Gopher: The Web Alternative That’s Still Worth Your Time
Across the many dingy and delightful corners of the world wide web, you will find blog posts and essays detailing a desire for an Internet that is simpler, slower, and smaller. That is, as opposed to the schizophrenic multimedia experience we are subjected to today.
If you feel like this is you, you might enjoy using Gopher.
What the hell is Gopher, you ask? Well, Gopher is a hierarchical menu-driven internet protocol that predates the world wide web by a few months. It was created in 1991 by Mark P. McCahill and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, and back in the early 90s, it was a popular contender to HTTP.
We like to think of the web as a runaway success, and to some extent, it is. But it took a little while for the idea to catch on. It was not until the web became more illustrative and “more surfable” (and people realized you could use it to advertise stuff) that HTTP became the dominant protocol, and Gopher servers became an endangered species.
However, Gopher never quite died out. Instead, it’s been kept alive by tech and internet enthusiasts.
So what is it like to use Gopher today? How do you access it? And why would you even bother?
Let’s start by talking about how to get on the Gopher net in the first place. Unfortunately, most modern web browsers are not up to the task. But you do have a few options, the easiest of which is to use a web extension like Overbite for Firefox:
There are also a few proxy services that allow you to access Gopher via HTTP:
In my opinion, the best option is to use Lynx, a terminal-based browser perfect for emulating the full Gopher browsing experience:
There is also a Gopher VR client (yes, really). I have not looked into it much, but here is a Wikipedia article on the subject for those interested:
As for actually browsing Gopher, it can be a bit of a culture shock, especially for those of us who grew up with the web. And as Chris Wilson of Hackaday points out, the experience is closer to using a menu-based file explorer than “surfing” the internet.
Whereas on a website, directory links, images, videos, text, and other media are all lumped together on web pages, on a Gopher server, these are presented as separate files or directories on a menu. This hierarchical structure means you will often find yourself heading down one set of menus, only to head back on yourself. Hence you often hear the term “Gopher Holes” used to describe Gopher servers.
Exploring the internet this way can feel restrictive. But there are some advantages. The most obvious is that it gives you full control over what you download to your computer. There are no popups, ads, or cookies. Nor are there any sprawling images for you to scroll past. Instead, you only see what files you specifically want to download, not what the webmaster wants you to see, making it practically impossible for corporations to advertise to you.
(Unless they want to advertise via ASCII art. And honestly, any company that does that is probably going to get my business.)
The additional advantage is that browsing the Gopher net is super-fast and resource-light. You can browse it on pretty much anything with internet capability and a Gopher-friendly browser. And in a world where machines are quickly becoming vintage, I think this is pretty awesome.
Despite, or perhaps even because of, the limited number of servers, there is lots of interesting stuff to explore on Gopher. For instance, you can see the latest news, check the weather, explore Gopherpedia (an unofficial mirror of Wikipedia), listen to music, watch videos, or spend your time reading personal “phlogs” (the Gopher space alternative to blogs).
How do you find this stuff? By using the brilliant Gopher search engine, Veronica (Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computer Archives), of course!
You can find Veronica (technically, Veronica-2) and a host of other useful links, tutorials, directories, games, and more via the Floodgap server. Said server has been running since 1999 and is the most common starting point for new Gopher sessions. It also features some explainers on the philosophy behind Gopher (spoiler: it is very Unix-like), which I recommend reading.
All of this might sound confusing, but spend around five minutes browsing the Floodgap server, and everything will become pretty self-explanatory.
As for creating your own “gopher hole” or “phlog”, there is a pretty decent primer on the subject here:
And here is a slightly dated but, I believe, a serviceable page describing how to set up a Gopher server:
One word of caution before you head off and become a Gopher-head: practice some good common sense about what you put on Gopher (including your searches!).
Gopher is a lot of fun, but it is not a place to share any, and I mean ANY, sensitive information. After all, there is no encryption here, and it is all too easy for others to find out what you are looking at, searching for, or writing. Of course, it’s not like you’re going to be buying anything on Gopher, and advertisers have no reason to collect your data here. But do not treat it as some super-secret off-grid sub-internet, because it is not.
As for the future of Gopher, do not expect some miraculous comeback from this protocol anytime soon. It has not been truly relevant since HTTP wiped the floor with the protocol back in the late 90s, and no enthusiasts are going to change that. For better or worse, the web is something we are stuck with.
But as Gopher creator McCahill points out, that is also part of Gopher’s charm. It’s not big or profitable and, as a result, it does not carry all the issues that have come with the big web:
“I looked at it [(the web)] and went, ‘You know, I’m actually more happy doing stuff that’s in service of research and education than trying to get super-rich selling ads’… another reason I’m okay with the web beating out Gopher, I don’t have things like Facebook and its weaponized surveillance platform on my conscience directly.”
The experience of browsing Gopher reminded me of the first time I rediscovered that people were still making old-school static web pages on the “small web.” I came looking for a nostalgic trip, but what I found was a community driven by DIY aesthetics and self-expression.
Like with the small web, Gopher does not need to make a comeback to be relevant to users. And it does not have to “defeat” the big web or even make itself a popular alternative to make it worth your time. It’s plenty of fun as is.
Gopher is not the only interesting alternative internet protocol, mind. But that’s a deep dive for another time.
- A more tech-orientated introduction to Gopher, courtesy of SDF: https://sdf.org/?tutorials/gopher
- Vice wrote a post on the subject some years ago. Might be of interested https://www.vice.com/en/article/9kwek8/long-live-gopher-the-techies-keeping-the-text-driven-internet-alive
- A brief detailing more aspects of the Gopher protocol: https://dev.to/dotcomboom/the-gopher-protocol-in-brief-1d88