This past weekend, activist, technological genius and RSS-creator Aaron Swartz committed suicide after a long battle with depression. He was just 26. Mourners of Swartz are left devastated and only able to imagine what else the man could have done in his lifetime.
Swartz created the RSS feed system that many of us use when he was only 14. He was also instrumental in the development of the social website Reddit, another hub of information that many of us use daily. An unschooler, Swartz was bored by conventional school and dropped out of one college only to become a fellow at another Ivy League institution later. Seasoned academics were in awe of him while young adults considered him an Internet folk hero.
He was wholly committed to the free distribution of information and was arrested in 2011 for hacking into the JSTOR repository of academic journal articles and downloading 2/3 of the materials to share openly. He had previously done the same with another database, crafting a program to make materials freely available in an online library.
As the founder of Demand Progress, Aaron Swartz was also passionate about progressive movement and social justice. Friends say that he held them all—as well as his mentors and especially himself—to an impossibly high ethical standard.
Today, in honor of his death, researchers across the world are uploading their own documents and distributing them freely via Twitter. Using the hash tag “#pdftribute,” thousands of people are posting documents in honor of Swartz.
Many people are blaming his suicide on the fact that he was facing 35 years in prison for his crimes, but those who knew Swartz also knew that he had been struggling with painful depression as well as chronic illness for years. He mentioned his thoughts of suicide as recently as 2007.
Mr. Swartz, you will be greatly missed. Your friends say the world was a better place with you in it, and I am inclined to agree. We are in great need of minds and hearts like yours.
Many people are donating money to either campaigns for free distribution of information or suicide help. Either would be a good way to honor Aaron Swartz’s memory today.