The early days of personal computers and the World Wide Web are being revisited with growing sentiment. For a few years, we have observed an unexpected revival of formats deemed obsolete, such as GIF images or ASCII art, which, surprisingly continue to thrive in Web 2.0. Their rediscovery and burgeoning popularity has a lot to do with the land-grab and corralling of online space by gatekeepers, and can be read as a DIY response to the pursuit of increasingly realistic graphics and animation. Such pockets of grassroots creativity are sometimes referred to as ‘post-Internet’, but they actually retrace the old Internet, less widespread but paradoxically, more available to users, particularly in terms of participation. In the light of such reappearances, it’s worth taking a look at the predecessors of the Web – teletext, and the more advanced videotex service.
The world’s first and most established of the former, British Ceefax, only ceased existence in 2012 as a result of the digital switchover, and the French Minitel videotex service retired in the same year. The replacement of one communication technology with another happened gradually, and their existence – even interoperability – lasted for a long time: until its demise, Ceefax could be accessed via computer using a Mac OS widget. In continental Europe, teletext still enjoys a surprisingly strong following, albeit on the outer periphery of the media world. The Helsinki-based FixC art co-operative, which held their first teletext art festival in 2012, estimate the daily number of Finnish YLE teletext viewers as close to a million daily. In Poland, Telegazeta is still said to reach – according to various studies – between 4 and 20 million users.
Such examples of ‘Internet before the Internet’ are interesting for a number of reasons. The television-based services played a similar role to a rudimentary online portal prior to home computers becoming common property. Teletext provided constant access to current, frequently-updated news (which proved to be invaluable in 2001 following the attacks on the WTC, when website servers struggled with interest beyond their limited technical capacities), stock exchange figures, football results and pop charts. The character of teletext displays – heavily pixelated, blocky letters in basic colours, set mainly on a black background – and the long loading times for simple 24-line text pages forced content to be concise. In the UK, Ceefax’s clarity and simplicity was commended by the Plain English Campaign; worldwide, one can argue that it prepared the ground for the conventions of text messaging, online chat and Twitter.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these services was that they facilitated slow, semi-analogue social networking on various levels: they provided an immensely popular pen-pal service (a curious example is the still-thriving Polish Depeche Mode fan network, which developed extensively in the 1990s thanks to Telegazeta) and pages for erotic listings which probably outlived many other teletext-based services, judging by the memories detailed on the Internet. The main obstacle – although it wasn’t comprehended as such at the time –was the fact that contact would eventually have to be consolidated via traditional ‘snail mail’ or telephone, as teletext wasn’t designed for interactive data exchange. Conversely, a less widespread relative of teletext, videotex, was an end-user oriented system which facilitated a remote communication similar to email, webchat or IRC. Interestingly, videotex, with the exception of the clunky, yet immensely successful French Minitel service (essential to French author Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised), never made it big worldwide. Despite this, Minitel historians Benjamin Thierry and Valerie Schafer trace the origins of many now-obvious online solutions (e.g. chatrooms and app stores) to the French network.
Back in the era of 56K modems, the Internet was sometimes referred to as ‘a more extensive teletext’. In the era of its ubiquity, it’s not hard to see why its pioneering predecessors still have something to offer. One aspect is the aforementioned clarity and minimalist design, which – despite the inconvenience of the interface – is more legible than many of today’s websites, which tend to overload the user with distractions and make online reading a fussy challenge. Beyond this, they also provide a valuable reflection on the meaning of the written word in digital communication. Like the computer text adventure games of the early 1980s, teletext and videotex services were based near-exclusively on transcribed verbal exchange, thereby leaving an important space for creativity and imagination. This may explain why they are remembered so fondly, and why such ‘outmoded’ formats are being re-adopted amidst the hi-res, ad-bannered clutter of Web 2.0: they continue to offer active engagement with the mind’s eye, which the push towards photo-realism eradicates, and thereby offer a form of playful resistance. **
Header Image: Bernard Marti, Page Vidéotex d’accueil du service chinois (1986).