The Life of Aaron Swartz

The Life of Aaron Swartz

If you’re not a geek you may not have heard who Aaron Swartz is, or that he recently killed himself. If you are a geek, you haven’t heard much else since it happened a few days ago.

Most the blogosphere is alive talking about his death. I want to talk about his life.

Aaron was a very smart geek. He won the ArsDigita Prize in 2000, when he was 12 years old. At 14 he coauthored the specifications for RSS. RSS is the technology the entire internet uses to keep track of blog posts, among other things—if you’re reading this in a feed reader like Google Reader, you are using Aaron’s work. He helped write the code layer of the Creative Commons license. He cofounded, one of the biggest sites on the internet, and became wealthy around 20 years old after reddit was sold. He started The list goes on, he was a stud.

He killed himself when he was 26 years old.

The news hit me harder than I expected. I didn’t know him personally, but I did read his blog when he wrote, and I knew his story. But that’s not the reason his death hit. I’ll tell you the reason in a moment.

Aaron was about 2 years younger than I am. Most people can just be sad about losing a genius kid too early, but I have to face more than that. He and I are not only about the same age, but we share many of the same skills. If you had compared us at 11 years old and asked: who will be more successful? Who will have more of an impact? It would have been a toss up by almost any metric.

But our paths began to diverge as he made more broadminded choices than I did. I built my first major web application around the same age that he build The Info Network. Technically they are similarly complex, but The Info Network was wikipedia before wikipedia existed, and mine was a toy for video game players who wanted to organize tournaments. He got the ArsDigita prize and got on the radar of important people. I got a D in social studies.

And the pattern continues. While I was learning similar things, and doing basically trivial things with my knowledge, he was building RSS, reddit, creative commons, demand progress, and more. And maybe it sounds like hubris, but I know that the difference isn’t that he’s a genius and I’m not. I’m confident that I could do any of the individual things that he did. The difference is that I didn’t fucking do it.

The difference is that instead of applying for ycombinator at 18, I got married and took on 2 step children, and anchored myself in a no man’s land of technology. And it wasn’t an accident: I considered ycombinator. I considered moving to San Fransisco or Boston, the tech hubs of the world. But I decided I “couldn’t” because I prioritized having a family, probably too early.

I decided over and over not to do the Big Thing because it was too big without a network, too hard without support, too much with a mortgage and mouths to feed.

And Aaron’s success also isn’t an accident. He thought very deeply about working on important problems. He was extremely circumspect when reddit sold, and wrote that people were missing the point of entrepreneurship, that it could be so much more. He thought that it was all of our duties to work on truly important problems, and that’s how he lived.

And for all the “impressive” things I get pats on the back for, none of them has had the impact of any one of Aaron’s projects. And it’s my fault. It’s not because he’s a genius and I could never do that. It’s my out of whack priorities.

Here’s why I’m really upset about Aaron’s death. Follow me here:

  1. The reason his death hit me so hard is that in a different life, I imagine that I am him,
  2. but I’ve made different, maybe worse, choices than he did, so I’m not him,
  3. but it’s okay, because he is him, I don’t need to be him as long as he is.
  4. And that’s the thing now. He’s gone, and now it falls to us who remain to take up his work.

I told myself I could skate before because people like Aaron were out there doing what I could and should be doing. And now Aaron’s not there, and I realize it’s all a bullshit cop out.

So, to honor his memory and his philosophy I’m re-evaluating my priorities and the projects I’m working on. I realize that I need to expand my support network like he did, and I need to have the courage to stick to my vision of a better world, just like he did.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz 1986-2013

Thanks for keeping us honest Aaron, and thanks for all your hard work.


  1. Connor ()

    Wow. This really hits home for me as well, Pete. My skillset may be slightly different but no less ambitious. It really forces me to reevaluate my own priorities. I am focused on significant and positive goals, specifically entrepreneurship, however the problems being solved are hardly world class. Maybe its time to tackle the biggest problems we can think of, the ones that have grown comfortable on the backburner. Nothing is more inspiring than working for an idea. Thank you. (Reply)