Virtual Intimacy - Tales from Minitel and More

[The Gurus]

by Philippe Le Roux

translated from the French by Carol Baroudi

This originally appeared in ``Internet Secrets'', published by IDG Books in 1994.

Note: We use ``Telematics'' as a translation of the French télématique. The French word was created by combining informatique, meaning computing, and telecommunications in the ``Rapport NORA-MINC'', a 1975 report that the French government ordered to investigate the future of new technologies. Telematics or telematic means the domain of the online, graphical, and interactive services. This word is used in Europe and England. We use the word here to best translate the French original.


When I was asked to join the team of writers for this book, I got ready to expound on my usual vision -- of telematic communications and their impact on personal behavior. But I quickly found that I couldn't escape implicating myself. I couldn't talk about theories without supporting them with facts, and these facts I had to take from my personal experiences. I had to open a page of my own history which I thought I'd definitely turned, a page full of good times and pain, a page always full of passion. This page is that of the Genesis of chatlines, and my discovery of fabulous human behavior on these electronic systems. My biggest discovery about information technology is that people use it to be warm, natural, and spontaneous. The world of technology is not cold and insensitive -- on the contrary.... Not because of the engineers, but because of the users who knew how to master the technology, and put it to their own use. But we'll see how it all started.

Our action unfolds at the end of the seventies. In all corners of the planet, experimental videotext projects were beginning. The U.S. Department of Defense began building the ARPANET, which later became what we know as the Internet. In Canada, the pilot project was called Telidon; in Japan, Captain; in the United Kingdom, Prestel; in France, VVV. All these projects found themselves in a double bind: the technology was ready for telematics, but people were not. All the governments made the same decision -- let the engineers' dreams die.

Somewhere in the south of Brittany, the engineers at France Télécom (France's public phone company) proposed putting into place an electronic phone book that would solve many problems. Dialing 12, the French equivalent of 411, was overrun: you had to wait almost an hour, and each call cost a dollar. Traditional white pages and yellow pages cost a fortune to print and distribute, and are not very ecologically sound. The government quickly gave the green light for the design and free distribution of a little videotext terminal, the Minitel, which would replace the phone books in every home.

What the government didn't foresee was that the engineers would use the Minitel as a Trojan horse to launch the telematic technology that the government had already rejected. Today, more than seven million Minitels are in use in France, in offices and homes, and several tens of thousand telematic services (data banks, electronic shopping, home banking, games, administrative services) are available from a regular videotext terminal, cheap but effective. Meanwhile, the electronic phone book is becoming marginally used, and they continue to print and distribute the paper books.

While the engineers of France Télécom continued to prepare their magic box, access points using a national X-25 network (Transpac), and the electronic phone book itself, one of the first pilot telematic projects was organized in the east of France, at the heart of which the users were playing the same games with the engineers that the engineers had played with the government.

Hacking for Chatting: GRETEL, the Genesis of Chatlines

This pilot project was organized jointly by France Télécom and by Les Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace (The Latest News from Alsace); the DNA, as it's called there. The DNA is the most important regional newspaper in France. It covers all the east and northeast of France with publications that are envied by the national papers. It is the only paper whose size and diversity of content compares to the huge North American weekend papers.

The project's name was GRETEL. Its goal was offering a local information service. The information would be both political and community-oriented, ranging from announcements from the unemployment office to theater schedules and included classified ads. Looking back, it was probably the predecessor of freenet. To start the project, a number of people were given a prototype of the Minitel terminal. This prototype had two problems that have been fixed in the current Minitel models. First, it was very cumbersome -- a solid block, with a keyboard that couldn't be detached or replaced. Second, its keys were arranged alphabetically -- not exactly ergonomic!

The programmers who had developed the service had included in the system a way of allowing a user to stick a message in one line, where the service technician could respond with a one-line message that would appear at the top of the user's screen. This feature was the first version of manual online help. After a few weeks, everything seemed to be going as planned. The service became richer, with more information and more features every day, more and more bugs got fixed, and the commercial users found it to be an interesting experience. A beautiful pilot project, well-organized, that was coming along nicely until one day...

A hacker visiting one of his pals wanted to play with GRETEL. His friend showed him the system, and the hacker became especially interested in the online help facility. He quickly found a way to hack the system, using the help system to send messages directly to another user's screen. The technicians watched help messages being rerouted. Their boss, Michel Landaret, was immediately advised that their system was in the process of being hacked. Landaret made a surprising decision that resulted in fortuitous consequences: He told them to continue to watch what was happening, but not to intervene (as long as the integrity of the system was not compromised). Quickly, the users began passing messages to each other. The developers then created features allowing users to communicate more easily, without jeopardizing system security. The first chatting system was born, and rapidly became the most important use of the entire system.

The digital agoras

Most of the people who were part of the pilot project lived in an apartment building, near Strasbourg, where people didn't talk to each other, and found themselves isolated in the middle of a crowd, as often happens in large urban centers. The nights were long, and often depressing, for single people who didn't always have the means to get into the center of town. GRETEL became that means of going out, seeing the world, and making new friends without even leaving the house, without having to find a baby-sitter or even taking out one's curlers.

Princess, Man in Black, Scarabée d'or (Golden Beetle) and Baleine Bleue (Blue Whale) began to talk to one another, and to talk about each other. One would ask another if a third was really as nice in real life as he appeared on the screen. At the heart of the town, a new market square had been born, really a place where people could find themselves and interact without having to deal with the rigid rules our urban ways of life had imposed. Customers rubbed elbows with the management, programmers joked with philosophers, and the banker fell in love with the waiter from the pizza parlor. This virtual place was like those old village plazas, like the Greek agoras. The Digital Agora was no longer a buzz word. It had its rules, its gossip, its stories of love and romance, and, of course, its lies and deceptions.... In 1984, everyone came together; two members married each other -- they had met each other through GRETEL, and their relationship had developed on GRETEL. According to their story, the charm has lasted, and they are still happily married.

During this time, the engineers from France Télécom finally shipped their electronic phone book, which was distributed for free in Paris and in certain other parts of France. The first commercial telematic services began. Among them was the service Médical (SM), whose story, from the beginning, was another victory for the techies.

Service Médical

Four students finished medical school, and, at the same time, discovered information processing, the first micro-computers, and the joys of programming. Rather than following the flood of their colleagues who rushed to work in private clinics or in hospitals, or open their own private practice, they decided to combine their knowledge of medicine and information processing to create a telematic service. This service offered an online electronic review of the medical journals, allowing doctors to save time and money while following the activity in their field. Medical articles are numerous, costly, and voluminous, and only certain articles appeal to certain doctors.

SM began to attract doctors with an offer for a subscription to all the new technology available through Minitel. Our accomplices at SM developed a teleconferencing system that could connect four people from different locations. This system wasn't available to the doctors -- it was reserved for those four who had built and managed SM -- and their friends. But their friends told their friends, who told their friends what was happening. The number of forums grew, so there were four forums, each allowing five participants. Each user's screen was divided into six parts. At the bottom of each part, you could see the a participant's handle, and the text of his last message. The sixth part allowed you to type a message before sending it. Your message would then appear on the screen with your handle.

Invaded by the Back Door, Service Médical opts for Line 3615

In no time, the doctors were no longer able to get access to SM, because it was tied up by friends of friends who were using it as a chat system. SM's only source of funding was the subscriptions it sold to doctors, so the situation was becoming difficult to manage. Because that wasn't working, they made a decision to open access through a phone line, 3615. Line 3615, operated by the phone company, allowed access through Minitel for about $10 an hour, where 60% of the revenue went to the service provider, in this case, SM. So from that point on, SM became accessible to anyone who had a password and Minitel access. In less than a month, there were over a thousand electronic mailboxes, under all sorts of handles. Among them were Bill (Dr. François Lagarde, one of the founders), Rainbow (Lionel, the supervisor), JE (the creator of the electronic phone book from France Télécom) and Dionysos (myself). Bill and his accomplices added new features such as games, the SMile Box (which is a common bulletin board), and research tools in the mailboxes directory, which was growing everyday.

When someone dialed 3615, Minitel displayed a welcome page, asking which service you wanted to connect -- in this case, SM. But, with the display of this page, France Télécom began to charge $10 an hour. Within two months, SM was completely saturated; there were people who tried, hour after hour, at $10 an hour, to get into SM, waiting for a port to free itself. People were literally addicted to SM. You couldn't start your day without seeing if you had mail on SM. It was difficult to go look at your mail without getting trapped in a conversation with a friend. And it was impossible to break off the communication. SM had, at that time, an important impact on work absenteeism statistics.

SM was such a success that the two micro-computers it was using at that time (Goupil G4s with 256K of RAM) literally caught fire one night when they overheated. The absence of SM during the days it took to reinstall the backup on new, tougher equipment (AT&T 3B15 mini computers) was traumatic for thousands of users who were like drug addicts in withdrawal or cultists deprived of their guru.

For the short story, SM became one of the biggest French videotext chatlines, making a fortune for its four founders (who sold it the European newspaper tycoon, Robert Maxwell, before his death and the collapse of his empire). At this time, SM is owned by a group of French newspapers, le Nouvel observateur (The New observer), which is one of the largest telematic groups in Europe.

In Three Years, I met more than a thousand people...

People who don't use online communications tools often ask if cyber-meetings don't make people more isolated, or prevent people from having real physical meetings. If I believe my own experience, and the experiences of others that I've studied, it's not true. Online chatlines are a fantastic social tool for people who tend to be shy or introverted. They learn how to talk to strangers, and quickly gain confidence in themselves. It's true that the hundreds of evenings and nights I've stayed home, stretched out on the rug in front of my Minitel, are nights that I didn't go to a bar, a disco, or a museum. But how many nights out like this are a social bust? On the contrary, I went out regularly to meet the people I met on my Minitel, whether it was face to face over a cup of coffee or at a Minitel party, a Get Together (GT). I met more than 300 people one on one, and over a thousand at GTs. What professional bar fly can equal that?

Meeting people electronically turns our attitudes and our ways of looking at people, upside down. I remember one period of time, in 1985, spending more than ten hours a day on Minitel, talking with people all over France. When I left my house, each time I saw someone cross the street, I asked myself if that person might be one of the people sending messages on Minitel, and what his handle might be. Studying each person, and trying to map him to one of the hundreds of faceless portraits compiled on Minitel, created a profound impression.

These stories, blind dates that cross the border between the virtual and the real, are a source of very intense emotions. How many questions, fears, and hopes go with them? You always ask yourself if the person you are going to meet will be up to par with how they appear on the screen. And, of course, if you yourself will come off as well as you appear on the screen. How do you recognize each other without resorting to a carnation in the lapel?

I remember a great story about Capucine. Capucine was an SM regular, like me. She lived in Rouen, 200 miles from Paris. One day, after hours of sharing jokes, we decided that she would come to Paris for the weekend. We could, at last, meet each other, and I would introduce her to the gang of mutual friends from SM. Just to be contrary (and influenced by the non-conformist spirit that characterized Minitel at that time), we decided not to give each other any physical description of ourselves before we met. (I never gave a physical description to anybody.) Therefore, we had to figure out some other way of recognizing each other when I waited for her at the train station.

I remembered that we had both studied Judo as kids, and I wore a kimono to the platform at the Saint-Lazare station (one of the busiest in Paris) in the middle of the crowd, and, by the way, with the police watching for suspicious activity. When Capucine got off the train, also dressed in a kimono, we laughed for several minutes without being able to say a word. They should have filmed the looks on the faces of the people around us, and on the faces of the police, who asked us if we were part of a commando unit of some terrorist organization. (This was 1986, and there were a lot of bombings in France that year.) Over the years that followed, Capucine and I, often accompanied by certain other enthusiasts, had many more experiences, each crazier than the other.

New Alliances

Not only do electronic meetings greatly outnumber ``real'' meetings, but they create new bases for relationships. Never have I seen such gestures of solidarity, and such spontaneity, in any other arena. Even if the systems people are using span an enormous distance geographically, people react as though it's all one virtual community, and the limits exist only where messages can't be sent. Each chatline becomes a village with inhabitants, where one can find the same spirit of unity you find when a catastrophe occurrs in a rural village. Alliances form, with everybody pulling together. In times of crisis, people forget their enmity and feuds, supporting those who are in trouble.

I remember one Saturday night. I was taking care of some customers in my restaurant when the phone rang. It was an SM regular, who asked me if I'd heard from Crocko, one of the other regulars, who was having some personal problems at the time. I told him that I hadn't checked in that day, and that I'd had no news. He read me an e-mail message that Crocko had sent him, in which Crocko appeared to be very depressed. I told him I'd check my mail. I, too, found a despondent message from Crocko. I contacted other regulars connected at the same time, and no one had news. I tried to call Crocko at home on the restaurant's second line, but she didn't answer. One of the users who lived near her decided to go visit her. He reappeared 10 minutes later on SM, saying There're lights on, but no answer. Another user, who was a nurse, called an ambulance, and several people went to Crocko's house to wait for it to arrive.

I went back to my customers, who were wondering what was going on. A half an hour later, the phone rang again. Crocko had been found in her house, passed out from a massive dose of sleeping pills. She'd been taken to the hospital, and was out of danger. The telematic community had saved her life. Close to a hundred people went to visit Crocko in the hospital. Today, she is married to someone she met on SM, is happy, and has no thoughts of suicide.

I experienced dozens of these kind of stories on Minitel in France. Often, the telematic community acts as a local arm, doing something for someone who can't do it because he's too far away. It might be a favor for a family member or friend. There are so many messages that begin Is there anybody who lives near... and could take my mother to the doctor, or My fiancee's phone is broken, I can't meet her, could someone who lives in her town get a message to her?

This kind of spontaneity, and these kinds of gestures of real friendship, were and are still common occurrences in online chatlines. This kind of human bonding that our urban ways of life have forced us to lose, and which the electronic agora is rebuilding, gives me confidence that a humanity that manifests in this way will always come back to fundamental values.

Friendly experiences, How I met my partner on Minitel ten years ago...

At the time of the GRETEL experiment, I was living in Paris, and I had never been to Strasbourg in my life. I was invited to follow the experience from Paris with modem access and long-distance calling. I quickly became a member of this agora. Marvelous human experiences were happening. The funniest was that people never remembere that I was 350 miles away, and invited me for a drink in their homes as if I lived 10 minutes away.

Then I got used to going to Strasbourg, where, for a year, I spent two or three days a week. The level of hospitality was such that I never stepped foot into a hotel in Strasbourg, sleeping at one friend's house, then another's. I saw many passionate and impassioned love stories there, and some deceptions, too. I also formed some very strong friendships and connections at incredible speed. After a few weeks of exchanging messages on GRETEL, connections were as strong as if they'd been maintained for years. It makes me happy to remember all the experiences I've had, but I'll only tell you about two.

I remember being at home, stretched out on my living room rug, typing on my Minitel and talking to Princess and Scarabée d'or. It must have been close to 5:00 P.M. Princess told me that they were going out around 5 or 6 to have some pizza and see a show. They invited me to join them. I couldn't -- I was in Paris, and the next morning I had a meeting at 8:00 A.M. with my banker to talk about an investment in my restaurant. But Scarabée d'or and Princess insisted, and I left to join them. In fact, I was only a three-hour drive from Strasbourg (yes, in France we tend to drive fast). I spent the evening with them, the show was fantastic, and, at 2:00 A.M., I headed back to Paris for my meeting. Things like that were always happening on GRETEL.

Another time, I was spending the weekend in Strasbourg. I had been conversing for several days with a certain Noella, a passionate girl, who had chosen to live her sexuality with women. I tried several times to connect with her during the weekend. Unfortunately, she was never around. Sunday afternoon, I went back to Paris. I got home at close to 5:00 PM and, of course, the first thing I did was connect to GRETEL to talk to my friends, whom I'd left several hours earlier. Noella was online, and sent me a message: Hi Dio, how's it going? It looks like you're in Strasbourg, that's marvelous, can I see you? I told her that I had been in Strasbourg, but that I'd come back. We continued to talk, and I could tell that she was really low. Her girlfriend had left her, in a less than kind way. I tried to lift her spirits from a distance, and I quickly realized that the situation was very bad. I told her I had to disconnect for a few minutes, but that she should wait for me on GRETEL. I called the airport, got a ticket on the next plane to Strasbourg, and reconnected to tell her to meet me at the Strasbourg airport in an hour. I was back in Strasbourg just five hours after having left it. She came to get me, and we spent a wonderful night as friends that neither of us will ever forget.Of course, I struck up dozens of solid and deep friendships on SM. I met my present business partner there. Ww (an abbreviation for Werewolf) was doing development for SM. His handle, therefore, often appeared on the list of connected users. Generally speaking, people sent messages to Ww when there was a problem, or to ask a technical question. Some people tried to strike up a conversation with him to gain certain privileges. Power, as always, attracts the masses. But, as you might have guessed from his handle, Werewolf wasn't the most sociable person on the list. Most of the messages people sent to him he left unanswered, partly because he wasn't at his terminal, and partly just because he didn't feel like answering them.

Despite that, we began to exchange messages. I've lost track of the reasons that drew Ww and me together. But I do remember that I quickly acquired the habit of looking for him at night on SM. Ww was one of those programmer-types inspired by night, who can stay up 'til 5 in the morning tracking down the last bug, but can't function on his day job. Our friendship grew quickly around a basic conspiracy we'd developed: watching from a distance how different people behaved on the system.

Because he was a loner, Ww didn't understand how people could spend a fortune socializing on a screen. The behavior on the system amazed me, and I wanted to study it as much as possible. We spent wonderful nights trying to predict in advance a user's behavior, to uncover secret liaisons between people, to watch others get totally lost in their illusions. How many jokes we played, how many Minitel parties Ww and I enjoyed on many more levels because of our insiders' knowledge, how many covers Ww created for me so I could carry on multiple simultaneous liaisons. How many nights did I spend courting Cat, while she courted Ww, who didn't want to know that she existed. How many nights did we spend sharing our views of life, the world, and relationships. How many times did ``Ww'' help me survive my romantic disappointments and deceptions -- the ones with Baleine Bleue, Cat, TC, or another.

Today, 14 years later, Ww is my partner at V(DL)2 -- he joined me eleven years ago, in Québec, with Chipie (whom we met together on SM, and who, afterwards, became his wife). During the eleven years we have worked together, we've survived many hardships, and many good times as well. This friendship stays solid. Virtual relationships can open up very real and rock-solid feelings.

When I speak of friends, I speak of those strong and deep friendships, not of pals. I speak of those people who stay close to me (even at a distance), of those people whom I can call at any hour if I am in pain, or if I need help. Close to half of my real friends I've met while exchanging e-mail. They live in Montreal, in Strasbourg, in Paris, and in Cambridge, but they are close to me.

Falling in digital love

The intensity of emotions that arise in the electronic milieu has important ramifications on any person who has any feelings, even if the number of marriages based on virtual meetings that you've heard about in the media isn't so surprising, I know people who met on the telephone -- one was the receptionist where the other worked. The speed with which one can develop a love relationship with someone whose voice one has never heard is impressive. They are formed in virtual space, and they happen all the time. I don't know people with any emotional openness who haven't experienced it at least once.

I won't make a list here of my telematic loves -- their handles don't mean anything, for the most part. But all these passions, these hopes (not always shared), these pains, still are with me; sometimes, when I think about one of those people, I remember all the emotions from those virtual loves that I went through.

Whether I met them on a bulletin-board or by e-mail, whether we started on Minitel or on Alex (the Canadian version, started in 1988), through a newsgroup or on IRC, each of these loves exists today, like a permanent tattoo. If I try to add them all up, I could total some twenty loves; some of weeks, some of months, some of years. I could add the years together, add the tears and the crises of despair, the bottles of Jack Daniels to wash away the blues that these loves never fail to supply. But I think that the idea of summing up doesn't really work when it comes to love.

Among all theses slices of life, I picked four to share. They represent different kinds of electronic love relationships. The first is what I experienced with FMR, a pun on the word ``éphémère'' -- ephemeral -- in French. FMR lived in Toulouse, about 600 miles from Paris, where I lived. In 1985, Minitel was just becoming national. FMR and I had been talking on Minitel and joking with other regulars. At that time, I was living with a girlfriend -- our relationship getting worse, day by day -- and Minitel became the place where I spent day and night in the process of breaking up with her; more precisely, hanging out there showed that we didn't really have anything to say to each other, even if we weren't ready to admit it. I quickly started waiting for messages from FMR, waiting to see her name show up on the list of users. Her messages made me very happy. And it was the same for her.

After about ten days, we stayed on Minitel all the time, leaving it only to call each other on the telephone and then go back to Minitel. I have the unfortunate habit of quickly acquiring the accent of the person with whom I'm speaking. My girlfriend couldn't understand why, when she came home at night, I was talking with a southern (from the south of France) accent. My girlfriend decided go away for several days by herself; our relationship was going really badly. I did something crazy: I invited FMR to spend a few days in Paris with me.

I went to meet her at the airport, full of anguish about her (and about myself). Each minute I waited seemed like an eternity. Finally she appeared, looking exactly like what I was expecting, and she seemed satisfied that she hadn't been misled. When finding yourself physically with a person with whom you've shared the craziest feelings, the first move still seems like a big jump. If you don't make that leap, if you never dare to cross that line, you are torn up with the frustration that each has allowed to build. When there's been a virtual love, it can become a real love, but you can't just say ``Oh, let's just be friends.''. We stayed together in total ambiguity for two days, and then began to let our mutual frustrations take control of our relationship and destroy it badly.

Another experience I want to tell you about is a little more positive, and that's about Ange. Ange was a regular on Alex, the Canadian telematic system that Bell Canada developed at the end of 1988. (That experiment lasted four years before being abandoned, not for a lack of users, but because of the cultural impact it was creating on Bell-Canada, which who was used to having a monopoly and controlling everything. It's useless to try to control telematic territory, as the users of GRETEL taught us, but that's another story.)

Ange used CHUM (a friendly chatline that we'd developed on Alex, which quickly became its most widely-used service among the hundreds of services available). One day, she contacted me, without knowing I was one of the people in charge. We had started talking about different things -- like life, the universe and everything. We quickly found that we saw things similarly, particularly in respect to relationships, and to passion. We planned to meet in my office and go out to dinner. The evening was marvelous, and we felt very comfortable with each other. Before long, we started seeing only each other, and, for its part, it became a nice love story that lasted for years. We lived together in a wonderful apartment that we furnished with very special care. Today, we have managed to separate and stay good friends, and see each other regularly.

That makes me think about Venus, a somewhat current story. Zohra wasn't a Minitel user, and even less an e-mail user. One day, one of her coworkers connected to SM, for fun using Venus as handle. She quickly got into it. She had a very interesting conversation with Bad Max, a friend of mine. But Venus was married, and in no way resembled the person that she described herself as in this conversation, which she thought wasn't going anywhere. It was at that point that she switched places with Zohra. Bad Max made a date with her at my restaurant, without being aware of the hoax. And that's how I met Venus, the real one for me, and the fake one for Bad Max. We had months of wonderful passion; now, despite the nine years that have passed, and the Atlantic ocean that separates us, we remain close friends. Besides our faxes, and our meetings when we cross the ocean, her access to Internet mail from Minitel allows us to exchange regular, immediate and inexpensive, messages.

The last love I want to talk about is one I had with We met each other in a political campaign and had one of those scorching relationships, as hot and fleeting as a brush fire, when the heat is too strong. Our story ended stupidly, like what happens to all love stories that end before they're done. At the time, I had talked with her a lot about telematic and the Net, explaining to her what a wonderfully fantastic communication and research tool it could be for her in her work in neuropsychology. Two months after we broke up, what a surprise it was for me to see a message signed in my mailbox. She'd gotten Internet access through her university, and reopened a story I had wanted to forget, and leaving me with a bitter aftertaste I can't get rid of. So, we've taken up our relationship again for a few months, though we limit it to e-mail. We have seen each other on occasion in this time, but never reconnected physically. Only e-mail allows us to let go completely. It's useless to be who we are. The fear of nothingness and the fear of success haunt relationships and justify failures. But life cannot be so virtual once it's been real. A misunderstanding on the Internet had become the excuse for a heartless and cruel breakup. Telematic is powerful and fantastic, not magic. Through e-mail, you can regain your autonomy when you delete the file with hundreds of messages exchanged with someone you hold dear.

Telematic conversation is a tool that allows us to find and meet people within a few minutes. You can never really guess what a person looks like physically over a telematic system, even if a person sincerely describes herself. How many hundreds of different physical attributes can you picture from a textual description? Nonetheless, you can learn a lot from the knowledgeable people who use these systems. It's what I call learning by osmosis.

Learning by Osmosis: How I became a Guru on Telematic just by writing messages

When I first started to discover telematic with GRETEL, and then SM, I was just a user, like anybody else. I had, at the very best, an opportunity to be part of these projects. I had absolutely no knowledge, even of the basics of information processing and telecommunications. But, by talking with people I met on the system, and by talking with those who were building the system, I quickly became a telematic expert. I found myself giving conferences in renowned engineering and sociological circles. My profession at that time was -- restaurant owner. Everything that I learned about telematic, I discovered by talking with other users, and learning from them. All that I have taught at the University of Montreal, and at the University of Paris-Saint Denis, and in conferences (I give conferences around the world), comes from observing and sharing this passion -- whether it was JE, who developed the electronic phone book, and who gave me my first lessons in network packet switching, Transpac networking, and functionality of multiple criteria search in 1984; or Ww, who helped me understand servers, applications architecture, and hard disk crashes (AT&T had never seen hard disks in that state) during our nights at the SM offices; or Bad Max, and, of course, Jo le dingue, who taught me the tools for building videotext services and drawing Minitel graphics. Ww and Jo le dingue initiated me into the joys of online hacking, when we jumped from system to system around the world to avoid the cost of our telematic communications, in order to leave our mark on the welcome page on Minitel's services, or simply for the fun of doing it.

Even today, IRC and HotWired users teach me more about online features. Meanwhile, I haven't found a better way of teaching UNIX news systems to a friend than having her telnet to my system, then guiding her through TALK as she progresses. I think virtual meetings put us in relationship with the core of a person. One's emotional core is like one's professional core, all the more when one's profession is one's passion. This is directly connected to that core that lets one science feed another -- a transfusion of knowledge that's like a blood transfusion.

It's true that there's nothing more exciting than a passionate person. And telematic shows us each other's passions, and sometimes our own. These passions are an energy in its purest state for anyone who approaches them with an open spirit. And, like everything exciting, addiction comes quickly. The outside world, where passions and feelings are so often masked, quickly becomes drab compared to the electronic arena. These communications can become a veritable drug, and the addiction and intoxication don't pass quickly.

Addicted to Chat

How many important meetings have I blown because I was waiting for one last message before signing off from a chatline? And, when I got that message, I'd respond, then wait for another response, until the point where I rationalized everything to myself: that meeting couldn't have all that important, I could always reschedule it another time, or I really didn't have anything to contribute. How many times has my girlfriend at the time gotten mad at me for spending hours at my keyboard barely responding to her when she was trying to talk to me ? How many times have I stayed up 'til 5 in the morning, and not really been prepared to go to work?

Many users tell me that this technology can quickly ruin a relationship. My answer is always the same: If, in a couple, one person becomes addicted to chatlines, there's already a serious problem in the relationship. Online services just bring them to light. What's more, chatlines offer a less dangerous escape than alcohol and other drugs.

But I do not want to minimize the negative impact these systems can have. Already, AA-like groups come to help those who don't know how to get themselves unhooked. There's even a newsgroup (alt.irc.recovery) for those who want to quit IRC before they lose their health.

Electronic communication quickly becomes intoxicating, and can be harmful for those who need to drug themselves, and who have no wish to control themselves. For others, it's not so harmful. Above all, it can require a good dose of courage at critical times, but the quality of the relationships that it allows one to develop, and the intensity of the interaction, are well worth the pain of quitting.


It's very hard to ever finish such a topic. It's the story of people meeting each other and trying to live together. These emotions are what distinguish us from animals (and I classify macho people and others with closed hearts in the latter category). The virtuality of electronic exchanges allows us to have relationships based uniquely on these emotions, which is extremely intoxicating, but you must not forget that we are not yet separate from the bodies that enclose us, from their needs and their limits.

I think that the biggest lesson that I take from many and diverse passionate experiences that the thousands of branches allow me to share, is that people always try to turn political systems, economic systems, and technological systems to their own ends. And these ends are may be good on a general level, but sometimes there are pretty bad individuals. These experiences have developed my sense of confidence in humanity. And, if many commentators say that the eighties saw society becoming more isolated and developing a mad individualism, the number of alliances developed on telematic networks shows that, when given a totally free environment, this unity comes back; its absence is more tied to a system where everything is controlled rather than to a change in values of individuals.

With the pleasure of talking to you on one of these systems,

Dionysos !


Philippe Le Roux has worked for over a decade in the use and social aspects of new technologies. He is a founding partner of V(DL)2 Inc. (, an Internet and Online Services Consulting firm in Quebec.

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