RIP Aaron Swartz

I found out this morning that Aaron Swartz passed away yesterday.

My condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

I was Aaron’s friend (though we haven’t talked in about 5 years), collegue, and collaborator on a number of technologies including RSS 1.0.

For some perspective on how Aaron impacted mine – his work on RSS 1.0 and Atom were used to drive the last three companies I started as well as my current company.

He even created a parody of RSS 1.0 named RSS 3.0 to which I commented “RSS 3.0 is easier than sexp” (which is obviously a geek joke).

I know this is kind of a hacker perspective but his work has constantly been part of my life for the last ten years.

Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Accordion Guy and others have added some color to this story as well as the NY Times.

Instead, I’d like to cover how Aaron impacted the world of open data from a hacker’s perspective and his impact on my life.

I first met Aaron when he was 15. At the time we were working on RSS 1.0 and I really had no idea how young he was.

Soon after we met after he started staying with Lisa Rein while he was living in San Francisco.

At one point, Cory, Lisa, Aaron, and I went out for lunch after a protest against the Iraq war.

At the time, RSS and blogs were just really a hobby and weren’t really as ubiquitious as they would become.

I remember Aaron being both brilliant, clever, funny, and sometimes stubborn (often stubborn to be honest).

Not necessarily stubborn in a bad way but more “this is wrong, we have to fix it” manner.

Aaron’s contribution to XML, RDF, and RSS was really vital to the growth of the Internet at the time.

This was before Facebook, before Twitter, etc.

These formats would eventually be used by Blogger, Moveable Type, etc which really helped open up the concept of ‘open data’ and illustrate the potential for citizen powered media.

Eventually the founders of Blogger would go on and start Twitter and Facebook would use the ‘newsfeed’ concept to build a billion dollar company.

Part of the reason I liked Aaron is that he was just like I was – though ten years earlier.

I was the stubborn kid. I was the geek who loved the Internet. I was the one who would stubbornly fight against the adults and their corrupt view of the world.

I never really told him that I saw echoes of myself in his personality and his behavior.

When you’re 15 you have all the answers. The world is broken and you’re the only one who can fix it.

He was just as passionate about open data as I was. It was just the right thing to do.

The Internet should be open. Formats should be open. Journals should be open. Research should be open. The web should be open. Our legal system should be open. Everything should be open!

He had an uncompromising vision of the world which we need more of in the tech industry .  We need more AaronSW’s … not less.

I do have to admit that personally I’m saddened to see my friends compromise their ethics when they are given an opportunity to sell out their belief in open systems and instead work for a company which is about to IPO.

Aaron’s uncompromising attitude is amazingly powerful but sometimes when the world doesn’t go your way it’s easy to get frustrated.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

– George Bernard Shaw

The problem is that being the unreasonable man isn’t easy.

It appears that the US government decided that Aaron’s actions to liberate JSTOR means that he was a terrorist – and they would prosecute him and make him face difficult consequences for his actions.

I’m just going to assume that this was one of the major factors in his decision.

I do have to admit that while I appreciate what Aaron was trying to accomplish that perhaps he could have gone about it in a better and cleaner manner.

But even if the government’s charges WERE accurate – it’s really just trespassing. Make Aaron do 6 months of community service. This isn’t a felony. You don’t have to destroy his life.

Felons who face rape or weapons charges often face less time. Banksters who rob billions from our economy get slapped on the wrist.

Yet someone who is trying to passionately change the world for the better faced 35 years in prison.

I realized early on that you can’t take the world too seriously. If you expect everything to go perfectly you’re going to have a hard time.

You win some. You lose some. It’s more important to win over the long term and have fun in the process.

Friends, love, life, travel. It all helps put things into perspective.

Like Cory, I’m not sure Aaron realized that he could have called any of us for help.  I know I would have flown to New York immediately if I had known things were so bad.

I honestly expected the whole thing to blow over. Maybe Aaron would be found guilty but only serve a few months in prison. I though that the judge would just throw the whole case out.

I’m not sure why but humans seem to want to hide how fragile they really are.  I wish sometimes we could just tell each other how much we appreciate their work and how they impact our lives.  If we could just reach out and tell someone how important they are before we all sit down to write our eulogies.

I’d really to use this as a constructive moment.  Aaron cared about open data.  We should rescue his passion and drive forward in this area – if not for our sake then for his memory.

Aaron and I at a party circa 2002. Thanks to Joey deVilla for finding this picture.

  1. thank you for this. insightful and beautiful; we must treasure those we have every day and make every attempt to show them how much we care, for we do not know the battles that others may be fighting.

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