GemiNaut's clever solution to a peculiar problem

I’m a big proponent of the web being leaner and more text-based. In light of how strongly the web has veered in the opposite direction, it’s probably a radical position to say that I think less of the web should have any visual styling attached to it at all. More text channels where a reader can maintain a consistent, custom reading experience feels like a better solution than a bunch of disparate-looking sites all with their own color schemes, custom fonts, and massive headers1.

I often use text-based web browsers like Lynx and WebbIE. I also tend to follow a lot of people who maintain very webring-esque sites, even moreso than mine. But there is more internet than just the HTTP-based World Wide Web. Gopher is, or was, depending on your outlook, an alternative protocol to HTTP. It was more focused on documents that kind of reference one another in a more bidirectional way, and because it never really got off the ground in the way HTTP did, it also never really got the CSS treatment; it’s really just about structured text. Despite most of the information about Gopher on the web being historical retrospectives, enthusiasts of a similar mind to me are keeping the protocol alive2.

Then there’s Gemini3. Gemini is a sort of modern take on Gopher. For nerds like me, it’s wonderful that such an effort exists. If you’re interested in the unstyled side of the internet, Gemini is worth looking into. I do think it needs a bit of love, however, as curl maintainer Daniel Stenberg points out how lacking the implementation details are. I disagree with a few of Daniel’s points; Gemini falls into a lot of ‘trappings’ that HTTP escaped because HTTP development steered toward mass appeal. Gemini is for a small web, one for weirdos like me. The specification and implementation issues seem very real, however, and while I don’t think Gemini can or should get WWW-level acceptance, an RSS-sized niche would be nice, at least, and software sort of needs to know how to work for that to happen.

All of this only really matters for background context. I’ll likely post more of my thoughts on a textual internet in the future, and I’ll likely also be dipping my toes in publishing on a Gemini site. The point of this post, however, is to talk about a strange problem that happens with unstyled text-based content. While there are certainly far fewer distractions between the reader and the content, there’s also a sort of brain drain that comes from sites being visually indistinguishable from one another. I always just kind of assumed this was one of those annoyances that would never really be important enough to try to solve. Hell, the way most software development is going these days, I don’t really expect to see any new problem-solving happening in the UX sphere. But I recently stumbled across a browser that solves this in a very clever way.

GemiNaut4 is an open-source Gemini and Gopher browser for Windows that uses an identicon-esque visual system to help distinguish sites. Identicons are visual representations of hash functions, typically used for a similar version of the same problem – making visually distinct icons for default users on a site. If everyone’s default icon is, say, an egg, then every new user looks the same. Creating a simple visual off of a hash function helps keep users looking distinct by default. I’ve often seen them used on password inputs as well – if you recognize the identicon, you know you’ve typed your password in correctly without having the password itself revealed.

Don Parks, who created the original identicon, did so to ‘enhance commenter identity’ on his blog5. But he knew there was more to it than this:

I originally came up with this idea to be used as an easy means of visually distinguishing multiple units of information, anything that can be reduced to bits. It’s not just IPs but also people, places, and things.

IMHO, too much of the web what we read are textual or numeric information which are not easy to distinguish at a glance when they are jumbled up together. So I think adding visual identifiers will make the user experience much more enjoyable.

-“Identicon Explained” by Don Parks via Wayback Machine

And indeed, browser extensions also exist for using identicons in lieu of favicons; other folks have pieced together the value in tying them to URLs. But GemiNaut uses visual representations of hashes like these to create patterned borders around the simple hypertext of Gopher and Gemini sites. The end result is clean pages that remain visually consistent, yet are distinctly framed based on domain. It only exists in one of GemiNaut’s several themes, and I wish these themes were customizable. Selfishly, I also wish more software would adopt this use of hash visualization.

Aside from browsing Gemini and Gopher, GemiNaut includes Duckling, a proxy for converting the ‘small web’ to Gemini. The parser has three modes: text-based, simplified, and verbose. The first is, as one might expect, just the straight text of a page. Of the other two, simplified is so stripped-down that apparently this blog isn’t ‘small’ enough to fully function in it6. But it does work pretty well in verbose mode, though it lacks the keyboard navigation of Lynx, WebbIE, or even heavy ol’ Firefox.

I had long been looking for a decent Windows Gopher client, and was happy to find one that also supports Gemini and HTTP with the Duckling proxy enabled in GemiNaut. But truly, I’d like to see more development in general for the text-based web. All the big browsers contain ‘reader modes,’ which reformat visually frustrating pages into clean text. ‘Read later’ services like Instapaper do the same. RSS still exists and presents stripped-down versions of web content. There is still a desire for an unstyled web, and it would be great to see more of the software that exists in support of it adopting hash visualizations for distinction.

  1. Yes, yes. ↩︎
  2. In the article, I have linked to an HTTP proxy of the Floodgap Systems gopher root; this page obviously exists on gopher as well ↩︎
  3. Again, in the article the Project Gemini HTTP proxy is linked; here it is on gemini ↩︎
  4. And again, HTTP proxy in the post. GemiNaut site on Gemini protocol. ↩︎
  5. Wayback Machine archive of “Visual Security: 9-block IP Identification” by Don Parks. ↩︎
  6. It sort of works? Posts mostly work, though footnotes don’t. Importantly, pagination is also busted. But again, the situation is much better in verbose mode. ↩︎