portrait of aaron swartz

Photo of Aaron Swartz by Fred Benenson

This is from the biographical blurb of Aaron Swartz on DemandProgress, the political action committee he founded in 2010 that was instrumental in raising public awareness of SOPA/PIPA in 2012:

Aaron Swartz is the founder of Demand Progress. He previously co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, watchdog.net, Open Library, Jottit, and Reddit.com. He is co-author of the RSS 1.0 specification and helped launch Creative Commons.

Aaron Swartz, who suffered from depression, was aggressively prosecuted / persecuted by the Federal government and faced decades in Federal prison. He hung himself on January 11, 2013.

He was twenty six years old.

By Twenty Six

I was twenty six from 1993 to 1994. You know what I had accomplished by that age?

  • Been in several bands that went nowhere
  • Started and failed to complete a couple of novels, several times
  • Had numerous go-nowhere jobs at video, book and record stores
  • Wrote over a hundred songs, most never heard by more than a handful of people
  • Moved dozens of times

By the time Aaron Swartz was twenty six, he was involved with, by my casual count, four things that have influenced the way humans communicate and exchange culture forever.

RSS 1.0

RSS (Rich Site Summary) is the technology that syndicates online content. It’s your newsfeed. RSS takes website content and “pushes” it to a subscriber’s client device, allowing people to read content from unlimited sources in one place.

Version 2.0 introduced a way to add files to an RSS feed, and so made podcasts possible.

Aaron Swartz was part of the group that devised the specification for RSS 1.0. He was fourteen at the time.

Hundreds of millions of people use RSS to exchange information, knowledge, and culture. Hundreds of thousands make and listen to podcasts. All thanks, in part, to the contributions Aaron Swartz made when he was in junior high school.

Creative Commons

When he was a teenager, Aaron Swartz made important technical contributions to the newly developing Creative Commons.

Creative Commons, for those who don’t know, provides a “layer” on top of traditional copyright that has revolutionized the DIY creator movement and made possible the legal distribution of a huge portion of the creative content that enriches global culture.

Hundreds of millions of words, songs, videos, plays, movies, software, hardware, and images (200 million on Flickr alone) are available for use through the Creative Commons license today. That’s an unprecedented and incomparable contribution to human culture, made possible, in part, thanks to the work of Aaron Swartz.


Aaron Swartz created the web programming platform web.py. Swartz worked with Reddit until shortly after that company’s acquisition by CondeNast, and Reddit until recently ran on web.py.

Reddit has grown into a community site with broad, powerful impact on society and, more importantly, often on individuals. Would it have grown large enough to be acquired by CondeNast, and large enough to positively impact thousands of lives, without the technical contributions Swartz made before he was twenty years old?


Remember January 18, 2012, when many of the biggest sites of the English-speaking web went black in protest of SOPA / PIPA, two pieces of proposed legislation that would severely restrict freedom on the Internet? It was one of the rare times that issues of net neutrality and online freedoms made the mainstream evening news.

DemandProgress, the political action committee Aaron Swartz founded in 2010, was one of the loudest voices responsible for bringing the dangers of SOPA / PIPA into the public eye. It’s very possible that without Swartz and DemandProgress, we’d be living today with laws that cripple innovation and expression on the Internet.

What I Personally Owe To Aaron Swartz

My career as a creator and creative services provider would not exist without the contributions Aaron Swartz made to technology, communication, and culture.

Without RSS, I would not have discovered podcasting or launched my first podcast in October of 2004.

Without podcasting, I would not have met the majority of the amazing, compassionate, inventive, talented people I’m priviledged to call friends and colleagues today.

Without Creative Commons, podcasting, and RSS, the first novel simultaneously released in paperback, several DRM-free e-book formats, and free podcast edition, my own “Brave Men Run — A Novel of the Sovereign Era,” would not have opened my world to tens of thousands of fans in 2005.

Without DemandProgress, I may never have heard of, or participated in, the blackout to protest SOPA / PIPA. If either of those bills had been made into law, my own ability to live and work as a creator may have been severely diminished.

In short, I owe my creative life (and my creative life is my life) in part to the work of Aaron Swartz.

Let’s Honor Aaron Swartz

In 2012, on January 18, many of the biggest sites on the Internet (and tiny ones like this one) “went black” to protest legislation that may have severely curtailed freedom of expression.

On January 18, 2013, this site, as well as MWS Media and Indie Author Marketing Info, will “go white” to honor and celebrate Aaron Swartz, a man whose life was dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of human knowledge and culture, by posting the following graphic:

Because of Aaron Swartz

I’d love to see folks do the same thing on their own websites on that day. If you…

  • Knew Aaron Swartz
  • Use RSS
  • Create or listen to podcasts
  • Use Creative Commons as a consumer or creator of creative works
  • Depend on the Internet for your livelihood as a creative professional, developer, writer, video producer, musician, etc.
  • Believe the charges against Aaron Swartz, and the punishment that would have been in store for him if found guilty, were disproportunate to the point of bullying
  • Know someone who suffers from depression
  • Lost someone to depression

…please download the graphic, replace your website with it for 24 hours on January 18, 2013, and encourage others to do the same.

Update: by request, here’s a larger (600×600) version of the graphic. Because it might not go without saying: both may be used and adapted for the purpose of paying tribute to Aaron Swartz by anyone at all.

If your site is “going white” because of Aaron Swartz on January 18, leave a little mention of it the comments of this post, if you don’t mind.

Let’s make this simple thing happen.