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.