Via: The Mantelpiece
What is Gopher? Why is Gopher?
If you don’t know, or are fuzzy on the details, Gopher is an early alternative to the World Wide Web, the standard which most of the internet is based on. You know how most pages have a http:// or https:// at the start of the address bar? That means you're on "the web". But did you know that not all websites are like that? Sites on the Gopher protocol, though they still exist on the internet and are even being accessible via (some) web browsers, work totally differently. I won't go too deep into the technical side, but Gopher pages are forced to be much simpler than what HTTP allows for. Gopher sites (often called “Gopher holes” [lol]) are actually just plaintext directories leading to folders, text files, images, and other types of downloadable files. While this simplicity may have seemed like a limitation as the web evolved in the 1990s, now it feels like a blessing: less absurd code bloat, less ugly websites with dynamic elements, and, perhaps most importantly, no tracking.
What’s more, the content on Gopher is unintentionally curated. It’s hard to succinctly define what can be found on Gopher, especially as I’ve only just begun to explore it. The best I can do is explain the characteristic conditions which bring Gopher holes together. That is:
- it’s a niche platform, mostly uploaded to by passionate nerds or those with otherwise eccentric interests;
- it’s existed since the 1990s, and many pages have existed for at least two decades; and
- the simplicity and “underground” nature of Gopher means very little content is profit-motivated or corporate-operated.
This makes for a stark contrast with the mainstream internet, which has by now been fully accepted by corporate interests as a platform ripe for being taken over and exploited. There are so many sorts of unique, entertaining and just plain weird stuff that can be found. Furthermore, it often acts as a cultural time capsule of 1990s and 2000s internet users. In one Gopher server (which AFAIK was run by a single person), I found a book of urban legends (circa 2000), an enormous folder of “spiritualism and psychical research” documentation, and a lyrics archive including the complete works of Beyoncé, among others.
(The Gopher hole in question is named “Infinitely Remote”, and you can access it via the Gopher-ready client or proxy of your choice at gopher://infinitelyremote.com:70/1/)
Introducing the new internet to the old internet
I shared a long post on Tumblr explaining the fun I've been having exploring random Gopher sites. Unlike the contemporary internet, where we’re all too often trapped in either the all-encompassing homogeny of The Big Social Media Services, or helplessly navigating SEO-optimised garbage on an increasingly useless Google, exploring Gopher is actually…fun? Exciting? Surprising? In a way that I forgot the internet could be.
What started as a silly post about the sick Gandalf pics I found tucked away in an archive of some '90s BBS site, became an information post directed at a website whose userbase already take issue with the contemporary internet. My simplified explanation and encouragement for others to join in surprisingly took off, receiving a good 3.5k notes in just a couple days(5k at the time of polishing this post)!
I don’t care about “blowing up” on Tumblr (especially as someone who’s garnered much more traffic with much stupider posts), but to think that I could share this resource with a user base that can see the same value in it as me makes me really happy. One thing I’ve learned from looking into alternative internet social strategies over the past month is that most of the people actively using these tools and services do so for the same reasons as me. The corporatisation and profit-motivated data-harvesting that defines the contemporary internet is old news to many of these people, especially the Gopher veterans who’ve known about it for decades. But I hope they’re aware that there’s a growing movement of born netizens who have just now realised these issues from personal experience. If we can revitalise these alternative ways of using the internet, to both share its utopian promise and offer a way to opt-out of the increasingly monopolised Big Web, I think we could do something really wonderful!
I got a good amount of constructive feedback on that post (not least someone pointing out that my original link to the Floodgap Gopher proxy was broken…oops :P ). Someone pointed out the existence of Gemini, a much more recently developed internet protocol which is designed to be a more modernised alternative to WWW. Others pointed out the existence of browsers which can show Gopher pages natively without the need of an HTTP proxy. And at least one person voiced some fair concerns about the long-term promise of Gopher. To paraphrase: if it became successful (i.e. enough to “pose a threat” to the Web, whatever that means), corporations would take notice and simply find a way to exploit it, just as they did with the Web.
Gopher vs. the Wretched Wide Web
There are a few good reasons I think this isn’t of dire concern. One is, of course, that Gopher will in all likelihood remain a vanishingly small niche amongst the wider internet. A recently popular Tumblr post claimed only 5% of young internet users today are active on Tumblr (compared to 95% on YouTube and 60~% on TikTok...supposedly). If I’m converting a small portion of users on a minority website, and only a small portion of that percentage actually use Gopher…I don’t think that’s of any significance to the Amazons and Facebooks (sorry, Meta [lol] [lmfao]) of the world.
Furthermore, Gopher’s “features” are, I think, a strong natural repellant to corporate interests. For one, tracking, both in order to sell data and manage ad revenue, is fundamentally impossible. Also, the limitations against "rich" formatting and multimedia, while charming to many of us, would feel like a disaster to modern advertisers. As well as working against the more simple and obvious examples of corporate meddling, I personally think this secures Gopher against the more insidious kinds of malicious activity which have come to define not just the internet, but recent history and current events: harassment campaigns that put individual privacy at stake; misinformation campaigns that run rampant on algorithmically managed content streams; and countless examples of people and organisations profiting off “engagement”.
Will a new exodus to Gopher result in an utopian internet hideaway? I doubt it. Platform rules alone can’t promise a utopian online community; that would be making the same mistake Twitter makes, with its attempts to tinker with social media and website design with the purported goal of enabling “healthier discussions”. There is definitely questionable content and misinformation on Gopher — I’ve seen a good few examples with my own eyes. Indeed, the idea of an online information exchange seceded from the mainstream would appeal to certain conservatives for a wide range of reasons, not least the ones who love claiming to be “cancelled” by any online platform with slightly reasonable moderation practices, as part of their personal, self-pitying PR campaigns.
Still, the issue with Twitter and the other big sites — and it's not restrained to isolated websites, but is instead a much larger scale social issue, stemming, I would argue, from capitalism itself — is systemic. If, say, Twitter worked wildly differently, these issues would at least be curtailed. But this would also mean a fundamental shift away from the for-profit model of a modern social media site: advertisers desire a platform for advertising; theirs is a pointless, universally despised industry, and yet one which is wildly profitable, especially online.
More “engagement” — more digital eyes in the same place, whether their attention is positive or negative — means more money. It’s the unwritten rule which I believe drives a whole lot of what happens online, and in culture generally these days. Twitter as a system incentivises misinformation, harassment, and the manufacturing of consent, because these things all help garner engagement, which garners profit. A version of the internet where usage can’t be tracked, advertisers can’t force videos and pop-ups in our faces, and content isn’t aggregated by algorithms, wouldn’t have these exact issues — though it could well have other issues.
Ultimately, I think that no matter how or where we use the internet, we need to actively fight the forces of misinformation, capitalism and fascism — of evil generally — beyond just making tweaks to the services we use. If we did all move to Gopher, we would still have our hands full responding to these threats with factual information, fairly distributed resources, and supportive, healthy communities. It would be an active effort, not a passive one.
Gopher does have its advantages, as I’ve outlined in this post. And those advantages are largely significant for the reason that they could help counteract the Web’s issues, and their spread across the internet. As far as I can imagine, it would be literally impossible for a malicious actor to exploit the systems of Gopher for their own gain, at least not in the same highly complex way businesses and fascists alike use the Web: using tracking, cookies, and complex web tools to make a profit out of all forms of engagement, all while expecting us to put up with an increasingly ugly, bloated, auto-playing-pop-up-video-filled internet.
Do I think Gopher will replace the internet? Even as an optimist, no. Do I think it (or an alternative such as Gemini)should? Perhaps...but I realise that it's silly to set my sights that high and my perspective that wide. The internet has become something that, essentially, affects the entirety of humanity. That may sound like a description of a malicious alien entity which intends to enslave humanity, but the internet is humanity. It is human-made invention, an environment in which a huge proportion of human interaction now takes place. We can’t hope to change how everybody on earth interacts; but, being humans ourselves, we can look around us, at the people we do interact with, whose lives we do affect, and make a difference. It’s what my friends have called “making your world smaller”; it’s the age-old adage that it’s better to focus on the things you can change than the things you can’t. The impact may be small, in terms of the grand scale of humanity, but it’s still real and worth doing.
Again, Gopher gives me hope not because I think it’s automatically a utopia, but because I think it presents us with a new, greater opportunity to take active responsibility for our internet, at a time when the World Wide Web makes it increasingly impossible for any sense of community or joy to grow without being twisted into something foul, evil, and self-defeating. I hope this unusually lengthy post helped you understand my excitement!
P.S. I still haven't set up a comment system at this time. If this post has inspired you to talk to me, feel free to email me at patricktaylor413_@_outlook.com