Gopher protocol reborn

Ars Technica covers the renaissance of Gopher, the text-based menuing system that presaged the Web. My first net-industry job was building a gopher site (halfway through, we scrapped it in favor of a website). Good times.
Cameron Kaiser is a programmer on the Overbite Project, which brings better Gopher support to Firefox versions 2 and 3. When he writes about the relevance of Gopher in a Web world, he rejects the nostalgia for a "simpler time."

"The misconception that the modern renaissance of Gopherspace is simply a reaction to 'Web overload' is unfortunately often repeated and, while superficially true, demonstrates a distinct lack of insight," he writes. Instead, Gopher's advantages lie in the structure that its simple menu-based interface imposes on content.

"Gopher is a mind-set on making structure out of chaos," says Kaiser. "Within Gopherspace, all Gophers work the same way and all Gophers organize themselves around similar menus and interface conceits. It is not only easy and fast to create Gopher content in this structured and organized way, it is mandatory by its nature. Resulting from this mandate is the ability for users to navigate every Gopher installation in the same way they navigated the one they came from, and the next one they will go to. Just like it had been envisioned by its creators, Gopher takes the strict hierarchical nature of a file tree or FTP and turns it into a friendlier format that still gives the fast and predictable responses that they would get by simply browsing their hard drive. As an important consequence, by divorcing interface from information, Gopher sites stand and shine on the strength of their content and not the glitz of their bling."

The Web may have won, but Gopher tunnels on


  1. My first IT job was also Gophermaster. My first tasks was to clean up the dead links. One of them was the link to the University of Sarajevo’s Gohper server. Yugoslavia had descended into civil war and Sarajevo was no longer reachable. After several days I reluctantly deleted Sarajevo from our Gopher space.

    Today we take the world-wide nature of the Internet for granted, but at the time it was an eye-opening moment.

  2. God damnit, browsing Gopher with a point and click GUI just doesn’t sit right with me. Gopher should be browsed in a terminal window, or preferably, in a full screen text mode terminal, ideally with a broken mapping for the backspace key, just like god intended.

    Otherwise you’re really just defiling the sanctity of the true Gopher experience.

    1. You and your high-tech full screen text mode terminal. You whipper-snappers have never experienced true Gopher. There’s nothing quite so thrilling as a whirring 1/4 horsepower electric motor driving an electro-mechanical teletypewriter connected to the net via a 110 baud acoustic coupler. Every so often the timing of the rotor drifts off, and all the characters start bit-shifting to the right or to the left. Oh yes, and it’s all UPPERCASE BECAUSE THERE ARE NO LOWERCASE LETTERS.

    1. My nephews had a blast with the Flashback 2600 that I got for christmas a couple years ago…

      (of course, they went right back to the PS3 afterward.)

  3. There’s an elegance to gopher.

    I’ve been meaning to set up a personal blog for awhile.
    But it’s such a chore to set up a content management system.

    Maybe I should just throw all of my text files up on a gopher server…

  4. Gopher is probably the most accessible protocol out there. Those who are visually impaired struggle with about 90% of the sites out there. Gopher solves this very elegantly. I certainly can see a future for a simpler protocol.

  5. Funny coincidence. I tried gopher for the first time last week, just to see what it was like for my ancestors to use a pre-web protocol. You know… I thought it’d be culturally relevant…

  6. I always liked gopher, I really think there’s a place for both. I remember spending hours on the internet wiretap’s gopher site….

  7. WAIS was neat, but after he sold out to AOL it just wasn’t the same. There never was another upgrade to xwais and freewais was ok, but…

  8. Sorry I don’t see a future for this protocal. Not to be a party pooper.

    I use to see it as great simple protocal for the future as well. The idea I use to have was for cellphones to impliment it. Back then, when there were no smart phones, gopher seemed to make sense. Little need for coding extensive displays to adapt html, consistant appearance compared to wap, you get links to images or audio files, and most important of all, it’s all there, free, no need to come up with another protocal from scratch.

    However for some reason, no one caught the idea.

    These days with iphones and other smart devices, I don’t see a need for such a protocal.

  9. I remember post-uni when internet service was available only in 1 hour/day chunks (1992-5) so I called up a local provider with this argument: I use it 6 hours over the weekend, and a few minutes here or there weekdays. They accomodated me, rather than lose my business.

    It was mostly MOOs and MUDs then, and IRC, when the web itself was in beta. Gopher was a useful introduction to the power and distribution of the internet, and the most useful discovery tool before the genuine search-engine.

  10. Seems like a good protocol, but possibly not for humans using PCs.

    For computers, and for humans using mobile phones and handhelds, on the other hand… I could definitely see very nice gopher support being added into the iphone’s browser UI component, so third party apps could easily create online menus.

    I can’t see it ever being used much as a standalone app or site, though.

    Speaking of ancient protocols, anyone remember FSP? Seems to have lost the battle to FTP, nowadays, but years ago, I loved it. Elegant tools, for a more civilised age…

  11. Gopherspace made it easy to find relevant stuff fast. Before Google this was pretty much an impossible task on the web, and it’s still harder than it was in gopherspace back then. The fact that it made it impossible for homepage designers to do “clever” stuff was just a bonus (most webpages today use the modern equivalents to blinking text, including boingboing). Despite that my first contact with internet was when the web started to expand and new content become rarer and rarer in gopherspace (but it was still larger then the web), I prefered gopherspace until its content started to diminish to almost nothing.

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