the internet

The Aaron Swartz Reader: In His Own Words

Aaron Swartz is the 19-year-old co-founder of in San Francisco.
Photo: Chris Stewart/Corbis

In the days since the suicide of 26-year-old Internet activist Aaron Swartz, there has been no shortage of affecting words on his brilliant life. As the creator of RSS, a co-founder of Reddit, and a fighter for online freedom, Swartz filled the role of both friend and folk hero, as described in remembrances from the likes of Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Glenn Greenwald, and many, many more. But in getting to know his legend — what he stood for and what he was up against — no writings are as revealing as Swartz’s own, on topics as varied as mental health, worth ethic, and Batman. Below, a primer.

In recent months — while he faced charges for hacking the academic journals from JSTOR, punishable by 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine — Swartz was writing most frequently on his blog Raw Thoughts, while keeping quotes he wanted to save at the spinoff Tumblr he called Raw Meat and tweeting often. In his final blog entry, “What Happens in The Dark Knight,” Swartz is foreboding in his conclusion: 

Thanks to Batman, society doesn’t devolve into a self-interested war of all-against-all, as he apparently expects it to, but that doesn’t mean anyone enjoys the trials.

Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it’s no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide.

In a 2007 talk titled “How to Get a Job Like Mine,” he’s more hopeful and provides some detailed advice:

1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.

2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree – whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.

3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

I followed these rules. And here I am today, with a dozen projects on my plate and my stress level through the roof once again.

Every morning I wake up and check my email to see which one of my projects has imploded today, which deadlines I’m behind on, which talks I need to write, and which articles I need to edit.

Maybe, one day, you too can be in the same position.

Swartz grappled often, and in public, with concepts like ambition and potential, struggling to reconcile them with personal doubts and his own struggle against mental illness. In a post last fall called “Lean into the pain,” he wrote:

The problem is that the topics that are most painful also tend to be the topics that are most important for us: they’re the projects we most want to do, the relationships we care most about, the decisions that have the biggest consequences for our future, the most dangerous risks that we run. We’re scared of them because we know the stakes are so high. But if we never think about them, then we can never do anything about them.

Here is Swartz, years earlier, in the entry “Sick”:

I have a lot of illnesses. I don’t talk about it much, for a variety of reasons. I feel ashamed to have an illness. (It sounds absurd, but there still is an enormous stigma around being sick.) I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse. (Although I sometimes wonder how much more productive I’d be if I wasn’t so sick.) And, to a large extent, I just don’t find it an interesting subject. (My friends are amazed by this; why is such a curious person so uncurious about the things so directly affecting his life?)

And in a moment of strength, his “How we stopped SOPA” keynote from the Freedom to Connect conference last spring:

As noted by GigaOm, Swartz wrote something many considered to be a suicide note in 2007, after being fired by Condé Nast (which had purchased Reddit). It’s reproduced here, a moving story of a suicidal man named Alex (Update: The character was originally named Aaron, as Swartz explains here: “People got freaked out and misinterpreted it as a suicide note.”):

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.

In the spirit of transparency, Swartz also published his wishes for his digital belongings in a post called “If I get hit by a truck … ” (At the Internet Archive, the Aaron Swartz Collection is already underway, collecting “any digital materials you think appropriate in a memorial collection: emails with him, code archives, photos.” A memorial site has also been set up by Swartz’s family.)

There’s an old joke among programmers about who will maintain the code when its author gets hit by a truck. This page is here so that if for some reason I’m no longer able to keep my web services running, people will know what to do.

I designate Sean B. Palmer as my virtual executor to organize such things. (And if you delete anything, Sean, I will haunt you from the grave!)

I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from

Oh, and BTW,” Swartz added, “I’ll miss you all.”

The Aaron Swartz Reader: In His Own Words