Power Users Are Creating ASCII Art Out of Their Terminal Sessions

Beauty via the command line.

by Roisin Kiberd
May 5 2017, 4:00pm

Image: An147yus/Shutterstock

To readers who rarely or never use the terminal, a command line can read like an alien language. The interface—lines of stark white text on a black background–looks hostile and forbidding, as though you're dissecting the innards of your computer while it's still alive.

For those users, myself among them, the idea of a site where users share screencasts of their terminal sessions—a kind of YouTube for coders—might seem strange. That such a site would be creative, and interesting, and consummately weird and wonderful, might seem stranger still.

Asciinema (pronounced " as-kee-nuh-muh") is a portmanteau of ASCII, the text format, and the Greek "κίνημα," meaning movement. The site was created by Marcin Kulik, a developer based in Poland, in 2011. Free and open source, it was intended as a place to share terminal sessions privately or publicly, with a "featured" section where Kulik posts some of his favorite clips.

"It's definitely niche," Kulik told me over Skype. "It's mostly developers and sysadmins, ops people, people who use [the terminal] daily. But I'm happy to see it getting more popular." A Linux user since he was a teenager, Kulik noticed a lack of options for sharing terminal sessions online. Clips would appear on YouTube, but the platform isn't optimized for text, so the letters on-screen were never crisp enough to be legible.

Kulik wanted to create a web player similar to YouTube, but specifically designed for terminal sessions. "Normally when you record a video of your screen, the file has a recording of the pixels and colors and it's compressed. But with Asciinema it's all text. I wanted to capture the text not as pixels but as everything that gets printed. That allows Asciinema to create recordings which are very small–you could be working in the terminal for an hour and the recording would only be one megabyte."

Uploads are private by default, with the option to make them public. Most people use Asciinema for work-related purposes: "People build terminal applications to resolve specific problems, and then use the site to promote it. There are people who make tutorials, and people who just need to do something quickly and share it with friends and co-workers as one-time thing."

But then you get the creative, colorful and delightfully weird stuff. The people who have made their screen go up in digital flames, or who have made their screen into a ski jump game where you evade a text-based yeti. ("You fell on the ground!" the terminal admonishes. "You now have a broken rib.") "There are so many tools and games and little programs for terminal which are eye-candy," Kulik says. "They're cool to watch, but they stay pretty obscure, because people haven't really been recording their screens and putting them on YouTube. It's easier to do that now."

The site keeps alive a hidden tradition of text-based art, a visual history interwoven with that of social media. ASCII art—images constructed from the ninety-five printable characters of the ASCII (American Standard for Information Interchange) character encoding standard—can be traced back to the work of 1960s graphics pioneer Kenneth Knowlton, through to typewriter art, experimental late-19th century printing and concrete poetry before them. ASCII was once the stuff of game-building (some Asciinema clips pay homage to these games—witness this user's recreation of Astral Software's 1987 ZX Spectrum title Xor). The entire source code of a program could be written as ASCII art—Wikipedia citesthis number adding program as an example. For a while it was a creative curiosity. Beck, as an example, used it to create the video for 2005 single Black Tambourine. ASCII art was also central to the history of trolling:the "Meow Wars" of the 90s saw Usenet boards invaded with elaborate cat-themed copypasta spam, designed to amuse and annoy and to use up as much of their precious bandwidth as possible.

Today ASCII art still shows up as cybertwee or in ASCII comics, and occasionally in YouTube comments and forum threads, but by and large it has taken a backseat to more accessible forms of online expression.

Browse Asciinema, however, and ASCII art is alive and kicking. There are detailed ASCII maps of cities. There's a literal ghost in the shell. There are dancing animated parrots, homemade "crappy bowling games" and simulations of "cyclic 2D cellular automata" (I have no idea what this means, but it looks beautiful and vaguely trippy). There are things rich and strange and hallucinatory, contained within the utterly mundane medium of the terminal screen and text.

While Asciinema is a part-time project for Kulik, who works as a consultant, he has plans to add to Asciinema in the near future. The day before I spoke to him he completed work on a tool to convert videos into animated gifs, making the clips more shareable in Github readme files and on social platforms (due to the format, Asciinema uploads cannot be embedded on Twitter and Facebook). He's also working on a live-streaming option so that users can broadcast their terminal sessions in real time.

The site isn't a social network in the conventional sense, but there's a communal aspect to how it functions. Kulik plans to add comments to the site (they were there years ago, but he took the option away as back then there weren't enough people to actually use them). "Initially it was just an experiment, but it's a nice opportunity for me to try out new technologies without being constrained by a budget or a manager. People are really enjoying it, and I get comments everyday that keep me going." These include messages from professors teaching university courses, using Asciinema as an educational resource.

There's a voyeuristic appeal to watching other people's screens, even if it's not through a direct video. We're seeing something that's normally closed off, and likely personal. We're seeing Linux users in their element, sharing their habits and talents and weird hokey humour. The site is as much as recruitment tool for Unix as it is an educational resource: it makes the system seem less intimidating.

To the uninitiated (this writer among them), Linux—and terminal use in general—appear very serious and "tech-y" compared to the glossy corporate workings of Apple's OS. But it turns out Linux is full of little ASCII Easter eggs, hacks you can add to turn images into ASCII art or create a talking cow to live in a corner of your screen. You can make your terminal greet you when you open it. You can make your laptop insult you when you spell things incorrectly. You can cultivate a world of in-jokes between yourself and your screen, to make you feel at home in the terminal. It might be some time before I wipe the Mac OS from my laptop and make the switch over, but Asciinema is a window onto this world.