Bottom line up front: I am now hosting a Gopherhole at gopher://raypatrick.xyz.
For most people and especially Gen Z, “The Web” is just the entire Internet. But they’re not at all the same thing. The Web is merely one of many applications that ride along the backbone of the Internet infrastructure. (Others include email, FTP, Usenet, and VoIP.) But among all these, there is one protocol that remains in limited use even though it was eclipsed in popularity by the Web about the time I was born. I’m talking about Gopher.
The Gopher protocol was invented in 1991 by a team at the University of Minnesota (home of the Golden Gophers). As specified in RFC 1436, the protocol’s goals are:
In the early 90s, the Internet was still solidly in the realm of universities and military research labs. Campus-wide information systems (CWIS) in higher education became watering holes for technically-minded hobbyists (who were mostly also professionals.) Gopher servers were so easy to set up – and link to other sites, e.g. universities in other states – that Gopher became rapidly adopted. It was the first viral application. Adam Curry wore a Gopher-themed shirt on MTV to announce that the network had a Gopher site of its own. Even the White House revealed their own site on Good Morning America. The very popularity of the World Wide Web was fed, in large part, by sharing news about it via Gopher!
With the release of the Mosaic browser and increases in modem speeds, Web traffic overtook Gopher traffic circa 1994 and Gopher has been little more than an afterthought since then. However, Gopherspace has never gone away completely.
In fact, I recently went and grabbed Gophernicus, a Gopher daemon that runs on Unix-based servers. It took 5 minutes to configure and install, and now I’m hosting my own Gopher site as well!
It’s actually rather nice to have a small ecosystem because no one’s running annoying ads in Gopherspace or trying to track your browsing habits. The protocol makes the former hard and the latter almost impossible.
Most Web browsers no longer natively support the Gopher protocol. There is an extension called Overbite which you can use in your browser to access Gopher sites. Other clients such as Bombadillo can also access Gopher sites. Finally, for those on UNIX systems, the venerable Lynx is possibly the easiest solution of all! Try it out: simply run
in any terminal and you’ll be at my Gopher site.
I really love how simple and spartan the Gopher protocol is. As in the quote above, many of the ills of the modern Web are impossible in Gopher precisely because of the constraints imposed by its design. Gopherspace also allows older machines to play as well; there’s nothing stopping you from connecting to a Gopher server with Netscape Navigator, for instance:
I don’t know what I’ll end up hosting with Gopher just yet, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities. Check back often, and let me know if you set one up yourself!