Project Gemini FAQ

Please send corrections or suggestions for additional questions to solderpunk@posteo.net

1. Overview

1.1 What is Gemini?

Gemini is a new application-level internet protocol for the distribution of arbitrary files, with some special consideration for serving a lightweight hypertext format which facilitates linking between files. You may think of Gemini as "the web, stripped right back to its essence" or as "Gopher, souped up and modernised a little", depending upon your perspective. Gemini may be of interest to people who are:

Gemini is intended to be simple, but not necessarily as simple as possible. Instead, the design strives to maximise its "power to weight ratio", while keeping its weight within acceptable limits. Gemini is also intended to be very privacy conscious, to be difficult to extend in the future (so that it will stay simple and privacy conscious), and to be compatible with a "do it yourself" computing ethos. For this last reason, Gemini is technically very familiar and conservative: it's a protocol in the traditional client-server request-response paradigm, and is built on mature, standardised technology like URIs, MIME media types, and TLS.

1.2 Whose fault is Gemini?

Project Gemini was started by Solderpunk solderpunk@posteo.net, who remains Benevolent Dictator For Now. However, the protocol has been designed in collaboration with a loose and informal community of interested parties via emails, phlog and Fediverse posts. Many people have shaped significant parts of the protocol, so Gemini should not be thought of as the work of one person.

1.3 Where can I learn more?

The official home of Project Gemini is the gemini.circumlunar.space server. It serves the latest version of this FAQ document, as well the protocol specification and recommended best practices via Gemini, Gopher and HTTPS, on IPv4 and IPv6.

Official discussion regarding Gemini happens on a mailing list. You can subscribe to the list and view archives at https://lists.orbitalfox.eu/listinfo/gemini. Archives can also be viewed over Gemini at gemini://rawtext.club:1965/~sloum/geminilist/.

Anybody who is running a Gemini server or implementing a Gemini client or server software is strongly encouraged to subscribe to the list.

Casual discussion regarding Gemini also happens in the #gemini channel on the tilde.chat IRC server. IRC logs can be viewed over Gemini at gemini://makeworld.gq/cgi-bin/gemini-irc.

1.4 Do you really think you can replace the web?

Not for a minute! Nor does anybody involved with Gemini want to destroy Gopherspace. Gemini is not intended to replace either Gopher or the web, but to co-exist peacefully alongside them as one more option which people can freely choose to use if it suits them. In the same way that many people currently serve the same content via gopher and the web, people will be able to "bihost" or "trihost" content on whichever combination of protocols they think offer the best match to their technical, philosophical and aesthetic requirements and those of their intended audience.

1.5 What's with the name?

It's a reference to the pre-shuttle era of US manned spaceflight, which consisted of three projects. The first was Project Mercury, which was a fairly minimalist "proof of concept" and part of the race to put a human in space soonest (which the Soviet Union won with their Vostok project). Mercury was a one-man capsule with no ability to adjust to its own orbit after launch and only one Mercury flight lasted longer than a single day. The last was Project Apollo, which was large, heavy, complicated and expensive but could, of course, fly three men to the moon and back.

Less well known to the modern public, Project Gemini was the "middle child": a two person capsule which could rendezvous and dock with other craft in orbit, could be depressurised and repressurised in orbit to facilitate spacewalks, and whose longest flight was almost two weeks - longer than any Apollo mission! In terms of size, weight and cost Gemini was much closer to Mercury than to Apollo, but in terms of capabilities it was the other way around - there were even plans (which never eventuated) to do circumlunar Gemini flights!

Hopefully the analogy is obvious: Gopher is akin to Mercury, and the web is akin to Apollo. Gemini hopes to sit between the two, doing more with less.

Gemini very deliberately didn't receive a name which had anything to do with gophers, or other rodents, or even other animals. During the earliest phlog-based discussions which eventually grew into Project Gemini, a lack of careful writing meant it was sometimes unclear whether people were talking about replacing Gopher outright, or adding unofficial, compatibility-breaking upgrades into existing Gopher clients and servers. When idle discussion turned into an actual project, it seemed wise to send a clearer message.

2. Protocol design

2.1 What are the design criteria for Gemini?

The following criteria were informally put in place at the beginning of the project. It's debatable how closely some of these goals have been met, but in general Gemini is still quite close to this target.

2.1.1 Simplicity

In particular, Gemini strives for simplicity of client implementation. Modern web browsers are so complicated that they can only be developed by very large and expensive projects. This naturally leads to a very small number of near-monopoly browsers, which stiffles innovation and diversity and allows the developers of these browsers to dictate the direction in which the web evolves.

Gemini aims to be simple, but not too simple. Gopher is simpler at a protocol level, but as a consequence the client is eternally uncertain: what character encoding is this text in? Is this text the intended content or an error message from the server? What kind of file is this binary data? Because of this, a robust Gopher client is made less simple by needing to infer or guess missing information. Early Gemini discussion included three clear goals with regard to simplicity:

It's debatable to what extent these goals have been met. Experiments suggest that a very basic interactive client takes more like a minimum of 100 lines of code, and a comfortable fit and moderate feature completeness need more like 200 lines. But Gemini still seems to be in the ballpark of these goals.

2.1.2 Privacy

Gemini is designed with an acute awareness that the modern web is a privacy disaster, and that the internet is not a safe place for plaintext. Things like browser fingerprinting and Etag-based "supercookies" are an important cautionary tale: user tracking can and will be snuck in via the backdoor using protocol features which were not designed to facilitate it. Thus, protocol designers must not only avoid designing in tracking features (which is easy), but also assume active malicious intent and avoid designing anything which could be subverted to provide effective tracking. This concern manifests as a deliberate non-extensibility in many parts of the Gemini protocol.

2.1.3 Generality

The "first class" application of Gemini is human consumption of predominantly written material - to facilitate something like gopherspace, or like "reasonable webspace" (e.g. something which is comfortably usable in Lynx or Dillo). But, just like HTTP can be, and is, used for much, much more than serving HTML, Gemini should be able to be used for as many other purposes as possible without compromising the simplicity and privacy criteria above. This means taking into account possible applications built around non-text files and non-human clients.

2.2 Which shortcomings of Gopher does Gemini overcome?

Gemini allows for:

Text in Gemini documents is wrapped by the client to fit the device's viewport, rather than being "hard wrapped" at ~80 characters with newline characters. This means content displays equally well on phones, tablets, laptops and desktops.

Gemini does away with Gopher's strict directory / text dichotomy and lets you insert links in prose.

Gemini mandates the use of TLS encryption.

2.3 Is Gopher's directory / text dichotomy really a shortcoming?

Modern usage habits in the phlogosphere would seem to suggest that many people think it is. An increasing number of users are serving content which is almost entirely text as item type 1, so that they can insert a relatively small number of "in line" links to other gopher content, providing some semblence of HTML's hyperlinking - a perfectly reasonable and inoffensive thing to want to do. Without taking this approach, the best Gopher content authors can do is to paste a list of URLs at the bottom of their document, for their readers to manually copy and paste into their client. This is not exactly a pleasant user experience. But forcing hyperlinks into Gopher this way isn't just an abuse of the semantics of the Gopher protocol, it's also a surprisingly inefficient way to serve text, because every single line has to have an item type of i and a phony selector, hostname and port transmitted along with it to make a valid Gopher menu. Any and all claims to simplicity and beauty which Gopher might have are destroyed by this. Gemini takes the simple approach of letting people insert as many or as few links as they like into their text content, with extremely low overhead, but retains the one-link-per-line limitation of Gopher which results in clean, list-like organisation of content. It's hard to see this as anything other than an improvement.

Of course, if you really like the Gopher way, nothing in Gemini stops you from duplicating it. You can serve item type 0 content with a MIME type of text/plain, and you can write text/gemini documents where every single line is a link line, replicating the look and feel of a RFC1436-fearing Gopher menu without that pesky non-standard i item type.

2.4 Which shortcomings of the web does Gemini overcome?

Gemini contains no equivalent of User-Agent or Referer headers, and the request format is not extensible so that these cannot be shoehorned in later. In fact, Gemini requests contain nothing other than the URL of the resource being requested. This goes a very long way to preventing user tracking.

The "native content type" of Gemini (analogous to HTML for HTTP(S) or plain text for Gopher) never requires additional network transactions (there are no in-line images, external stylesheets, fonts or scripts, no iframes, etc.). This allows for quick browsing even on slow connections and for full awareness of and control over which hosts connections are made to.

The native content type of Gemini is strictly a document, with no facility for scripting, allowing for easy browsing even on old computers with limited processor speed or memory.

2.5 Why not just use a subset of HTTP and HTML?

Many people are confused as to why it's worth creating a new protocol to address perceived problems with optional, non-essential features of the web. Just because websites can track users and run CPU-hogging Javsacript and pull in useless multi-megabyte header images or even larger autoplaying videos, doesn't mean they have to. Why not just build non-evil websites using the existing technology?

Of course, this is possible. "The Gemini experience" is roughly equivalent to HTTP where the only request header is "Host" and the only response header is "Content-type" and HTML where the only tags are <p>, <pre>, <a>, <h1> through <h3>, <ul> and <li> and <blockquote> - and the https://gemini.circumlunar.space website offers pretty much this experience. We know it can be done.

The problem is that deciding upon a strictly limited subset of HTTP and HTML, slapping a label on it and calling it a day would do almost nothing to create a clearly demarcated space where people can go to consume only that kind of content in only that kind of way. It's impossible to know in advance whether what's on the other side of a https:// URL will be within the subset or outside it. It's very tedious to verify that a website claiming to use only the subset actually does, as many of the features we want to avoid are invisible (but not harmless!) to the user. It's difficult or even impossible to deactivate support for all the unwanted features in mainstream browsers, so if somebody breaks the rules you'll pay the consequences. Writing a dumbed down web browser which gracefully ignores all the unwanted features is much harder than writing a Gemini client from scratch. Even if you did it, you'd have a very difficult time discovering the minuscle fraction of websites it could render.

Alternative, simple-by-design protocols like Gopher and Gemini create alternative, simple-by-design spaces with obvious boundaries and hard restrictions. You know for sure when you enter Geminispace, and you can know for sure and in advance when following a certain link will cause you leave it. While you're there, you know for sure and in advance that everybody else there is playing by the same rules. You can relax and get on with your browsing, and follow links to sites you've never heard of before, which just popped up yesterday, and be confident that they won't try to track you or serve you garbage because they can't. You can do all this with a client you wrote yourself, so you know you can trust it. It's a very different, much more liberating and much more empowering experience than trying to carve out a tiny, invisible sub-sub-sub-sub-space of the web.

2.6 Does Gemini have any shortcomings of it's own?

Naturally!

Gemini has no support for caching, compression, or resumption of interrupted downloads. As such, it's not very well suited to distributing large files, for values of "large" which depend upon the speed and reliability of your network connection.

2.7 How can you say Gemini is simple if it uses TLS?

Some people are upset that the TLS requirement means they need to use a TLS library to write Gemini code, whereas e.g. Gopher allows them full control by writing everthing from scratch themselves.

Of course, even a "from scratch" Gopher client actually depends crucially on thousands of lines of complicated code written by other people in order to provide a functioning IP stack, DNS resolver and filesystem. Using a TLS library to provide a trustworthy implementation of cryptography is little different.

Gemini also turns TLS client certificates - very rarely seen on the web - into a first-class citizen with in-band signalling of their requirement. This allows restricting access to Gemini resources to certain parties, or voluntarily establishing "sessions" with server-side applications, without having to pass around cookies, passwords, authentication tokens or anything else you may be used to. It's much closer to SSH's notion of "authorized keys" and is, in fact, a much simpler approach to user authentication.

2.8 Why didn't you just use Markdown instead of defining text/gemini?

The text/gemini markup borrows heavily from Markdown, which might prompt some people to wonder "Why not just use Markdown as the default media type for Gemini? Sure, it's complicated to implement, but like TLS there are plenty of libraries available in all the major languages". Reasons not to go down this route include:

Of course, it is possible to serve Markdown over Gemini. The inclusion of a text/markdown Media type in the response header will allow more advanced clients to support it.

2.9 Why don't you care about retrocomputing support?

Gopher is so simple that computers from the 80s or 90s can easily implement the protocol, and for some people this is one of the great virtues of Gopher. The TLS requirement of Gemini limits it to more modern machines.

Old machines are awesome, and keeping them running, online and useful for as long as possible is an awesome thing to do. But it also makes no sense for the vast majority of internet users to sacrifice any and all privacy protection to facilitate this. Remember, though, that Gemini does not aim to replace Gopher, so the retro-compatible internet is not directly endangered by it. In fact, people serving content via Gopher right now are strongly encouraged to start also serving that same content via Gemini simultaneously. Retrocomputing fans can continue to access the content via Gopher, while modern computer users who wish to can switch to Gemini and reap some beneits.

3. Getting started in Geminispace

3.1 I'm curious about Geminispace, how can I check it out?

The lowest commitment way to explore Geminispace is to use a web proxy, such as one of the following:

If you like what you see, you might want to consider installing a dedicated Gemini client. You can find a list of clients (and other software) at gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/software/.

You can try some terminal clients out without installing them by running:

ssh kiosk@gemini.circumlunar.space

This Gemini kiosk was inspired by the Gopher kiosk at bitreich.org!

3.2 Okay, I've got a client, where can I find content?

A hand-maintained list of all known Gemini servers is maintained at gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/servers/, and an automatically generated list can be found at gemini://gus.guru/known-hosts. For now, Geminispace is still small enough that it's feasible to just jump in and explore it manually.

If you are looking for something in particular, Gemini has two search engines:

There are two public aggregators which attempt to make it easier to find recently-updated material in Geminispace:

3.3 How can I put some content of my own in Geminspace?

Of course, one option is to set up your own Gemini server on a VPS or a computer in your home (small SBCs like the RaspberryPi are perfectly capable of acting as Gemini servers). You can find a list of server software at gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/software/.

Alternatively, you can find somewhere else to host your content for you. For the time being, sftp-managed hosting of static Gemini content is available free of charge at gemini.circumlunar.space - contact solderpunk@posteo.net for details.

A number of "pubnix" or "tilde" communities (multi-user unix systems where users interact with one another by sshing in and using local email, chat and BBS apps) also offer Gemini hosting (typically alongside web and/or Gopher hosting). You may be able to get an account of one of the communities listed below (if you're an admin of such a service and would like it added to - or removed from! - this list, please contact solderpunk@posteo.net). Please note that most of these communities are older than Gemini itself, and may be focussed on other services, or may be specific to a particular theme or interest. Research your choices carefully and join somewhere you think you might fit in well overall, rather than just treating these amazing little worlds as free space to dump your stuff.

If you do not feel comfortable with the technologies needed to make use of pubnix hosting (ssh or sftp, terminal text editors, unix file permissions, etc) you can get a free account at https://gemlog.blue where you can edit a Gemlog (Gemini log, like a blog or phlog) from your web browser using an ultralight interface which uses no cookies and no Javascript.

3.4 I set up my own Gemini server, is there anything I should do?

Please consider joining the mailing list (see section 1.3) so that you can announce your new server to the community (start your post's Subject with "[ANN]"), and keep up to date with e.g. updates to your server software or to the Gemini protocol itself.

You can submit your server's URL to the GUS search engine so that it gets crawled. Visit gemini://gus.guru and follow the relevant link.

4. Contributing to the Gemini project

4.1 I like the sound of the Gemini project, how can I help?

Gemini already has a surprising number of client and server implementations in existence - which isn't to say more aren't welcome, but the real shortage right now is not of software but of content. The more interesting and exciting stuff people find in Geminispace, the more likely they are to want to add content of their own. So, the greatest contribution you can make to the project is to be a part of this process.