Plain Text in Plain Sight:
Smaller Alternatives to the World Wide Web
The Web is growing more bloated and invasive every day, but it's not the only way to share information online.
Article re-published .
This was first published in of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly (pp. 7-8). Please support the official release by buying a paper or PDF copy of the magazine!
What's wrong with the World Wide Web? You open a browser, connect to a server (usually securely), and interact with content. With a few clicks, you can get news, sports scores, movies, inane updates from people you may know, cat pictures, hacker magazines, dinner… what's not to love?
It's easy to be an old man yelling at a cloud. It should surprise no one that the World Wide Web is here to stay. However, that doesn't mean we can't come up with alternatives. In fact, we already have — and I'm not talking about mobile apps or Tor Browser.
Go for Gopher
When you strip away everything superfluous, you're left with plain text. No formatting, no scripting, just words on a page. That was the idea behind Gopher. Named for the University of Minnesota's mascot (in case you were wondering), Gopher is a filesystem-inspired protocol to make your computer go-fer information online.
Gopher sites (sometimes called Gopher holes, because why not) are typically presented as a text-based menu. You have words, and you have links to folders, files, or other sites. That's it. Unlike the Web, all Gopher sites look the same and navigate identically. It's truly a product of a time when NFT stood for nice f---ing Tamagotchi.
This forced simplicity is part of the reason why it failed. While HTML is forgiving of mistakes, Gophermaps are strict and make you follow RFC 1436 to a T. Needless to say, once customizing your MySpace pages became a thing, Gopher was looking very long in the tooth. Browsers eventually removed support for it, getting rid of it like an unwanted rodent.
Somehow, though, Gopherspace isn't dead. In , the number of Gopher servers online has tripled. Servers, clients, and (ironically) Web browser extensions continue to be developed. Most notably, the Playdate handheld gaming system had its release notes only available via Gopher, leading to some news coverage for the plaintext protocol!
Gopher is more than nostalgia for the days when the Internet made noise when you turned it on. You can find news, weather, search engines, home pages, phlogs (the equivalent of blogs), and more. Perhaps this little rodent living under the Web isn't so dead after all.
Blast Off with Gemini
Fast-forward to . A person by the handle Solderpunk was frustrated with the WWW and how crazy things were getting. In an interview, he said,
Visiting websites is basically a matter of downloading and running software, without any way to know in advance what that software might do, and very little ability to pick and choose which things you let it do. However, he also thought Gopher was too rigid and restrictive. The community sat down and thought up something like
. The result was something these outer space buffs called Project Gemini.
the web, stripped right back to its essence or as
Gopher, souped up and modernized just a little
Like Gopher, it's another simple text-based protocol that was designed to be intentionally difficult to expand, to avoid the feature creep that the WWW underwent. However, Gemini sites (called capsules) are more modern, featuring Unicode, free-flowing text, gemtext (think: Markdown), virtual hosting, TLS 1.3, and more.
In three short years, Gemini has gone from IRC discussions to something implemented by over 2,000 servers, and it shows no signs of slowing down. More capsules and gemlogs (again, "blogs") are rocketing off into Geminispace every day.
So the Web Is Dead, Right?
No, and far from it. For general browsing, the World Wide Web is going nowhere, and that's fine. I've spent this article trashing it, but the good still vastly outweighs the bad. My bank will never implement Gopher. Amazon won't be selling products on Gemini anytime soon. Despite the big Web, there is definitely a place for the "small web" these days.
- Has your computer gotten too slow to run Google Chrome? Is that old Android tablet struggling? Did Apple cut off macOS updates for your perfectly-good laptop? Don't fork over your hard-earned cash and make more e-waste. A Gemini browser would make that old device feel like new — and put less strain on the old battery.
- Perhaps you want to get your vintage computer or old cell phone back online, but good luck using a 25-year-old Web browser. Gopher was made for retrocomputing!
- Traveling out to the boonies and stuck with dial-up or a 2G phone signal? It's rare, but it happens. You could spend an hour watching one web page open, or use Gemini and get it done in seconds.
- Do you prefer the command line? Text-mode web browsers can be cumbersome, but Gemini and Gopher were built for the terminal.
If you feel like everything online is getting bloated, and everyone wants to track you and sell you their crap, there are thinner alternatives. We can chat on IRC, talk on newsgroups, send email instead of signing our lives away to Meta — and now, we have some alternatives to the ever-expanding Web. However you choose to do it, happy browsing!
- This article -- pick your protocol:
- 2600: The Hacker Quarterly - Summer 2022 issue (paper copy)
- 2600: The Hacker Quarterly - Summer 2022 issue (PDF copy)
- RFC 1436: The Internet Gopher Protocol
- Steven Frank's journal
- The Register - "The Return of the Gopher: Pre-web hypertext service is still around"
- Solderpunk Interview - beanz Magazine
- Project Gemini Speculative Specification