Saturday, April 08, 2006

The WELL Gopher

UPDATE - (June 2009) The WELL's Gopher server was decommissioned some months back, but the content is still available via a web server at:

The WELL is an online discussion system that started in 1985. At the very end of 1991, in fact, on New Years' Eve, The WELL connected to the Internet (via 56K connection to BARRNet, router configuration by Erik Fair.)

In those days I was the Customer Support Manager at The WELL and I wanted us to give something back to the Internet community. In those days "anonymous FTP" sites were a common way for organizations to share information with the public over the Internet. I suggested that The WELL create an anonymous FTP site where we would provide access to interesting information, drawing heavily on our association with The Whole Earth Catalog (The WELL was half owned by The POINT Foundation, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog, and we were in the same building with the catalog staff.)

I recruited a small group of volunteer WELL users to be the editorial staff of the new site: Jerod Pore, Eric S. Theise, Jon Lebkowsky, and Paul Holbrook, and we started discussing what should be in the new site. During this (online) discussion a WELL user who was very involved with the Internet, Ed Vielmetti, suggested we check out this cool new rodent-based technology developed at the University of Michigan  Minnesota (the "Golden Gophers"). This new thing was called "gopher", and I immediately saw that it was much easier to use than FTP.

Eric Theise and I had a bit of a fight over that - Eric felt that FTP was the widely used and well known standard and we'd be cutting out all the people who didn't yet have access to a gopher client. I was all steve-jobsian about it "the interface is so much better, people will get a gopher client, this is the future, blah blah blah". I think it was the one place where I strongly asserted my WELL-staff role. We went with gopher.

The content in The WELL Gopher was a direct outgrowth of the WELL's connection to The Whole Earth Review - part of my evil plan was to bring the editorial approach of WER to cyberspace - in fact the top-level categories in the gopher were originally taken directly from the categories that the Whole Earth Catalog used.

There was a point when the WELL gopher and the gopher were the two hottest places in gopherspace.  This all came down to three really important factors:

  1. Content: We had great editors like Jon, Jerod, Eric and Paul choosing great stuff. See this great story, "Forces Adrift, a Tale of Our Forces Afloat", by Chuck Charlton.
  2. Content: We were choosing from a pool of ideas that mapped very well onto the population using cyberspace. Roger Karraker's "Highways of the Mind" article is still relevent.
  3. Content: We had exclusive content - no offsite links for the first year or so. With maybe a couple exceptions the WELL gopher was the exclusive online location of all the content. This made us editors think more, and choose less.
These days there are many things like the WELL gopher, and nothing like it - like a magazibne with a particular editorial group, the result is really all about the people and historical circumstances at the times of creation.


  • Gopherspace is part of webspace. "The web", at least circa 1993 was all the resources reachable via (at least) the FTP, gopher, and HTTP protocols. You could throw in WAIS, telnet and maybe a couple of others.
  • The WELL gopher did (and does) utilize a server that responds to both the gopher and HTTP protocols, so you can reach it with the URL gopher:// or Initially the server only handled the gopher protocol but was soon switched to the GN server which handles both protocols, so even if you mistakenly think that a web site must utilize HTTP, the WELL gopher still qualifies.

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Edward Vielmetti said...

Matisse -

Just to be fair, the Gopher technology was originally done at the U of Minnesota (the "Golden Gophers"). It had been picked up by a number of universities at the time The Well turned it on in part because it played well with university politics where no one and everyone is in control.

My biggest Gopher project was the "Online Career Center", which was a front end for a job and resume database, searchable and browsable by location.

Matisse Enzer said...

Thanks for the correction Ed. I changed the posting.

I remember the Online Career Center!

ethnopunk said...

We're pretty miffed down here. Just as we getting kids online with gopher and barebones computing, you taking down gopherspace? Get this error if I try to connect in my Ubuntu terminal
┌───────────────────Network Error────────────────────┐
│ │
│ Cannot connect to host, port 70. │
│ │
│ Unknown error. │
│ │
│ [Cancel - ^C] [OK: Enter] │

Matisse Enzer said...

Sorry you missed out on the pure gopher experience.

The content from the WELL Gopher is still available via HTTP at: