What Information Sharing System Was Briefly More Popular Than The World Wide Web?
In the late spring of 1991, a group of researchers at the University of Minnesota released a document distribution protocol known as Gopher. The Gopher system was strongly hierarchical, heavily organized, and completely text-based—a perfect fit for researchers and users who needed quick and simple access to remote documents using only limited-bandwidth and, frequently, text-only terminals. Gopher was quickly adopted by research labs and universities around the world and—for a period of time in the early 1990s when the World Wide Web and its underlying Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) were still young—it was the go-to solution for accessing documents.
So where did Gopher go? A combination of the rapid growth of the World Wide Web as well as the University of Minnesota’s decision to begin charging licensing fees for its popular implementation of the Gopher server software severely decreased the number of global Gopher users. By the end of the 1990s, the network of Gopher servers had stagnated and HTTP-based document search and delivery was the de-facto standard for global document exchange.
Despite losing the race to become the world’s dominant document delivery protocol, there are still approximately 260 Gopher servers online. A non-profit initiative, The Overbite Project, focused on preserving and expanding Gopher, hosts various browser extensions and modern clients for accessing the Gopher system on modern platforms and mobile devices.
Finally, why call it “Gopher”? Gopher derives its name from three fronts. The gopher is the University of Minnesota’s mascot, gophers tunnel and burrow to reach their desired destinations much like the queries sent through the system, and “go-fer” is a slang term for an assistant that fetches things for you.