Rediscovering Gopher

Twenty years later, I’m loving Gopher, again.

I first learned about Gopher about twenty years ago, reading a translation of Maximum Internet Security, an introductory text of dubious quality but, alas, the best I could get my hands on in 1999 or so.

The Internet was… very different back then, and the book reflected that through every page. Today, it’s almost quaint to read. Example networks included PA-RISC and RS/6000 machines, and the book had a whole chapter dedicated to Plan 9, which was touted as the future of Unix computing. And, buried somewhere in the book’s pages, were a few mentions of Gopher.

Gopher is almost, but not quite like HTTP. It’s somewhat more opinionated about the structure of a “site”. The sight of a Gopher site would be confusing to a teenager today, but was definitely not confusing to someone who had used a BBS in the 1980s. For a while, they were in a pretty close competition.

But back in 1999, there was hardly any question about which one was “better”. There were still a few holdouts who clung to Gopher, for various reasons: simplicity, inertia, or (though the word had not yet been invented, I guess, hipsterness).

I don’t think I’ve touched a Gopher site in more than fifteen years.

Then I started hearing about it again, more and more often. Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest in Gopher. The number of servers indexed by Veronica doubled between 2017 and 2018, and discussions that seriously look into Gopher in the context of “what went wrong with the web?” regularly pop up here and there.

My gateway back to Gopherspace has been Textnews. A while ago, I’d toyed with writing a similar service, but HTTP-based, and with peer-to-peer caching. The initial results were encouraging but I had way too little free time, for a project that was way too ambitious.

But this guy was smarter and, using simpler technology, built something that did exactly what I needed: suck websites in through one port, then put them out in a format that’s browseable and readable. All of it over Gopher.

Could this have been done over the Web as well? Quite possibly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it already exists. But I’ve no idea how to find it, now that Google search is mostly a SEO game. And news of its existence has definitely been drowned somewhere in the endless feed of information that keeps finding me, no matter how hard I try to steer clear of it.

The Gopher community has invented small, self-contained, and refreshingly simple equivalents to a lot of things you see on the web. Blogs, microblogs (it’s been a while since you’ve last heard that word, eh?), search engines. It’s worth having a look, if only because the sight of alternative ways to do something keeps prejudice at bay.

Curious? It’s pretty easy to get started.

The Floodgap Gopher Proxy is the most straightforward way to experience Gopher, now that virtually no mainstream browser has native support for it.

If you’re using Firefox, this extension is the more efficient gateway. The venerable Lynx browser, or a client like Gopherus, are also reasonably good options. Most of the native Linux clients I’ve seen are pretty bad, though; Gopherus barely qualifies. Lynx is good enough for me though.

In addition to Textnews, I’d heartily recommend these as good starting points:

  • SDF’s Gopher Club Underground Syndicate, ran by the ever-refreshing SDF community, is an active and diverse (in both good and bad ways) hub.
  • Telefisk.org is a Danish Gopher site that hosts a great deal of interesting material. Commodore fans are particularly like to feel like home.
  • 661.org is home to a wealth of interesting material
  • i-logout.cz, personal website of a Gopher enthusiast from the Czech Republic.

I haven’t yet set up my own Gopher server, but I have a feeling that I will…

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