Gemini: a www alternative

So, do think that watching scantily-clad young ladies twerking in their bikinis on OnlyFans is a bunch of bullshit? Concerned that Google, Microsoft and Facebook are becoming the gatekeepers of the internet? Annoyed that most sites have become bloated pieces of garbage more interested in harvesting your eyeballs than in providing interesting content?

Then I have a suggestion for you: Gemini. Gemini is an internet protocol, similar to HTTP and gopher (Wikipedia). It also defines a file format, similar to HTML. Gemini derives its name from the Gemini space program, which was conducted between Mercury and Apollo. In the analogy, Mercury is the equivalent of the Gopher protocol, Apollo is the equivalent of the World Wide Web, and Gemini occupies an intermediate ground between the two.

In terms of a facetious editor analogy: Gopher is Ed, Gemini is Vim, and HTML is a 1GB Eclipse IDE download.

The Gemini markup language seems to be inspired by markdown, but with a formal specification rather than ad hoc extensions that markdown often has. Whilst HTML is basically infinitely extensible, Gemini is deliberately constrained. You can’t run riot with JavaScript and all that baloney.

This makes writing client software well within the scope of one man hacking away in his bedroom. As opposed to a browser like Firefox. A lot of the clients I’ve tried were rather flaky, or just plain failed to compile. Fortunately, someone pointed me to a nice one called Lagrange. It seems to be one recommended a lot, and is “feature-complete”. So that’d be the the one to try in the first instance. You can compile it from source, if you feel you must. Or, you can do what I did, and just download and run an AppImage. I think there is a Flatpak package too, but I can’t be doing with all that nonsense.

Lagrange has fantastic font rendering. Really gorgeous. Although maybe it’s just Helvetica (?) It has a default “dark”” theme, which you can change. One reviewer said it was depressing, but I think it is very stylish and the whole rendering is pleasantly aesthetic. A really nice touch is a sidebar in which you can display a table of contents. What an ingenious idea! Gemini docs (GMI’s) can have headings and subheadings, so it is easy for the browser to generate it. It is an interesting demonstration as to how sometimes simpler can be more powerful.

Comparing Gemini to Vim is a very apt one, I think. Although folks have developed plugins for Vim (but you can’t do that with Gemini), in a way, I think that’s the wrong way of thinking about Vim. You should do things the Vim way, bend your thinking to its way of thinking, rather than the other way around. Vim is not Emacs. It’s a different mindset.

I had tried kicking the tyres of Gemini about half a year ago, and found them to be a bit flat. With the discovery of Lagrange, I have a renewed interest. There’s a combination of factors. Github announced that it was upping its login arrangements. Google is doing something similar too. It looks like we’ll be jumping through more hoops to get Thunderbird to work. Even worse, it is my understanding that regular 2FA (2-factor authorisation) won’t work. It’s some kind of Google propitiatory bullshit.

Then there’s WordPress. It’s pretty bloated, and often a fiddle to use. I write a lot of technical content. Writing preformatted code in WordPress can be a bit of a wrestling match. When I first used WordPress, the process was somewhat tiresome. Then there was a phase where it actually did the right thing. Now it seems back to crap again.

I had investigated a bunch of blogging platforms that had been recommended. I was disappointed. Most of them seemed overfussy, and I was dubious that they would be an improvement over WordPress. I had heard that Tumblr was making a comeback. I checked out the site, but figured that it wasn’t suitable for the kind of content I was interesting in posting. I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: I’m seeing a lot of sites which have what I call the “Generation Z aesthetic” (I’m defining Gen Z as people born in the late 90’s to 2010’s). Or you could call it “Plastic Pop”. Something about them says “influencer”, you know? “This is me being the best version of myself”, and all that stuff.

I decided that probably the best way forward would be to cobble something together with Jekyll. I have never used Jekyll before. A quick try proved that it was simple enough. I could make something clean and simple, without gimmickry.

I had also discovered a small server written in golang called markdir. It served markdown pages rather than HTML.

So there was bunch of ideas floating around in my head. I was trying to form a cohesive idea out of them. The pieces looked that they may come together in the form of Gemini. I could create pages in a simple markup language. What’s more, I didn’t need any server software if I just wanted to use something internally. The browser could pull up links as required. So at least at first glance I had some kind of solution that I was looking for.

Interestingly, I have read articles suggesting that gopher is making a bit of a comeback. According to an article in 2018:

… one of the gopher sites where I post shows new members weekly: 2% growth per week. … Gopher represents the ability to bring an interconnected browsing experience to low-computing-power environments.

That’s a good point, actually. In fact, I see at least two benefits of simple protocols like gopher and Gemini:

  • bandwidth requirements are really low, so they can be used in rural areas or developing countries where internet connection is poor and slow
  • being mostly plain text, they are very accessible to visually impaired viewers
  • being simple, client software is easy to write for obscure Operating Systems like Aros (a free AmigaOS clone)
  • resource usage is light. They should run on even the lowest-specced machine. Hell, you could probably write a gopher client for an ESP32 microcontroller.

I had a quick play with gopher yesterday. It was quite interesting. I noted that it was surprisingly useable. I think I’ll stick to Gemini just now, though.

I’ve explored Gemini sites just a little bit. There’s quite a sub-cultural and retro feel to it. I mean that in a good way. Even reading some of their blogs (I think they call them phlogs) is quite interesting. Smallish snippets of ideas.

There’s a feeling that Gemini, like Gopher, is stepping back to the internet of 1991 (in a good way!). There’s something mysterious and fresh about it, with unexpected discoveries around the corner.

It’s worth mentioning that Gemini is not intended to be a replacement for the WWW. That ship has long sailed. Nor Gopher, for that matter, Rather, it is an adjunct of the two.

Anyway, I reckon I’ve said enough about all this. Go check it out if it seems interesting to you.



About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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