Remembering Aaron Swartz

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday. He was 26 years old.

Aaron was an accomplished young man. Among many other things, he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification. He contributed to Creative Commons when it was still young and radical. He co-founded Reddit. He vigorously fought SOPA. He was an outspoken and active proponent of open-access publishing, to an extent that brought him in trouble with federal law.

I didn’t know Aaron personally, never even so much as exchanged polite, impersonal e-mails. But back in the early, formative days of Web 2.0 it was impossible not to come across his work and writing. I started following his personal weblog maybe six or seven years ago. In short, he became a personal internet hero of mine, like many others who neither know me nor how much their words mean to me.

If you follow someone’s personal writing for many years it’s inevitable to form a certain bond, a strange kind of entirely one-sided familiarity. Nevertheless, between weblog posts, tweets and status updates, most people restrain themselves to only putting their most happy and glorious moments forward. It’s easy to forget between all the smiling faces and warm moments emanating from our screens that the people behind these carefully curated highlight reels of their lives face the same struggles and pain that we all do.

As far as I can tell, Aaron did no such thing, he never held back. He put his thoughts and inner life freely out there, bare for all to see, a testament to the strength of his convictions and character.

In autumn 2012, Aaron wrote a series of essays, Raw Nerve, on the topic of getting better at life. I greatly enjoyed and appreciated these essays and his endeavor struck me as most virtuous, but in light of today’s news these essays take on a tragic dimension.

In retrospect, reading in and between his lines of writing, I glanced a young man failing none but his own expectations and standards set unattainably high. When I read the news of his death today I was shocked, shivers running down my spine, but I wasn’t entirely surprised. I’ve had my fair share of dark moments and I’m grateful to have overcome them (or so at least I like to believe). I wish Aaron had done the same.

My condolences to his family and friends. I’m so sorry for your loss.