To some, he was a genius and a pioneering software developer. To others, he was an activist and political organizer. To Reddit, the wildly popular social news site, he was all these things and one more besides: an innovator who, at age 19, helped give millions of people a place to exchange jokes, stories, cat photos, memes -- all the things that make the Internet worth surfing.
Swartz, who hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Jan. 11, is widely credited as one of the co-founders of Reddit. His company, Infogami, merged with the larger site in November 2005, not long after it launched and shortly before it was acquired by publishing giant Conde Nast.
Even after leaving Reddit in October 2006, Swartz championed freedom of speech and information -- two of the things that Reddit’s 400 million yearly visitors hold dear. When Reddit went dark during the anti-SOPA protests last January, Swartz was on the real-life frontlines, giving speeches and organizing the blackouts.
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves,” Swartz wrote in a well-known 2008 manifesto. “We need to take information … and share [it] with the world.”
On Reddit, the site he helped lead, that’s how he is remembered -- less for his personal characteristics, and more as a symbol of hacktivism and its costs. Several articles about his death rocketed to the site’s front page over the weekend, “up-voted” there by several thousand users.
For the uninitiated, Reddit relies on its users to “up” or “down” vote posts; the top posts have thus effectively been vetted by thousands of people. Among the top comments on Swartz’s death:
●“Not only did the man cofound Reddit, he co-authored RSS 1.0. He was a creator and innovator of the highest degree, and will be sorely missed. Thanks for all you’ve done.” — Redditor Tianan
●“He couldn’t have known how many lives he’s changed for the better, or how much people like me appreciated it. I never took the chance to thank him when he was alive, so I will say it now. Thank you Aaron for helping create this wonderful community for me and others to enjoy.” -- Redditor BatsintheBelfry45
●“I’m so angry right now. The world only produces a few thousand Aaron Swartz’s a generation … Aaron Swartz was a truly beautiful person. The world is unquestionably dimmer without him. RIP Aaron, you will be missed and remembered.” — Redditor iamadogforreal
●“Swartz was a crusader for the public domain, and thus an enemy of the rentier squatters. His intentional ruin was a message. This was not an accident of an overzealous bureaucrat, it was a hit by a corrupt tool of establishment money.” — Redditor cjbrix
●“The internet is free, always was, always will be. We need to finish what he started. We need to rip these shackles apart … Aaron created Demand Progress, he fought with us against SOPA/PIPA and this was his next goal. What should we do? Finish what he started to honor his work and his struggle to help us all.” — Redditor rushone2009 ●
Tributes for Swartz have plastered the Internet outside of Reddit, too. On Twitter, academics shared their copyright-protected papers with the hashtag #PDFtribute. A number of prominent writers and Internet theorists posted remembrances for Swartz, including Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, who “waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights” to his post.
One of the most powerful eulogies might have come from the so-called inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. A short poem attributed to Berners-Lee hit the top of one Reddit comment thread two days ago. It reads:
“Aaron is dead.
Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.
Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.
Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,
we have lost a child.
Let us all weep.”