# Chapter 8: Telematique and Messageries Rose: A Tale of Two Virtual Communities
France is in a way similar to Japan. The authorities at first were not ready to promote the Net. In France the government considered the Net as an American invasion. Communication networks are all about power, so the reasoning went. France needed publicly owned French networks. The Minitel-project distributed millions of cheap and easy to use terminals to French households.
Big institutions often think of CMC as a kind of database, a way of broadcasting information on screens to large populations who spend their time interacting with information, but populations of citizens almost always use CMC to communicate with each other in new ways unforeseen by the system's original designers. People everywhere seem more interested in communicating with each other than with databases. In that sense, France, Japan and the US are very similar.
One of the interesting facts in this chapter: the French network CalvaCom was already in existence when France Telecom, the government-operated telecommunications company, decided to give away millions of Minitel terminals to French citizens in a conscious effort to bring the population into the information age all at once.
It started out as a community of Apple users and Apple dealers, and people still exchanged information about Apple computers and argued about different kinds of Apple software, but they also started chatting, in groups of twenty or thirty, for no particular purpose other than to make each other fall off the chair laughing, every day.
The power of metaphors was used here also. In this case different "cities" represented different forums. The strategy for keeping their service lively and growing was to identify those users that were the most active, the most stimulating, and hire them as animateurs --the paid equivalent of the WELL's hosts. The challenge was solving the conflict between the need to keep the atmosphere convivial, and the temptation to censor people.
What about the difference between the States and France? "In France," one of the protagonists insisted, "people put fences between their houses. They don't want to socialize with their neighbors. If they want to meet with their friends, they go to a cafe" Truly, if a city can be said to remain rich in the kind of informal public spaces that Oldenburg called "great good places," it's Paris.
The idea, at least in France, was that CMC was more useful in the States, where there are less lively and safe city centers full of pubs. CMC would be a compensation for something which got lost.
> Perhaps the public conviviality that Paris is famous for is the real thing that others seek, and for which they find only a substitute, a simulacrum, in virtual communities.
In 1978,Simon Nora and Alain Minc submitted a decisive report, requested by the president of the French Republic, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, on "the computerization of society."
I met Alain Minc years ago, and he is an extremely intelligent person. The report is very interesting to this day as it explicitly considers the power politics behind CMC:
> The Nora-Minc report, as it is still known, was bold in its forecasts: "A massive social computerization will take place in the future, flowing through society like electricity. . . . The debate will focus on interconnectability. . . . The breakdown of power will be determined between the people who create networks and those who control the satellites. . . ." The report concluded that the advent of cheap computers and powerful global communications media was leading to "an uncertain society, the place of uncountable decentralized conflicts, a computerized society in which values will be object of numerous rivalries stemming from uncertain causes, bringing an infinite amount of lateral communication." To continue to compete in the first rank of nations, Nora and Minc exhorted, France would have to mount a full-scale national effort in the new field they named Telematique (merging the French words Telecommunications and informatique). They didn't fail to note that "Telematique, unlike electricity, does not carry an inert current, but rather information, that is to say, power" and that "mastering the network is therefore an essential goal. This requires that its framework be conceived in the spirit of a public service."
Fascinating stuff happened. The Minitel got hacked by users who wanted to chat with each other, the clever administrators realized the potential of that user innovation and rolled it out as a feature.
Researchers conducted experiments:
> We found that we could feed a small piece of deliberately false information to one of these people, and it spread throughout all the different groups, to as many as four thousand people within two days." The public and private communication channels, in the hands of a core group of cross-pollinators, served to distribute certain kinds of ephemeral information very quickly.
Experts saw the addictive aspects of CMC, especially as the system was being used extensively for sex chat (messageries roses).
> it was a case of intermittent reinforcement, the same quirk of human behavior that makes slot machines work. "If you maybe try five hundred times, you might actually get laid" was the way he put it.
The chapter also explores the early virtual communities in the UK, finding a familiar evolutionary cycle: disparate characters meet online, find that they can discover depths of communication and deep personal disclosures with each other online, form equally intense friendships offline, and when the inevitable conflict occurs, it is sharp and schismatic, spawning splinter subgroups.
There are similarities with Japan: Adding voice to communications in England is equivalent to adding body language and facial expressions to communications in Japan. The voice and accent determine to a large extent who you are and what your position is in the British society.
The groups Howard studied were very much about emotions.
> The collaborative construction of a social arrangement that was more like a group heart than a group mind.
> Their communications were centered on feelings; their communication protocol was to break taboos against self-disclosure.
In conclusion of these chapters, Howard describes the choice countries face:
> to refuse to join the Net in its widest sense and face being left behind, or to join the Net and face social upheaval.