I said I’d make an entry about Gemini[1]. This is that entry.

Gemini vs Web

If you’re reading this on the Web, then you might not be familiar with what Gemini is. Gemini is an alternative to the Web. It’s similar to the Web, but more secure and private with far fewer features.

Now you might think “Why would you want to use something with less features?”. Well for one, it doesn’t lend itself to commercialization, which instantly eliminates almost all the bullshit you find on the Web. Gemini has no ads, no popups, no paywalls, no commercials, it’s non-addictive, you’re never asked to sign up, and nobody tries to sell you anything. Overall it’s a more pleasant browsing experience.

By comparison, the Web is practically unusable in freedom and privacy. Instead of telling you about it, I found this great website which accurately depicts the modern Web browsing experience. It’s called How I Experience The Web Today[2].

I have to point out this comparison I’m making between Gemini and the Web is apples to oranges. It’s not fair. The Web fulfills far more use cases than Gemini ever will. There’s a reason it’s so popular and Gemini isn’t. But in some sense, Gemini’s lack of features is what’s appealing about it. Gemini is minimalist. The Web is overwhelming. But I don’t want to spend this entire entry comparing Gemini to the Web. It deserves its own independent evaluation.

Gemini

To use Gemini, you can download a Gemini client, also known as a Gemini browser. So far, I’ve used Amfora and Lagrange and they’re both pretty good. Amfora is for those who love the terminal and Lagrange is for normal people.

Now that you know how to access Gemini, let’s talk about what’s on there. In a single word, text. That’s all you’ll find on Gemini. A whole bunch of text. You can find other types of media, but they won’t be displayed inline. So you get what you’d expect with a text-only, non-commercial Web-like protocol. You get gemlogs (the equivalent of Weblogs) talking about people’s personal lives, philosophy, poetry, ramblings, ascii art, and of course, technology.

The organization resembles that of the early Web. Search engines exist, but they don’t seem to be the primary way people find things. It’s mainly through Gemini communities like Flounder[3] and Geminauts linking to other Geminaut’s capsules. It’s common for Geminauts to make lists of recommended capsules for readers to explore, with a few centralized hubs and aggregators linking to many capsules. Thus it seems reasonable to assume Gemini resembles a small-world network[4].

The small-worldiness of Gemini reminds me very much of Neocities[5], which you should definitely check out if you never have before. If you’re like me though and you find the Web overwhelming, Neocities is even more than your average website. That’s why I can’t spend too long browsing around on there, whereas I can spend hours on Gemini and not mentally tire out.

There’s some non-English capsules out there that are good to read if you’re trying to learn the language. Gemini is a good way to find others who are open to discussion and collaboration. Most Geminauts put their email on their capsule. Every Geminaut I’ve sent emails to or received emails from has been friendly.

The Medium is the Message

Gemini reminds me of this phrase coined by Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan:

“The medium is the message”.[6]

What he meant was that most of us focus entirely on the contents of the message. We forget about the communication medium in which we encounter it. This is to say that the same message in a different communication medium isn’t really the same message. The medium may in fact be more important than the message itself.

Twitter

Consider Twitter. If you pay attention to Twitter as a communication medium, one of the first things you notice is that nothing exceeds 280 characters. So there’s really not any room for complex thought on Twitter. There’s definitely not room for thoughts that require a lot of background or explanation. Twitter just doesn’t lend itself to those things. You have to leave Twitter to get that.

Some design decisions are less obvious. Twitter has infinite scroll, not pagination. This encourages users to get hooked, to keep on scrolling, without giving them a natural point to pause and decide if they really want to keep browsing. That and other design features mean that Twitter (and basically all big tech platforms) doesn’t lend itself to use in moderation. It’s designed to turn people into addicts.

Youtube

Youtube has popups which you get if you’re not signed in. Youtube hopes the popups will annoy you to the point you just give in. That’s because they want to surveil and track you easier. Videos autoplay so you don’t have a natural stopping point. This is a reflection of Youtube’s values in the same way that infinite scroll reflects Twitter’s values. Their goal is to keep you hooked for as long as possible so you watch more ads, they get more data on you, and they make more money.

Every big tech social media platform makes thousands of little design decisions which you may not even recognize are decisions someone has made, and even if you do notice them you might not think they make a difference, but these companies have unlimited resources that they use to micro-engineer every change to the site. They know, quantitatively, exactly how much difference their design choices make in keeping you (and your children) hooked on their platforms.

Many people have expressed grave concerns about the way Youtube organizes videos for people to watch. Apparently it leads people down “rabbit holes” where the videos become more and more extreme, more radicalized, and more reactive. How many people who watch Youtube even stop to consider how it organizes the related videos? We need to start questioning more how online platforms themselves influence us, not just the messages on those platforms.

Gemini

I could go on all day about big tech, but let’s bring it back to Gemini. How is Gemini designed? What message does it communicate?

Text-Based

The first thing I notice about Gemini is that it’s text-based. On Gemini, you read. You don’t look at or watch. Reading is an active process that requires focused attention. So when you’re on Gemini, you’re on Gemini. You’re not doing 10 other things at the same time. If you’re on Youtube, you might have other browser tabs open, only half paying attention to the video.

Non-addictive

The second thing that stands out to me about Gemini is there’s no rating system. On major social media networks, you have posts, comments, likes/dislikes, reactions, and replies. On Gemini, there’s none of that. When you explore a capsule, you explore one person’s thoughts at a time, in a linear fashion, with focused attention. Since one’s focused attention is a scarce resource, Gemini is naturally non-addictive.

Non-Distracting

Not only is Gemini non-addictive, but it’s also non-distracting. When I’m on a Gemini capsule, I don’t have to mentally filter out sidebars, popups, color schemes, video thumbnails, and all the other busyness on the page. Without all those distractions, it’s easier to focus and not get distracted.

Importantly, Gemtext (Gemini text media type) still allows for sufficient formatting options to differentiate text. It has:

and support for multiple languages. It’s useful, while not lending itself to overly busy pages.

No Hive Mind

And then there’s hive minds. Online platforms like Facebook and Reddit especially seem to create self-selected communities where all members conform to certain opinions or else face being ostracized. Thanks to the lack of built-in interactivity on Gemini, there seems to be a lack of hive mind as well.

No Rating System or Censorship

There’s no such thing as being “downvoted to oblivion”. Since there’s no ads, you’re not at risk of gaining or losing ad revenue for sharing unpopular opinions. You don’t get points or karma. You don’t have to post under your real name. You’re free to say anything you want and the worst you’ll get is a nasty email.

Notably, I haven’t seen anyone complain about censorship on Gemini. I attribute the apparent lack of censorship to 3 things:

  1. There aren’t many people publishing on Gemini.
  2. Gemini doesn’t seem to attract the people who get censored.
  3. Geminauts are, on average, more technical than non-Geminauts. Most of us can just self-host if we’re banned by a hosting provider.

The only way you can be censored on Gemini right now is other Geminauts refusing to link to your capsule. That’s about it.

What Gemini Teaches Us

So what exactly does the Gemini medium communicate to us?

I think it can be summed up in a single phrase:

“Less is more.”

To the Gemi-not, Gemini seems archaic, it’s lack of features a hindrance that makes it not worth using in modern times. But to Gemi-nauts, it’s simplicity is exactly what makes it so appealing. It’s not so simple that it’s uninteresting, but it’s not so complex that it’s hyperstimulating and addictive. Gemini tries to strike a balance.

Conclusion

I think the lesson of Gemini is to stop thinking of the medium and the message as two separate ideas. The way a platform is designed, the features it has, determines the way people interact with each other on it.

Gemini’s simplicity itself isn’t its appeal. Simplicity alone doesn’t make something good. Its the medium created out of that simplicity, and the interactions that simplicity encourages.

As we move forward, creating new mediums of communication for people to explore, we should ask ourselves, “What sort of interactions do we want to promote?”. Do we want to promote addiction and reactivity, or kindness and understanding?

The choice is ours.

Link(s):
1: Gemini
2: How I Experience The Web Today
3: Flounder
4: Small-world Network
5: Neocities
6: The Medium is the Message