’re also used to this experience of like, it’s always changing and you never know what you’re going to get when you log in. There’s all these ways that bulletin board system software reminds you of the existence of other people even if the bulletin board is a single line system that can only accommodate one user at a time, it’s telling you, here’s how many people logged in today. Here’s the average time they were on this person uploaded this file, this person posted nine messages. So you, you feel like you’re in this lively system.
Whereas websites didn’t really do that, particularly in the beginning. And it’s kind of argue through the book that it’s the joining of the web and bulletin board systems that transforms the web into a social medium. It’s the expectations of those long term BBS users that hey, computers are here so we can talk to each other, trade files, get advice, argue about politics, whatever. So if you give us a new medium, we’re going to adapt it to do that.
So one very strong support for your argument is that in addition to the sort of official accepted history of the internet, which we’ve established as a very incomplete and select history, there’s almost a sort of official here is why the web is important, here is why we should pay attention to the web. And a lot of that runs through Howard Rheingold, a lot of that runs through the well, which is this disproportionately influential bulletin board system.
Help me sort of understand the Well in all of this context. The well is this bay area based network that appears to be mostly occupied by tech journalists who go on to write books about the internet. How does it have things in common and how is it different from the rest of this scene that you’re talking event?
Yeah. The Well is such a like fun case to work with in this context, because it’s such an outlier, both it’s an outlier in its political economy. It’s an outlier in the population of users that are there it’s outlier in terms of how much visibility it has in mainstream media and how much documentation we have of it. But it’s possibly the best documented bulletin board.
It sits in this like kind of gray area where it’s often included in lists of nationwide online systems. So like the Boston globe might run an article book going online in the ’80s and they’ll be like, “Here’s how to get online.” You have CompuServe, Quantum Link, Genie, the Source and the Well. And they’ll throw the Well at the bottom, even though it has an order of magnitude fewer users.
So on one hand it gets advertised as like a nationwide system, but it’s still super local. Like it is a bay, you know when you’re connecting to the Well, you’re kind of in your mind connecting to the bay area.
And it has this like bay area reputation it’s tied to the longer counterculture to cyber culture story that Fred Turner documented so well.
But at the same time, we don’t even tell the Well story that well, because the Well is also a huge stopping grounds for grateful dead fandom. And so it’s a meeting place for dead heads. It’s a place that you can go and do taped trading and meet, find people to share rides to shows or trade tickets. It’s a place where a lot of today’s deadhead resources like databases of show listings and track listings and knowledge about what tapes exist were first being compiled on the Well.
And all those people are paying the monthly fee and the per hour fee to be a online. Whereas many of the bay area intelligence had Gradys accounts or discounted monthly accounts.
So in some ways I’m thinking like this is a fandom history about music fans that are enabling this other kind of like intellectual community to flourish. And they work together. The way that many social media systems we use today also have these like multiple disparate somewhat overlapping groups. And it’s the interactions between them that sustain the whole system.
The piece of the bulletin board system story that I come back too time and again, is the role of the CSOP like the system operator. It’s a really, really important figure in BBS history that’s almost absent of all dominant platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok.
Those platforms, despite how huge they are, they imagine that there’ll be automated systems that handle the care work all the way to, down to the edges of the groups and the small communities and things that gather in those spaces, which is such an abdication of responsibility. And in some ways is so disrespectful to the work of community management that has been done over the years. And it’s so frustrating because we’ve seen platforms make these mistakes. in the past.
There were lawsuit about the volunteer labor that happened on America online, where America online originally promised that moderators of the groups would be paid in time, free time on the system. And then when they changed their business model, that was no longer a fair trade and yet they still expected the volunteer moderators to be there night after night.
Minitel there were similarly volunteer moderators, and there’s some great work that Jeff Nagy has done. And I can give you some of these links along the way to look at that kind of labor that it comes up time and again.
Bulletin board systems are unique in that the labor of the CSOP is recognized by all of the people who are involved. And the CSOP is very intensely accountable to many of the people. So most bulletin board systems are not like the Well, they don’t have 9,000 users all over the country. They have 10 or 20 or 100 people who mostly live pretty close to them and they probably meet them in person. So a lot of bulletin board systems to get on them you had to be verified by a voice telephone call, or even a face to face meeting.
And so these sysops and I mentioned many of them in the book. They are directly accountable to not only maintaining the system, like keeping it running, keeping the lights on, making sure it’s connected to the telephone, but also upholding norms and values and articulating what those norms and values are and ought to be.
Kevin, I want to ask maybe sort of one part of thought on all of this, you have this wonderful lesson in the Minitel book that essentially infrastructures matter and publicly funded infrastructures matter, and they can be profoundly generative. You have an amazing lesson in the bulletin board’s book, which I think that there are alternate histories and that sometimes we have to recognize these histories to understand that things like social computing have very deep roots behind them.
30 years from now, someone’s going to write a book about this moment in computing. Any senses about what people are going to want to celebrate, want to understand about this particular moment when people come back and a young scholar in 2052 is looking at what I am sure at that point will be the earlier or the jurasic net. What do you think they’re going to catch onto? What do you think will be worth going back to, and considering 30 years in the future?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I have two part answer for that. So one would be, we kind of know what the dominant story is going to be. It’s playing out in the op-ed pages of big newspapers, and it’s like, this is the period of time of like doom and gloom, things are horrible, but we actually have no clue for diversity of practices in communities that are emerging in these different spaces.
And we still don’t recognize the longevity of so many systems and communities that have either persisted like the Well which is still a thriving online community, or have migrated from one place to the next, like I have a family member who is in a motorcycle club that moved from like an email list to a Yahoo group, to a forum, to a Facebook group, there is persistence there.
And then I think in the longer history, we’ll look back at the of say, like late 19th century to the early 21st century as a period of like constructing something like the grid or the net or the matrix that is this like integrated information infrastructure. And we’ll stop thinking about it as like, there was the Telegraph and then the telephone and then TV and then cable TV, and then satellite TV. Like those nuances will be interesting to some historians, but we will see it as a period of like network making.
And so when we look at these particular systems or these events that seem to punch through the narrative or some of the hype cycle like the 2016 election or things like that, then we’ll think of them in the broader context of that building of global interconnectivity.
And then we ask about like, well, who had accountability, who had responsibility or stewardship over these moments, who demonstrated care, who demonstrated an investment in recognition of the needs of community, and will look to policy makers and will look to business owners and things like that. But I imagine that there’ll be store that have yet to be written that are playing out now and they are marginalized or they’re disconnected from the ways that stories like surface to the top of Twitter trending topics and things like that.
Kevin, this is such a pleasure. I just want to commend both of these books to anyone who has enjoyed this conversation. The first one is Minitel Welcome to the Internet, which you read along with Julien Mailland, and the new one out in just a couple of weeks is the Modem World, a prehistory of social media. Thank you so much for being with us.
Thanks so much for your time. This is really a blast.