Gopher, Project Gemini, and Alternatives to the Modern Web

Do you hate what the internet has become? How everyone uses the same big corporation-owned social media sites? What if I told you there is an entirely seperate version of the internet? And not just one, but multiple! Yes, I am here to introduce you to Project Gemini, but first, we have to go back... back to 1991. Yes, the year is 1991, and at the University of Minnesota, Mark P. McCahill has created something interesting, an internet protocol. On this protocol, named Gopher, you could set up your own server to display "gopherholes", which were pages of text (and later links) of whatever the user wanted to show the world. Sound familiar? That is because this would eventually evolve to become a website. Gopher was the go-to way of accessing the internet for about 4-5 years, until the new kid on the block, called the world wide web, took the number one spot. Gopher later faded into obscurity, as websites evolved from pages of text and links into pages of images, videos, downloads, JavaScript, etc.

Indeed, for many years, the nerds, geeks, and tech geniuses of the past were forced to share their personal heaven of the web with the mainstream, as it slowly crumbled up into a ball of corporate spyware rubbish. Geocities and fanpages of the past were compressed into Twitter or Instagram accounts. Beautiful things like original webpage themes or site backgrounds were canned in favour of an all white page with a banner image at the top. This was done to appeal to mobile device users, while further tainting the experience of those original computer enthusiasts who brought the web to its glory. Gopher was a distant memory by this point, but around 2017, that changed seemingly overnight. Old timers started to bring Gopher back, as a niche alternative for other tech enthusiasts to communicate on. A figure by the name of Solderpunk caught wind of this, and took it a step further. Solderpunk, with people he trusts, pioneered a new protocol based on Gopher, which modernises it a bit. Unlike gopher, gemini allows hyperlinking, image support (though not in-line, must be linked to), has mandatory TLS security (which gopher has none of, by the way!) and downloads. While still not the same as the web you are using to read this, it is definitely more modern than gopher, and already has hundreds of users. (Including myself!)

"So how do I use this?" you are probably wondering. I'll tell you now, but there is first some info you must be aware of. Gemini (and gopher especially) will never replace the modern web. It is simply a place for enthusiasts and geeks to hang out, especially on the gemini, where there are already forums/message boards, thanks to its more modern features. Gemini also supports images, but not in-line. This means you can click a link like this picture of my own geminispace and view the image, but it will not be able to be placed by the text you are reading. This is done to make sure speed is a top priority, and also keeps gemini compatible with very old technology like the Pentium III. Of course, because gemini is still more modern than gopher, it won't work on ancient hardware the way Gopher does. Hell, you can browse gopherholes on something like an Amiga or Commadore 64 if I recall correctly. But most gemini spaces also have Gopher counterparts. Here I am using an iBook G4 with a 2004 PowerPC G4 processor to browse the gemini. Of course, since there is not yet a Gemini browser for PowerPC, I was using the gopher version of the site. Now, I will explain how to connect.

Look at the top of your browser, where the URL goes. Do you notice something at the beginning? Before the URL, it says "https://". This means that you are connected to a web site. That makes sense, since you are using a web browser! With gemini (and gopher) sites, since it isn't the web, it uses something different. rather than "https://", gopher uses "gopher://", and gemini uses "gemini://". You'll need a gemini or gopher browser. The good news is that since both are so similar, most browsers with one tend to support the other as well! Since this guide is meant for absolute beginners, I'll show you the easiest browser to not only access, but make your own "site" on the gemini! For Linux (any distro) and Windows, I recommend Kristall Browser. (don't worry Mac users, I have one for you too in a bit!) Scroll down to the downloads section. On Linux, you can download the AppImage, which should run natively on your system. If not, you may need to right click, go to properties, and allow executing the file as a program. On Windows, there should be a ZIP file included with the EXE to open the browser. One cool thing I forgot to mention is that since Gemini is text based, you can choose how every single page looks! This is done by going to file >settings >style. By default, it has the Yotsuba B theme. As you saw in the above screenshot of my own gemini space, I themed mine to look like basic HTML, just for the nostalgia factor.

If you are on Mac (or want a fully installable Windows browser), you can download Lugrange browser. The catch with this one though is that it is a lot less style-able, and also changes geminispaces / gopherholes on its own to look more modern. Though, if you are using an Apple product that probably will not be an issue to you in the first place. While not being fully customisable like Kristall, Lugrange does offer the ability to change between pre-bundled fonts and 6 different light/dark mode themes. Not my cup of tea, but I certainly didn't mind using it when I was testing it on my 2010 MacBook Pro. (UPDATE 2021: check out Elaho browser for gemini on iOS devices!) And now, I'll answer some questions.

FAQ & Recommended Gemini Spaces

Which sites / geminispaces / gopherholes should I visit first?

For Gemini Browsing:

For Gopher browsing:

Is this like the dark web? Not exactly, but in some ways yes. The thing about the dark web, is that it is still the web. While both need their own compatible browsers to access them, the dark web is just the side of the web that you don't normally see. The Gemini and Gopher protocol are seperate, and Gopher itself would theoretically work perfectly fine if one day every website suddenly disappeared. Think of it like this: The dark web is typically used for activism, privacy, or of course illegal activities. Gopher and Gemini are populated with nerds looking to have fun in a unique and interesting way, which is what the web used to be for them.

Is it safe/secure? Well, gemini is. Gemini requires TLS, a form of encryption, in order to use it. Gopher does not however. This is because when gopher was initially thought up, security wasn't necessarily seen as an issue, since hacking was not as easy back then. Most of the time though, a gopherhole has so little content that it isn't really worth having security for. Gemini offers TLS as a means of Privacy.

How do I make my own "geminispace"? For absolute beginners, I recommend Gemlog. This space uses a web based client that let's you sign up for an account, make posts to your geminispace, and explains how to properly format text for things like ASCII images. It also gives you the URL to view your posts in your preferred gemini browser. My personal geminispace is available at "gemini://gemlog.blue/users/twh" (without the quotes.) Also, a "gemlog" is short for gemini log, the same way that "blog" is short for "web log" and "phlog" is short for "gopher log".

where can I learn more about Project Gemini? The creator has his own site set up to explain just that. I only made this page to help people like myself. I was stranded in a sea of failed attempts to compile various browsers and didn't know how quite to get started. Gemini's official page has its own very detailed FAQ for newcomers, but it did not really mention a way to browse, just briefly mentioning that browsers were available. With that, I end this introduction / guide. I hope you find interest in the small-net and other website alternatives.