Technology

Why Aaron Swartz's Story Is Important to You

By / Jan 15, 2013 (photo by ragesoss/Flickr)

Over the weekend, the tech world lost an important figure who had made significant contributions to the internet. And he did it almost entirely outside the traditional business world. Was there room for Aaron Swartz inside the system?

The tech world is in mourning this week, after the death of one of its brightest lights.

What do all of these innovations have in common? None of them fit in the context of the traditional business world, and few of them were designed with the goal of making money.

Aaron Swartz did more in his short life than many do with twice as much time. His story is one of someone who dreamed brightly but reportedly committed suicide in the midst of a challenging legal battle. Many major tech-world voices have written tributes to an important, but troubled, visionary.

There are many places you can learn about Swartz’s legal cases, his deep thoughts, or his legacy, but to simply state facts, his impact was huge to the internet in meaningful, everyday ways. Some examples:

I’m writing this post in a scripting language called Markdown. While I admit I’m a bit weird because I generally don’t make Microsoft Word a part of my workflow, the language is a fairly common one for bloggers. Swartz was the only beta tester on the product, and John Gruber, the noted tech journalist who created Markdown, praised Aaron Swartz on the language’s site: “Markdown is much better thanks to Aaron’s ideas, feedback, and testing.”

The image above is a Creative Commons photo of Swartz, meaning it has a “copyleft” form of ownership where the owner gets more options for sharing content while retaining ownership than traditional copyright. Swartz played a major role in the Creative Commons movement’s growth. “As a teenager, he helped design the code layer to our licenses and helped build the movement that has carried us so far,” the nonprofit organization wrote on its site Saturday.

There’s a chance you’re reading this on our lively RSS feed. Over the past decade, RSS has become sort of like plumbing for the internet. While it’s faded some in the age of Twitter, millions of sites still use it. Swartz co-authored the spec for the technology.

I first heard about Swartz’s death on a site called Hacker News, a tech community website directly inspired by Reddit. Swartz wasn’t just some random guy to this community—he was an early Reddit employee, and he also was an early graduate of the Y Combinator startup incubator that runs Hacker News and birthed Reddit. Some even consider him a cofounder of Reddit, one of the web’s most popular sites.

Last year, when the Stop Online Piracy Act was drawing significant amounts of criticism from internet users, Swartz was well organized and ready to go with his Demand Progress group, which exists “to provide an advocate for the public in all the back-room decisions that affect our lives.” By helping build attention in the public forum, he made a huge mark on net neutrality.

Innovation Outside of the System

The thing is, we so quickly take advantage of the technologies and ideas around us and treat them like they’ve always been there, overlooking the creators and enablers. Swartz played a major role in creating a number of them, and he had made an imprint on a huge chunk of the internet’s machinery long before he had a chance to reach 30.

That’s right, he was just 26. He helped create RSS when he was 14. He was 15 when Creative Commons was launched—and Swartz had a tight relationship with current Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who played a key role in constructing it.

What do all of these innovations have in common? None of them fit in the context of the traditional business world, and few of them were designed with the goal of making money. The only one that actually counts as a true 9-to-5 day job, Reddit, was located in an office environment—something that Swartz reportedly hated—at the time he left.

Many times, hackers are more interested in building startups than standards. Swartz, though he became rich at Reddit, was more interested in building standards and, more important, innovative ideas for the public good.

Swartz had sincere interests in policy issues as diverse as copyright, healthcare, and open data, topics that have robust association or nonprofit backing. Considering his passion for these issues, he could have played an important role as a member of any number of organizations. The success he saw with Demand Progress is evidence of this.

Innovative standards like RSS are things that associations need to latch onto because they help define industries. While we’re seeing some work in this regard—the Consumer Electronics Association’s olive branch to startups, for example—too little is being done to let the dreamers and the big thinkers know that there’s room for their big ideas inside the system. That Swartz had to work outside the system to reach his more idealistic goals—in bold, and at times dangerous, ways—put him in great legal peril.

(He died facing more than a dozen felony charges and the prospect of decades of prison time, after he was caught downloading huge amounts of data at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology library. His goal? He was planning to post millions of academic documents from JSTOR—an online library that cost money for most people to access at the time—on the internet for free. Whether he would have deserved such a harsh sentence, had he been convicted, is a subject of much debate online,  but Swartz ultimately found himself in a difficult situation.)

Associations need people like Swartz to offer ideas, and people like Swartz need associations helping them to tackle game-changing ideas with the backing of a safety net.

How do we make room for people who take bold approaches but don’t neatly fit the definition of a traditional member—and, more important, learn new technological approaches from them? Can we? That’s something associations should think long and hard about.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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