👽 Lee Tusman

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Surfing the Small Web 🏄

27 Nov 2023

Five-minute read

Since the start of the pandemic I’ve been spending more time on the small web (aka “smol web”) and correspondingly less time on the regular web (the big web?).

What is the small web?

In short, I think of it as the space on the web (or on other protocols) focusing on text writing like blogs, and without ads, excess images, platforms, cookies, pop-ups, videos, and the like.

The “small web” is a term that’s lately used to describe websites, online spaces and protocols that focus on a “text-first” environment. Folks that make websites with this ethos use basic semantic HTML, often write blogposts or longform writing, and no or low design. There are tens of thousands of websites of this type, and even search engines dedicated to finding them. They prioritize reading and concentration and de-emphasize applications or a platform-centered environment. These websites look good in any browser (including command line web browsers), run on old or slow computers and devices, and theoretically use less energy and bandwidth. They also eschew pop-ups, ads, trackers, clickbait, random image headers, sidebars, and other web junk. They’re fast and meant to get right to the point in their writing.

Example sites:

=> https://simplifier.neocities.org/ Simplifier

=> https://sjmulder.nl/en/textonly.html Text-only websites

=> https://1mb.club/ 1MB Club

=> https://leetusman.com My current text-only landing page

=> https://cheapskatesguide.org/ Cheapskate’s Guide to Computers and the Internet

Search engines for the small web:

=> https://wiby.me/ Wiby

=> https://lieu.cblgh.org/ Lieu webring search engine

Gemini Protocol

In addition to http, there is a relatively new alternative internet protocol that’s been designed specifically to favor this kind of small web mentality, and it’s called Gemini protocol. Only about 4 years old now, there are perhaps 10,000 or so users/viewers/readers/writers. There are dozens of Gemini clients (what would be called a web browser for the www web is called a “client” here). I use Elaho on iOS, or LaGrange or Amfora on my laptop.

Gemini is a new internet technology supporting an electronic library of interconnected text documents. That’s not a new idea, but it’s not old fashioned either. It’s timeless, and deserves tools which treat it as a first class concept, not a vestigial corner case. Gemini isn’t about innovation or disruption, it’s about providing some respite for those who feel the internet has been disrupted enough already. We’re not out to change the world or destroy other technologies. We are out to build a lightweight online space where documents are just documents, in the interests of every reader’s privacy, attention and bandwidth. –from Geminiprotocol.net

=> https://geminiprotocol.net/docs/faq.gmi Project Gemini FAQ

=> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gemini_(protocol) Gemini (protocol) on Wikipedia

=> https://gmi.skyjake.fi/lagrange/ Lagrange client

=> https://github.com/kr1sp1n/awesome-gemini Awesome-gemini list

The following gemini capsules (aka sites) must be opened in a Gemini client, or if you want to use a proxy that will work on the web, try entering them on the Smolnet Portal](https://portal.mozz.us/gemini/mozz.us/) proxy. On that page, enter the URL in the input box and click Go.

=> gemini://warmedal.se/~antenna/ Antenna feed aggregrator

=> gemini://gemi.dev/cgi-bin/waffle.cgi NewsWaffle

=> gemini://bbs.geminispace.org/ Geminispace BBS

=> gemini://skyjake.fi/~Cosmos/recent.gmi Cosmos

An interesting facet of gemini is that you can include images, audio and video, but they’ll never be shown in-line. In other words, to see an image, you have to click on its link, which in most clients will download to your computer and open locally. In Lagrange, it will open in-line after you click on it.

There are a large number of experiments on Gemini. I really like Antenna (linked above) as a way to see a bunch of different blogs recently updated, with (ideally) clearly titles to help indicate what writing I’ll find. You can also use a feature of Antenna to customize the feed.

For a similar experience on the web, one can use a RSS reader and subscribe to many blogs and sites.

What else?

The small web dovetails nicely with concepts of permacomputing and continuing to use technology and computers long after their expected expiration date. These websites and gemini logs (and more especially Gopher, one of the influences of Gemini) work well on underpowered machines and some ancient ones, yet they’re fast, and they offer a great reading experience. You can try it and see what you think.

A non-platform social media:

This particular application I’m covering is not necessarily the “small web” but I still think is worth writing about because it points to a shared experience for a small group of people, which I increasingly think is a useful way to try to use the internet.

Photo.exe is made by Rustling Broccoli. This app is a simple and free dithering photo taking program. When you take a photo and tweak it, or import an image, you can choose to save or export to their single public feed. Everyone contributes to this same anonymous feed, and because of the dithering, there’s a shared aesthetic that makes it feel like everyone’s part of a tiny friend group. “Join our un-social network,” they say. It’s a low volume stream, like a peculiar alternative to instagram where you didn’t choose your friends or followers, and all images are lofi dithered. Still, it’s a nice view into other peoples’ lives. The images are compelling. While the stream is public, the URL isn’t public facing, and can only be found by clicking in the app to link to an external page. I think I’ll honor that by not linking to it here but directly to their application website. You’ll have to download the app to try it.

=> https://photo.breq.net/ PHOTO.EXE app website

I like this idea of a shared small almost-community. I don’t think it would work well if hundreds or thousands were using it, but for the few dozen of us on it, with about one post every few days, I think it’s a nice space.

This is also similar to how I use Mastodon, where I’m trying to maintain a friend group of no more than about 150 people (Dunbar’s number). It makes for an intimate space, but one that still feels like it has enough variety to keep things fresh. If I check once or a few times a day, that’s fine, but if I check in and read or post once every few days, or even less, that’s fine too.