Toaster-friendly alternative web protocol Gemini attracts criticism for becoming exclusive clique

While creators were stripping away annoying styling, users started to make Geminispace a bunker, says engineer

Project Gemini is a new internet protocol designed to be simpler and lighter to make it easier for people to design, run, and use their own websites.

Described by network engineer Stéphane Bortzmeyer at FOSDEM 2021 as a new ultra-simple protocol that is modern but "looks retro," it was designed to help the user opt out of "pervasive user tracking [and]... distractions from the actual content."

Some of those with a penchant for irritating spelling call it the "smol web." It's light enough for vintage computers, and easy to create both clients and pages. It's not designed to replace the web, but as an adjunct to it. It also makes it much easier to host your own site. As the project points out, it's "heavier than gopher... lighter than the web, [and] will not replace either."

Sounds all good so far… but the protocol is beginning to attract controversy as it takes off. The most recent statistics put "Geminispace" (all resources "published on the internet via the Gemini protocol") at 1,997 capsules, up from 1,200 in September.

A post this week gained a lot of traction on Hackernews forums, when a software engineer calling themselves "マリウス" – that's "Marius" to gaijin – called it "solutionism at its worst". They argued in a blogpost that Gemini is an answer to a problem that doesn't exist and encourages a bunker effect, excluding people who use ordinary web browsers, perhaps due to accessibility issues.

Developer Andre Garzia responded that Gemini was "a little gem", arguing that it's fun, lightweight, and simple enough to hold in your head, and it's not a threat to anything.

The "Cheapskates Guide to the Internet", meanwhile, welcomed it, characterising Gemini as a sign that the "old internet" is "quietly coming back." While the site's author encouraged users to take a look at it as a tool to bypass the usual Big Tech suspects, they also endorsed, for the same purpose, the controversial Tor network, ZeroNet – which apparently uses Bitcoin signatures as site IDs and Bittorrent to transfer content, enough to make this writer flee in horror – and finally, hypothetical deities help us, web3. This author has already opined on the extreme uselessness of that.

Is it worth getting involved?

There's nothing wrong with Gemini. It does what it says on the tin. The web is just one protocol that runs on the internet, alongside a legion of chat protocols, email, SSH, file transfers, and many more. There is perhaps more to worry about from China's proposed New Internet Protocol, but that's a different issue.

The internet is already decentralised: that's what it was designed for. There are already decentralised social network systems, such as ActivityPub and Mastodon, and Diaspora (despite its early troubles), as well as the new Bonfire.

What Gemini brings is simplicity. You need minimal technical skills to set up your own Gemini "capsule". That's a very good thing; a lot of the modern web is just too damned hard for non-specialists. It all started to go wrong in the 1990s, as Zach Holman's seven-year-old rant so amusingly describes.

There are many minimalist programming competitions out there, from the Obfuscated C Contest via the Java 4K Game contest to many retro-computing demo contests.

There are some entire websites that fit inside a single HTML file. Some are practical tools, such as Tiddlywiki.

There are also some proposals for simplifying content, such as Jeff Huang's This Page is Designed to Last. There are working, usable, graphical web browsers that don't support JavaScript, such as Dillo and Netsurf. If you just want to stay with your current browser, you can install NoScript. It's worth trying because it's surprising how fast even the modern web can be. It can even be fun.

The older, simpler Gopher protocol hasn't gone away either. Install OverbiteFF and explore. Quux.org is a good place to start.

Maybe it's time for a new contest to design the most minimalist websites possible. Sites written in nothing but HTML; no Javascript, no CSS, just flat, non-interactive web pages, but which still look good and work well. ®

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