Technology wunderkind and Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide on Friday, Jan. 11. Swartz was only 26 years old when he died in New York City, but he had already made a legacy for himself by co-owning the social news site Reddit and helping write the specification for what would eventually become RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. The online outpouring of appreciation for Swartz after his death was almost as impressive as his resume.
The Tech, MIT’s newspaper, first reported the news after Swartz’s uncle reached out to the publication.
“The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” confirmed Elliot R. Peters, Swartz’s attorney.
After co-authoring the now widely used RSS specification at only 14, Swartz started Infogami, which would eventually merge with Reddit.
Along the way he became one of the most outspoken opponents of Internet censorship, founding Demand Progress, which “works to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying. In particular, [it tends] to focus on issues of civil liberties, civil rights, and government reform,” to the group’s mission statement reads.
Demand Progress is credited with helping defeat the SOPA/PIPA legislation that was widely criticized on the Web as limiting Internet freedom before failing in Congress.
Swartz’s enigmatic persona also reportedly had a dark side, though, which Cory Doctorow hinted at in a tribute on Boing Boing. Doctorow is a technology reporter and science fiction author who had been a friend of Swartz's since meeting him when Swartz was just a teenager.
“Aaron had powerful, deeply felt ideals, but he was also always an impressionable young man, someone who often found himself moved by new passions. He always seemed somehow in search of mentors, and none of those mentors ever seemed to match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to,” Doctorow wrote in a post published early Saturday morning.
“This was cause for real pain and distress for Aaron, and it was the root of his really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors. And it's a testament to Aaron's intellect, heart, and friendship that he was always forgiven for this. Many of us "grown ups" in Aaron's life have, over the years, sat down to talk about this, and about our protective feelings for him, and to check in with one another and make sure that no one was too stung by Aaron's disappointment in us. I think we all knew that, whatever the disappointment that Aaron expressed about us, it also reflected a disappointment in himself and the world.”
Swartz was arrested in July 2011 and charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Investigators said he downloaded roughly 4 million academic articles from JSTOR and had planned on making them available for free download on torrent sites.
He had also struggled with depression, writing about how deeply he was affected by the illness in a blog post from 2007.
“Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it's worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak -- the things you've done, the things you hope to do, the people around you,” Swartz wrote. “You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn't come for any reason and it doesn't go away for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don't feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.
“At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.”