Meeting Aaron Swartz

By now, quite a few people know who Aaron Swartz was. It’s a shame that the world has only become acquainted with this brilliant young man because of what happened on January 11th of this year. Aaron took his own life after the stress of multiple felony indictments became too much. Aaron’s crime was downloading academic journal articles from a database that only academics were meant to access. His principles led him to want to share these terabytes of knowledge with the world rather than keep them locked up for commercial exploitation. Yes, you could say he was idealistic, and rash. But his life is being widely remembered and his influence being felt much more strongly now. After reading this lengthy New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, I thought I should put up my much more innocent remembrances of meeting Aaron.

It was as the South by Southwest Interactive conference in 2003, long before he had turned his intelligence away from simple programming to more political pursuits. And, sadly for me, this was the only time I met him, but he made an impression, on me and on my crowd of online friends, many of whom have gone on to shape the Internet in one way or another. Here’s an excerpt from my post-conference diary:

Wednesday March 12, 2003

A highlight of this year’s conference was the presence of the wee Aaron Swartz (www.aaronsw.com). He’s 16, but two years ago formulated what became RSS 1.0 and he’s working with Lawrence Lessig on Creative Commons. Obviously, this kid will buy and sell the rest of us in just a handful of years. But the funny thing is that every time someone discussed him, they gave the universal hand signal: holding the palm down and waving it back and forth about four feet off the ground. I did it myself last night at Castle Hill and Brad and Mike just cracked up. Then we did a whole bunch of jokes about Lessig dressing the kid up like Mickey Mouse and taking him to court where he’d plead “Free the Mouse”! I love geek jokes. I also said I was going to Photoshop a picture of The White Stripes with Ben and Mena Trott’s faces pasted on. The reason was actually due to a post on Aaron Swartz’s weblog. He said that there were cracks that Ben and Mena weren’t married but were actually siblings, because no one had ever seen them kiss. The White Stripes pass themselves off as brother and sister but were once actually married to each other. Not sure how many other people would get it, but I think it’s funny. There could be lots of Photoshop fun. I think a photo of Mickey Mouse could have wee Aaron’s face pasted on. Maybe I’ll post them to SXSWBlog anonymously.

Another funny thing about Aaron was that due to his age, he couldn’t check into the hotel room he’d booked online. Eventually he went to stay with Cory Doctorow at his hotel, but before that Min Jung took him up to her room to leave his bag, and while up there, she mixed some drinks from some booze she’d brought with her. Since she needed help carrying them, wee Aaron was recruited. She took a lot of flak for basically corrupting the lad.

I remember all of this with a rueful smile. A line from Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile resonated with me: “Despite his public presence, he was small and frail and shy and often sick, and people wanted to protect him. He was loved intensely, as a child is loved.” Even in his brief time among us at SxSW 2003, you could sense the tragic truth in those words.

I would post those Mickey Mouse Aaron Swartz Photoshopped pictures here, except of course that I never made them. For all of our joking around, I didn’t want to do anything to hurt his feelings. Or, despite the fact that he might not have even remembered meeting me, to make him think less of me.