Reddit Cofounder Aaron Swartz Dead From Suicide At 26


Some sad news out of New York City: Aaron Swartz, the digital activist best known for laying the groundwork for massively popular (and powerful) aggregating site Reddit, took his own life yesterday.

MIT’s The Tech gives more details about Swartz’s short life:

Swartz was indicted in July 2011 by a federal grand jury for allegedly mass downloading documents from the JSTOR online journal archive with the intent to distribute them. He subsequently moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he then worked for Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.” Swartz appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded not guilty.

The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.

In their notice of Swartz’s death, CNN included a note he wrote about his inevitable death: “There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth
living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details
suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent.”

Boing Boing cofounder and a Swartz’s friend, Cory Doctorow, said, “Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life.

“He was one of the
early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he
was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no
damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and
got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless
and delightful shit-disturber.”

And to think of all the things he could have still accomplished…


  1. Eric says

    I think that it is very important to point out that even after JSTOR refused to press charges, the United States Department of Justice hounded him by threatening him with felonies that would have meant 35 years imprisonment and a million dollar fine. It was a witch hunt.

    Reddit is the least of his accomplishments. Among other things, he co-authored the first RSS specification, co-founded Demand Progress (a group that was vital in defeating SOPA and PIPA), and was instrumental in the Open Science movement- the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society.

  2. Caliban says

    FYI, the Boing Boing piece has the best info. The author, who seems to have known Aaron well, speculates that fear of being imprisoned (which was very possible) was a motivating factor, in addition to depression.

    ” This morning, a lot of people are speculating that Aaron killed himself because he was worried about doing time. That might be so. Imprisonment is one of my most visceral terrors, and it’s at least credible that fear of losing his liberty, of being subjected to violence (and perhaps sexual violence) in prison, was what drove Aaron to take this step.

    But Aaron was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years. He’d written about the subject publicly, and talked about it with his friends. ”

    And this reminder to others suffering depression.

    ” Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

    Depression strikes so many of us. I’ve struggled with it, been so low I couldn’t see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan — all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.”

  3. says

    This is such sad news. Aaron was a creative and brilliant human being with an incredibly bright future. I’m so sorry to hear that his demons got the best of him. RIP Aaron. You will be missed.

  4. QJ201 says

    JSTOR = Subscription library database of published academic work.

    Actually it was my understanding that the Federal Gov’t, not JSTOR (or others) that have pushed for “open access.”

    It is now official policy that ANY publication resulting from research paid for with public money MUST be made available to the public FREE of charge.

    Prior to this even the author could be in violation of copyright if the author emailed or shared a publication with someone.

  5. IJelly says

    Aaron “hooked up with guys” but didn’t identify as lgbt. Whether he identified as one of us or not, we’ve lost another one of our own to suicide. This is happening far too often.

  6. Respect The Choice. says

    @Caliban: “Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them.”

    Did you write this? Or did someone else?

    Because whoever wrote is DEAD wrong. Suicide completely solved this young man’s problem for HIM. It may’ve created lesser problems for the people he left behind, who will have to deal with his loss. But that pain is dissipated among many people, while the pain he felt was focused entirely on him. And now he suffers it no more.

    So stop trying to make it sound as if suicide was a futile option. For him, it was the best option. Respect his choice, whether you agree with it or not.

  7. Eric says

    Tim Berners-Lee ‏@timberners_lee:

    “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

    Glenn Greenwald ‏@ggreenwald:

    “For those who don’t know: here’s a great article by @binarybits about the wildly excessive prosecution of Aaron Swartz

  8. Caliban says

    @Respect The Choice

    No, I didn’t write that. It’s from the article on Boing Boing. But while I respect that suicide *can* be a valid choice for some, I’d argue it’s the WRONG choice for most people, particularly young people, absent an agonizing, debilitating, or terminal illness. Trite though it may seem, suicide often is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, particularly for a 26 year old no matter his talents or brilliance.

  9. Paul R says

    I honestly cannot believe that someone, even on this site’s insane comments, is defending suicide as a valid choice. I’ve suffered from massive depression and certainly considered ending things. But I could never do that to my friends and family. Things can change.

    A friend killed himself last year and it’s been harrowing for all of us who knew him.

  10. Respect The Choice. says

    @PaulR: You’re just as fascist as the pro-lifers who scream that abortion is NEVER a legitimate (if difficult) option. Or just like the fundagelicals who scream and rant that sexuality is ALWAYS a choice, and that homosexuality is ALWAYS the wrong choice.

    I lost my partner to suicide several years ago, and while I miss him profoundly every day, I have NEVER disrespected his autonomy, or the legitimacy of his choice. And I would NEVER have had him continue to live and struggle with mental illness, chronic depression, drug addition, and a physical illness that was slowly taking his life and had already robbed him of a significant quality of life. As much as I miss him, the pain that HE experienced daily was greater than the pain I feel from his loss. I would NEVER be so selfish as to demand that he continue living so that I don’t have to deal with pain.

    I deal with my own depression on a daily basis, and every morning when I wake up, I choose to live. Or not. So far, I’ve decided to continue, but one day I may well decide I’ve had enough. And that should be every individual’s right.

    Clearly, people have difference levels of pain, and different levels of coping. Choose your own course for yourself, and let others choose theirs, without disrespecting their autonomy or the legitimacy of their choice.

  11. EchtKultig says

    Now I’ve heard it all. As far as we know, this guy wasn’t destitute, he didn’t have a terminal illness, and he obviously wasn’t so stupid that there was no hope of him making it in the world. As for the case against him, he was not facing immediate incarceration and it’s hard for me to believe his expensive lawyers were telling him things were hopeless. So all that is obvious now is that he was severely depressed, which is a medical condition for which many treatment options are available. Let’s face it…our society, especially the aspiring upper-middle classes, still attaches a stigma to mental health care. This helps explain why Adam Lanza’s family didn’t proactively deal with his problems even though they had the means to and it might explain this, too. I’m not some nutty pro-life Catholic, obviously. If you have a painful, terminal condition, a doctor should have a right to discuss euthanasia options with you. That doesn’t mean suicide should suddenly be considered a front-line therapy for clinical depression in an otherwise healthy 26 year old, Mr. “Respect the Choice”! As it stands, neither you nor I have enough information to respect, or not to respect, his choice.

    (BTW The so-called Hippocratic Oath is an outmoded, self-contradictory dinosaur from an ancient era, which originally prohibited abortion – then, as now, a reflection of a patriarchal worldview.)

  12. EchtKultig says

    “RESPECT – I entirely agree. It’s nobody’s elses business.”

    I entirely disagree. Any non-natural death is everyone’s business. We’ve decided that the Newtown school shooting is worthy of a debate about further gun control. The benefit of which I’m frankly skeptical of…but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having the debate. If someone drunk runs over someone else in a car, that is society’s business because we take away their license and throw them in jail. Someone dying from untreated clinical depression, and perhaps compounded by an over-zealous federal prosecutor’s actions, seems just as much my business as the other two.

    There must be lawyers here. What is the history of case law in terms of an original complainant not wanting to pursue charges, as was the case with Aaron. Surely that can be admitted into evidence and helps the defense? If I were on a jury, it would help me decide there was no point to pursuing legal action against him. I admit I wasn’t in the mood to read about the case and might be misunderstanding something about JSTOR’s current role.

  13. jd says

    A terrible tragedy, though I have a really big problem with people saying, “this means he was unjustly hounded by authorities.” Sorry, but he was attempting a MASSIVE infringement of copyrights. That’s illegal and should remain so. Of course, that’s no reason to take your own life.

  14. EchtKultig says

    Thanks for that bit of insight. I don’t care if this sounds presumptuous: you can be a brilliant internet entrepreneur and still be a stupid kid. At least about some things, and in this case he was. He might have a high IQ but I seriously doubt he had the background in human population genetics to be this dismissive: “They even provided a ridiculous genetic explanation for how a species with a small percentage [of] gay people might evolve.” It reads, as is so often the case, like someone more anxious to convince himself than others. Every bit of real evidence suggests that, sure, some miniscule fraction of people can really be polyamorous and have absolutely no partner gender preferences, but most people have an arousal pattern fixed at a very era age and are therefore “born” gay or straight. That human society has discouraged it – and many learned to play straight – since the evolution of formal religion (but probably not before that) is immaterial. It’s sad he couldn’t see that. Sounds like a bad apple in his family or immediate group of friends poisoned his mind with some bad ideas. That’s a shame.
    But many people struggle with that w/o killing themselves. Clearly the bigger fish to fry here is whoever saw the warning signs and didn’t force him to get some help.

  15. EchtKultig says

    Oops…EARLY age haha.
    Oh well. I hardly knew who he was and certainly didn’t know he was gay/”struggling”. (and therein lies the problem) I don’t know why I’m so passionate about it, other than having been suicidal for a period in college and perhaps being relieved that people around me didn’t give up so easily as some here would advocate.

  16. Respect The Choice. says

    @PaulR: And I don’t believe your humanity unless you simply have no capacity for empathy.

  17. Paul R says

    That post is pretty stupid. Seems like it was written by a defensive high school kid.

    Though being smart, handsome, and rich isn’t always a recipe for happiness. It can lead to isolation and misunderstanding.

  18. EchtKultig says

    “Sorry, but he was attempting a MASSIVE infringement of copyrights. That’s illegal and should remain so.”

    You apparently don’t understand the nuances of his actions, the material involved, or the case against him.
    But regardless, in my opinion, scientific inquiry – at least – should not be subject to conventional copyright. And I would have thought that before this case. I can accept “entertainment” being a “product” that can be “stolen” leading to punishment, but not research material whose free dissemination can now be accomplished at absolutely no cost, or only a trivial cost. What’s the counter case? Do millions of American households subscribe to NATURE GENETICS at hundreds of dollars per year? Thus costing Elsevier billions if they cancel their subs? No, they do not. It’s an unnecessary hold-over from the age of dead tree books. As it my de facto opinion is becoming the norm anyhow, because scientific research paid for with public funds will have to be made available for free. Institutional bodies should continue to contribute the funds that they already do to access such journals. It’s not “unfair” when the publication mill brings them fame and fortune. Letting the general public access the material for free – any anyone already can if they bother to drive to an open-stack library – is an absolute drop in the bucket of the whole system. It’s a drop in a swimming pool.

  19. bd says


  20. bambinoitaliano says

    I think some of the most creative and intelligent souls among us lead a very torturous life. It’s very difficult for regular people to understand what they go through mentally and emotionally. It’s like they hold the secret of universe many of us cannot even begin to comprehend.

  21. BrianM says

    Respect The Choice: I’m sorry for your loss and pain you feel. I understand both.

    My dad committed suicide when I was 18, and that will haunt me the rest of my life (I’m 57). I didn’t know he was depressed, and really had no idea what depression was.

    I found out, though, and have been dogged by repeated depressions, a number of suicide attempts and three hospitalizations (two against my will) since my early 20s.

    I HATE it when people try to find an explanation for suicide. I understand that’s a natural human impulse, but unless you’ve been there with an X-acto knife in your arm hoping to bleed to death, you can’t know that there is no ONE reason. They’re myriad (as you explain).

    BUT I don’t accept your conclusions about suicide. If I did, I would have died decades ago, and look at all that I would have missed in this world, all the experiences (good and bad), the people (good and bad) and the places (almost all pretty good).

    When I had the X-acto knife in my arm, no one could have convinced me there was any good in remaining in this world. But there were people so stubborn — some I knew, many professionals I had never met — that they wouldn’t let me die. If I had to stay in bed for a week, they’d let me do that. If I ran away for a week, they always took me back. If I shouted and screamed and said I hated them, they took it in stride.

    And slowly, very slowly, they convinced me that no one in this world — even me, despite that I though the opposite — would benefit from my death. And I believe that’s true for everyone. No suicide improves the world, and it cheats the suicide victim of the chance to see the world in a different way. There are some weeks I still stay in bed. But there are longer stretches when I love seeing the sunrise or take joy in the fact that I can watch “Star Wars” again.

    So, I hope you reconsider your thinking. I mourn Aaron and can’t imagine the pain he felt and make no judgment and seek no explanation. He can explain it, no one else. But what I try to tell groups of people who are fighting depression is similar to the AA motto: One day at a time. Today seems utterly hopeless. But that’s just today. Get through today somehow — sleep through it, binge eat, watch porn, whatever. (No drinking or drugs, though.) A good day will come, and you build on it and build on it until the impulse to destroy yourself becomes a wound — an emotional scar — but one that can’t hurt you anymore.

  22. jamal49 says

    Tragic. Tragic. Tragic.

    God knows what happens within a person such as Aaron Swartz that he would choose to end his life.

    It is interesting that there is a debate here as to whether or not suicide is a legitimate “choice” for anyone when they feel that life has become too much to bear.

    Regardless, to see someone such as Aaron take his own life is the same as hearing that someone OD’d. It just seems like a waste.

    I wish comfort to his family and friends. I wish his soul to finally be at peace.

  23. Bill Michael says

    Please be kind to those who are against suicide. They don’t know any better and they only want to help but don’t really know how. I wish I could have met Aaron over a cup of coffee. Perhaps with a few kind words we could have become friends and maybe I could have helped him see that his life was not yet finished.

  24. Paul R says

    I don’t need someone to be kind to me. I’ve been suicidal and close to people who have killed themselves. It’s a selfish act. There is always a better solution. It inflicts horrible pain on the people left behind. There are no two ways about it unless a deadly disease is involved.

  25. ratbastard says

    Yes, he was a handsome man. And 26…that should have been the best time of his life IMHO, I loved my mid to late 20s.

    A couple of things:

    I’ve read multiple posts from his Raw thought blog and found his ideas and angle on different subjects refreshing and to the point, if somewhat intriguingly juvenile [I guess that was the point] vs other so-called progressive bloggers. The man deserves credit for not toeing the party line, being obnoxiously P.C., and having some original thoughts. As specifically regarding his post on gay identity, he made some good and controversial points, although I didn’t entirely agree with him. But the fact he brought it up at all, and gave an opinion that no doubt irritated the usual shills, especially considering he was an otherwise ‘progressive’, took balls and I admire him for it. If he had posted that on TR there’d be the usual posters having a stroke trying to outdo each other in condemning and mocking him. Yes, Lil’ Kiwi, he had daddy issues and he was a self-hating closet-case.

    But I do find much of his online eulogy and adulation from admirers a little over the top. An if I hear ‘Brilliant’ one more time…well, never mind. Yes, he was undoubtedly a smart man, but he wasn’t God-like and he made some errors in judgment that cost him dearly. He was technically guilty of serious federal crimes and yes he could very well have ended up going to prison. Although I agree with advocacy, I still recognize the risks involved in doing what he did, and the risks of being prosecuted. And federal prosecutions are no joke, don’t don’t fool around, they are deadly serious [that is of course unless you’re a too big to fail financial institution or a corporate executive who laundered drug money, etc., then you get a pass]. AND TO THE OBAMA SHILLS: Carmen Ortiz is of course an Obama appointee, as is of course is Eric Holder Hope and change my arse.

    Finally, I find the comments from Mr. Swartz’s family and friends about him killing himself over MIT and the federal prosecutor Ortiz disturbing. No doubt most people who face federal prosecution wether they be drug dealers,con-artists, or whatever, become very upset and anxious. Mr. Swartz was not unique in this respect. I understand Mr. Swartz’s family’s pain, but I find their comments somewhat disingenuous, although I’m sure not malicious. I don’t think people kill themselves over stuff like this and Mr. Swartz had ample time left. His trial hadn’t even started yet, and nothing was a given. I think Mr. Swartz killed himself for intensely private reasons that had little to nothing to do with his advocacy issues or court case. Maybe he left an honest and sincere suicide message. Judging by his raw thought posts, it would make an interesting read.

    R.I.P. Mr. Swartz.

  26. xtian2012 says

    Suicide is a permanet end-result of depression, and yet effective treatments are available that can save your life / the life of someone you care about. Of all the thousands of suicides that occur every day, in the few that make headlines I hope that someone hearing of it will take the first brave, important step of getting help. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 24/7. LGBT, straight, ‘on the down low’ or however you identify, you are not alone.

  27. Choice. says

    @PaulR: Obviously life has left you more bitter than introspective. You sound like just another cowardly catholic with a crucifix up your a$$, projecting your own solipsistic selfishness onto people who have the guts and/or gumption to end their own suffering.

    You’ve had several people close to you end their lives? Assuming that’s true, you damned sure don’t sound like you’re worth much as a friend. Dude…maybe it’s YOU.

  28. Mawm says

    Wait, I am supposed to have sympathy for this jerk? He has the world at his feet, and he decides to ditch out and leave this mess for everyone else.
    Suicide is for the selfish.

  29. jakeinlove says

    At some point do we ever just get sick and tired of the suicide opt out? I mean really, I’ve contemplated suicide as I think a lot of us have but man, it seems like people are trying to be martyrs instead of owning up to the fact that not everything is a cake walk. Actions equal consequences – so man up. Not to say bullying isn’t real, isn’t hard, and isn’t physically and emotionally draining, but damn. If you can’t stand up for yourself you’ll never be able to survive – with or without someone standing behind you.

  30. Bill says

    Anyone interested in the details might want to read which includes a letter from MIT’s president.

    A couple of quotes from the article:
    JSTOR and Swartz settled their dispute over his actions, but MIT brought in police to investigate Swartz’s activities, an action which led to Swartz’s prosecution.

    MIT’s cooperation with authorities in the case has been controversial on campus.

    “What Aaron Swartz did was a clear violation of the rules and protocols of the library and the community,” MIT professor Christopher Capozzola told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011. “But the penalties in this case, and the sources of those penalties, are really remarkable. These penalties really go against MIT’s culture of breaking down barriers.”

    It seems the downloads had cause JSTOR’s servers to crash and had led to JSTOR blocking access from MIT for a few days. There’s a wide spread opinion that the possible penalties (30 years in jail) were completely excessive. One thing we should be asking: did what is obviously a “zero tolerance” reaction on the part of a prosecutor cause a suicide and are these draconian punishments at all appropriate, particularly when even the supposed victims think such punishments are beyond reason.