About Gopher, the old school pre-Internet

2021-07-13 @Technology

Though a patron of minimalist web, somewhere among the remnants of the early Internet, the IRC Chat and the older Bulletin Board Systems, I completely overlooked the Gopher protocol/ecosystem.

Having existed before the HTTP/web, Gopher effectively renders a much simpler and stripped version of what an HTTP web page would encompass.

From what I’ve noticed in my brief tour, a Gopher page is mostly nothing but plain text and links you can follow to further content. The content can comprise of either a directory (effectively another Gopher page with links), menu - not much different, text - a plain-text file type of page, image, audio, video, binary, along with other downloadable content.

Furthermore, links are explicitly delineated (prefixed) with one of the above classifiers, which makes it quiet apparent what it is you’re about to navigate.

A page can also contain a text field you can submit. I’ve only seen this used for search and haven’t discovered yet any other form elements.

That’s it. There’s isn’t special formatting, no tables, no frames, no inline images even (these you can only download). Everything appears as plain as I largely yearn for most of the web to appear. It appears even plainer than how I mostly render the web through W3M (text browser), for even that does not entirely rid the extraneous menus and artifacts modern pages are cluttered with.

Gopher mostly comprises slightly glorified plain text with links you can follow. Voilà.

How does one access Gopher content? First, Gopher pages take the form ‘gopher://gopher.page.com’ or simply ‘gopher://page.com’, running implicitly on port 70 in contrast to the (unsecure) HTTP port 80.

Though specialized clients exist, many modern browsers can supposedly leverage the Gopher protocol as is, so simply try some of the below links if they work for you. Or see this page for client support. In Unix CLI land, both lynx and W3M (if compiled with Gopher support) view native Gopher pages.

But even if a browser lacks native Gopher support, HTTP gateways exist. The floodgap http gateway is one. Here’s a native gopher link to the Gopher Lawn (one of the more comprehensive resources), and here’s the http gateway link.

Note about the http gateway:

  1. redirects are severely slower than native Gopher browsing (otherwise faster than most HTTP due to a simpler protocol and content).
  2. The gateway/proxy leaves wraps the content with additional HTML you wouldn’t see in native mode.

To my wonder, I’ve discovered plenty of Gopher pages out there still in active maintenance. Much of the content, beyond the downloadable, consists of news and phlogs. Phlogs are essentially the Gopher equivalent of Blogs. Each entry is a plain text link I’d earlier alluded to: nothing but the essential. Similar to what you see on this site, but far simpler even, without the formatting.

Here’s a phlog roll (http gateway link) I found that indexes tons. Whenever I squeeze some spare ‘browsing’ cycles, I might take a stroll down the phlog avenue. Phlogs somehow feel more personalized and content-worthy than most blogs I stumble across in recent years.

To stand corrected: limitless amounts of blogs exist out there of all degree of worthiness, but finding the old-school type of content on the modern web feels far more of a chore. Gopher, on the other hand, caters precisely to the ‘old-school’, the underground type of crowd.

Some more Gopher links for you, with some repeated:

NOTE: if you don’t have native Gopher support, open the corresponding link through the Gopher proxy.

Anyway, as an enthusiast of all things old school and minimal, I’m quiet excited, for what I imagine another day or two. Maybe I’ll even host a Gopher site to cross-post my content. (I estimate the odds of this at about 5%).

Questions, comments? Connect.