Retro Tech: What is the Gopher Protocol?

As the title suggests, Gopher is not something new, per se. In fact, it’s one of the older internet protocols, but it ultimately fell into disfavor and was succeeded by HTTP, which is still in use today. According to Techopedia:

Gopher is an application-layer protocol that provides the ability to extract and view Web documents stored on remote Web servers. Gopher was conceived in 1991 as one of the Internet’s first data/file access protocols to run on top of a TCP/IP network. It was developed at University of Minnesota and is named after the school’s mascot.

The interesting thing about Gopher is that, despite not being in widespread use today, it’s still available for those who are curious about it or find it useful. On Android, for example, there’s a Gopher client called DiggieDog, which allows you to browse “gopherspace,” i.e. the sites and documents that use the gopher protocol. Typically, the sites look like this:

As on many early internet sites, they’re in plaintext and don’t feature any graphics, videos, or sound. The purpose of gopher is to store, search for, and display information, but it’s presented in a hierarchical file list. Brad Fonseca points out on his blog:

That’s the thing: with gopher, content is really king. You don’t get a lot of window-dressing on a gopher site. You only see additional media and graphics if you choose to click through to the content. What you get up front is text. It’s clean, crisp and clear.

Besides DiggieDog, you can use text-based browsers like Lynx to view gopherspace as well. If you’re used to modern browsers like Firefox and Chromium, Lynx will probably look dated, but it’s geared toward coders or people who just like minimal design.

Beyond just the minimalist aspect of gopher, you may also notice the lack of ads, social media sharing buttons, etc. Those of you who yearn for a return to privacy and pre-Google, pre-Facebook times may appreciate gopher and its simplicity, and/or anonymity. This is why it seemed to still be relevant today. Tor, of course, can provide some of the anonymity aspect, but it’s still either primarily for using the clearnet anonymously or .onion sites.

For pure exploration, information, and reading material, and a return to minimal design, gopher is a fun experiment, if nothing else.

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