The World Wide Web is a broken system, populated with broken computers on broken networks, running broken software written by broken people. The web was supposed to bring us together. Vannevar Bush’s dream made silicon. A whisper from Xanadu.
Somewhere, the holy grail of informatics turned into a poisoned chalice. An ethically slacking, growth hacking panopticon. But there is a way out. It’s not perfect, but it’s there for those who want to build it. This issue is about the smol web.
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The Eternal September Of The Soul
The biggest con Silicon Valley ever pulled off was convincing us they’re masters of innovation. Netflix brought us digital movie distribution *cries in Bittorrent*. Apple introduced Music streaming to the world *laughs in Napster*. Facebook invented social media *no they didn’t*.
Big tech might claim only businesses can innovate while profiting from software written by volunteers in their spare time on an Internet designed, built and funded with public money. This is what innovation really looks like:
That’s the Agena from the Gemini VIII mission. A US federal agency made this with public money. Businesses were involved but nobody calls it McDonnell Aircraft’s achievement. As Neil Armstrong docked with the Agena, people on Earth used public money to design and build what would become the Internet. Don’t ever let anyone tell you innovation is solely a tool of business. Innovation is for everyone.
Most tech companies disrupt by displacing existing middlemen and acting as a new gatekeeper. Uber displaces taxi services. AirBNB displaced couchsurfing. Facebook displaced your friends.
Big tech displaced the extraction of value through work with the extraction of value through arbitrage. They displaced revenue with data and convinced investors the two were the same. This is where you and I come in. The moment startups figured out how to convince others data was money the cards were stacked against us. Instead of selling products, they sell us as a service. This is the faustian pact poisoning the well.
Almost all of this data is worthless. Collecting and storing unused data forever is pointless. When companies have to pretend all user data is valuable they have to pretend erasing it incurs a cost. It doesn’t matter how much Amazon mine the words I said to an Alexa device years ago, it isn’t going to convince me to buy something from them. The data is useless. But try telling them that.
There are places on the Internet away from all this. Worlds where there is no Google, no Facebook, no startups, no money. Things are slower. Happier. Smol. Almost everyone on the smol web is just a fren you haven’t yet met. To use the smol web is not to reject the wide one. It’s just a different space moving at a different pace.
Tumbling Down The Gopher Hole
Gopher is a text-focused information sharing protocol released in 1991 at the University of Minnesota. It was designed to provide structured information access across campus. Gopher competed with the World Wide Web and for a time was the dominant protocol. Ultimately the web overtook Gopher in the mid-90s.
Gopher never died out, it just left the mainstream. What do people do on Gopher today? The same as anywhere else. People post recipes, write articles, poetry and stories. People write about what matters to them. If that sounds like the blogosphere of the mid-2000s that’s because it is so very much like the best of that and more.
Gopher has no tracking beyond server logs, and no commercial benefit from posting. It works on low-end hardware and will never ask you ‘to make things official’. Gopher isn’t the web. It was always an alternative, not an equivalent.
Gopher’s horseshoe-shaped adoption makes for countless browser options. Gopher is as at home on early Apple Macs and Amigas as it is on modern PCs. On Windows I use Geminaut, while I use Kristall on OpenBSD and Mac. If you’d rather not install software, the Floodgap proxy service is fine for casual browsing.
Gopher links are slightly different to what you’re used to with the web. Gopher clients are generally aware of what type of content is being requested. The protocol uses a number for content type, called a selector. You’ll almost always want type 1 for a menu, or gophermap. For example, the Gopher URL to my phlog is:
I’d like to thank Deadly Headshot for pointing out that the content type is only used by the client, not server. Servers just see the last part of the URL - /~xkp/phlog
You see gopher:// used to specify that this is a gopher site, followed by the gopher site name just like on the web, a /1/ to indicate we want selector 1 (a menu) followed by the rest of the URL. It’s ok to be unsure when you start using Gopher. Gopher can wait.
We’ll use the floodgap proxy so links will work in your web browser. If you want to explore further, use a Gopher client. Ironically for an issue about Gopher, Substack doesn’t support Gopher links.
To learn more while on Gopher, Floodgap and Bitreich are great starting points. The Raspberry Pi of Death is an amazing archive of everything, as is the Freaknet media lab shipwreck. There is also Metafilter, Gopherddit, and of course The Gopher Bay.
Now you have a fortnight’s worth of Gopher content to see, lets start publishing.
A Gopher ‘site’ is called a Gopher hole. Each folder has a ‘Gophermap’ text file explaining what’s available in a directory and the type of data (selector) for each link. John Godlee wrote a very useful guide to getting started. If you’re a fan of tools like Jekyll and Hugo, try CL-Yag or Burrow. Lightweight server options include Gophernicus and Gophi.
Gopher is like parts of Paris. Filled with culture but mostly unchanged since its belle epoque. Success at extending Gopher has been limited. Gemini was created by Solderpunk and frens in 2019 to address Gopher’s shortfalls.
Gemini: The Real Dork Web
I have no idea if it’s pronounced Gemin-eye or Gemin-ee but I love it. Gemini takes it’s name from the 1960s US space programme sandwiched between Mercury and Apollo. Gemini is a protocol and markup language designed to sit between Gopher and the Web. It has fewer constraints than Gopher. The easiest way to explain Gemini is to show it to you in it’s raw form:
Don’t panic! If you’ve seen raw HTML before you may be surprised. If you’ve seen Markdown it may look familiar. Links are on their own lines. This might seem odd but means they can’t be tampered with. There is no styling because the browser (i.e. you) gets to choose how things should look. Here’s the same page in Geminaut:
Gemini isn’t a stripped-down web. It’s Gopher on steroids. It’s lightweight and lightning quick. The biggest Gemini page on my gemlog is 5.7kb, 200 times smaller than the last issue of Tales From The Dork Web.
My only niggle with Gemini is the use of TLS. This breaks support for older computers and the ‘strives for maximum power to weight ratio’ element. Still, there is a fast-growing community and a real sense of energy and optimism behind it. You can read and understand the specification in under 5 minutes. The FAQ is short, sweet and complete. The Gemini mailing list is the home of technical discussion.
While Gopher has holes and the web has sites, Gemini has capsules. As with Gopher, Substack doesn’t like direct Gemini links. I’ll use the Mozz portal for the tour. On arrival it takes you to the main Gemini home capsule at circumlunar.space.
Gemini is small enough that much of it can be read daily through Capcom and Spacewalk aggregators. I deliberately didn’t add My gemlog to either aggregator. I wanted to show you life beyond the aggregators. Wander around the republic. Check out the hundredrabbits, Solderpunk’s Gemlog and Flounder. Looking for lo-fi hip hop? Konpeito has you covered. Baking bread? Breadpunk.club has everything you knead. Gemini is yesterday’s future, today.
Gemini doesn’t aim to replace or displace the web. You can (and should) have it all.
Making your own Gemini capsule isn’t hard. If you just want a web-accessible Gemini hosting provider, try Sloum’s Gemlog Blue. Many tildeverse communities run Gemini. Before deciding on one, look around to see if you’d fit in before going ahead. Tildes are communities for you to participate in, so choose one that fits well. You can also host your own Gemini capsule on something as low powered as an original Raspberry Pi.
There’s more out there than just Gemini and Gopher. In a future issue I’ll look at DAT, SSB, CJDNS and other decentralized web alternatives. I just want to put enough time in to using these technologies before inviting others. Gopher and Gemini are easy to get started with, you should give them a fair shake and see for yourself.
The Gemini space programme brought people together with a new hope for humanity. Likewise, the Gemini protocol is a new hope for the Internet. The day Stripe announces payments over Gemini will be the last day it will be truly Free. Until then, Gemini remains a space we can build together for the common good.
Things You May Have Missed
Better Explained teaches mathematics in a way I wish I had access to in school.
Setanta is a language written in the Irish language. Learn to code and learn Irish at the same time!
49% of Facebook Employees don’t believe it had a positive impact on the world. In other news 51% of Facebook Employees are deluded.
This recent attempt to detect technosignatures around nearby sunlike stars looks to have advanced the field. Of course, we also now have an idea of how many exoplanet-harbouring nearby systems could detect Earth.
I know some of you won’t like this but I can’t think of a better time than now to show you Maestro Ziikos’ and Donald Trump’s cover of Blinding Lights by The Weeknd.
I’ll end with this quote from John Perry Barlow’s declaration of the independence of Cyberspace, which I’d like to repoint at the big tech companies of the wide web in reference to the smol:
On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Tales From The Dork Web is designed to be read in your inbox but will also be on Gemini and Gopher soon. If you’d like Tales From The Dork Web via email, sign up below. If you’ve enjoyed this issue please share it with your friends. I’ll be back in two weeks with more Tales From The Dork Web.