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Remembering Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia meetup in 2009

Aaron Swartz was found dead in his New York apartment Friday, an apparent suicide. Aaron was a prolific hacker and a free culture activist. He was also a Wikipedian. Today, the Internet community at large is reeling from Aaron’s early death, and Wikimedia is joining in remembering an extraordinary individual.

In 2000, as a 13-year-old, he was the youngest finalist in a teen website competition with his project “The Info Network”, an online encyclopedia inviting anyone to contribute their knowledge. Aaron would later recall that while he was not able to find enough contributors for his first web site, “luckily, several years later, my mother pointed me to this new site called ‘Wikipedia’ that was doing the same thing.”

At age 14, Aaron co-authored RSS 1.0, an important web standard. Later he founded Infogami, a startup which would merge with Reddit, which today is one of the most influential social news sites. He led the development of the Open Library, a project launched by the non-profit Internet Archive in 2007 with the aim of offering “one web page for every book”, integrating user contributions through a wiki interface.

In 2003 he started editing Wikipedia. His userpage lists more than 200 articles he started or contributed a large amount of content to. His most recent edit was on Thursday, January 10.

In 2006, he was a candidate for the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, which in part is elected by the Wikimedia community. It was during that time that he wrote a series of essays about Wikipedia, sharing his concerns, hopes and dreams for the project’s future.

This included “Who writes Wikipedia”, which proposed that the role of casual contributors to the encyclopedia is often severely underestimated, and that protecting the encyclopedia’s fundamentally open nature was critical to its future. “If Wikipedia continues down this path of focusing on the encyclopedia at the expense of the wiki, it might end up not being much of either,” Aaron wrote. His essay triggered a debate and research that continues to this day.

In recent years, Aaron’s focus was on online activism. He believed strongly that the freedoms that we take for granted online are constantly under threat and need to be defended. To this end, he co-founded Demand Progress, and was one of the leaders in the grass-roots campaign against legislation known as SOPA and PIPA, a campaign which Wikipedia participated in through the 2012 Wikipedia blackout. Aaron’s keynote at the Freedom to Connect conference in 2012 re-tells the important story of how SOPA and PIPA were ultimately defeated.

Aaron also strongly believed that the public should have free access to the laws that govern it, and to publicly funded scholarship and scientific research. In 2011, he was indicted for allegedly breaking into MIT’s network to download large amounts of scholarly materials.

Family, friends and those close to the case have raised questions about the fervor and zeal with which Aaron was pursued — Lawrence Lessig’s post “Prosecutor as bully” provides some important background, as does expert witness Alex Stamos’ summary.

Whatever caused Aaron to take his own life, it is a shocking and painful loss of an extraordinary individual who has touched so many through his ideas and actions. His friends and family have started an online memorial to share remembrance stories, and Wikipedians are also leaving comments on his talk page. We join them in remembering Aaron Swartz, a beautiful human being.

Further reading:

32 Responses to “Remembering Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)”

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  1. T.Kett says:

    RIP Aaron

  2. Also: we need to add a prominent link to suicide prevention resources at the top of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide page.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Suicide#Honor_Aaron_Swartz_and_link_to_crisis_hotlines_at_the_top_of_the_page for discussion.

  3. For non-US Wikipedians, http://suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html has a list of crisis centres world-wide.

  4. Everyone in the Wikipedia community and the greater free content community should know that there are resources if you have suicidal feelings or thoughts.

    The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States, 1-800-273-TALK, is a 24-hour service that can connect you with a crisis center in your area. It’s confidential and free.

    Their Web site, http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ , has a Web-based chat program that some people who prefer typing to talking might like instead.

  5. Somnus says:

    Aaron, you’re a big reason that the internet is what it is today. Thank you and RIP, man. You were remarkable in life and will be missed.

  6. pmwfotos says:

    God bless you RIP <3

  7. My76Strat says:

    We have lost a human treasure—invaluable—irreplaceable.

  8. bm says:

    Petition the Obama administration to:

    Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz

    https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

  9. Nemo says:

    The Internet Archive also has two collections of materials related to him, and an application to add remembrances to it:
    https://archive.org/details/aaronsw
    https://archive.org/details/ark-aaronsw

  10. Ashok says:

    Sad .. RIP Aaron ..

  11. N. says:

    A true gentleman!

  12. Liberum says:

    Rest in Peace Aaron Swartz. Thank you for everything you’ve done.

  13. Venkat says:

    RIP Aaron

  14. green says:

    Dear Aaron,

    Death can only conquer the physical body, but cannot kill the spirit & the ideals you shared in your life. I didn’t knew you personally, but I got shocked when I heard about your suicide. May your soul rest in peace.

    Green.

  15. devinder says:

    At such a young age he bagged a lot of achievements, i just wonder what more he would have done if had not left the world so early.

    RIP Aaron Swartz

    You inspired a lot of people in the world and your work will keep inspiring the coming generations.

  16. He shall be missed

  17. Ganapathy says:

    very sad, indeed!

  18. Eeva says:

    How sad. Rip.

  19. neil says:

    rip