I attended Aaron Swartz's memorial service at the Internet Archive in San Francisco and had the opportunity to speak a few anecdotes and encouragements. Still upset, angry, and sad about losing Aaron, I wanted to focus on the positive and the inspiring, because to me, that's who and what Aaron was, positive and inspiring. Half-written before, and half-completed this morning, here's part 1 of what I shared with more details as writing affords.
I met Aaron Swartz in early at the very first W3C Technical Plenary meeting in Boston. A young teen, he nonetheless deftly operated his brand new Titanium PowerBook G4 which seemingly dwarfed him. At the time I remember thinking, ok, this kid has to be smart, he apparently understands RDF.
I recall him making fun of me for then working at Microsoft, to which I think I jokingly challenged him to show me a more standards compliant browser than the Internet Explorer 5 for Macintosh that ran on his laptop. We immediately connected in that way that geeks challenging each other do.
Also, I couldn't help but empathize, remembering when I was his age, surrounded by those twice as old or more, looking for fellow nerds to relate to. I got to watch Aaron become a brilliant hacker. I'll get back to that term in a moment [in part 2].
In late I encouraged him to participate in Technorati's first developers contest. By building PersonalDemocracy.com's "Hot Pols" and "Top 25 blogs" features using Technorati's API, Aaron handily won a runner up award. Yes, in 2004 he was already writing code that accessed aggregations of the people's voice (millions of blogs) to show which congresspersons were most discussed, most linked to.
We kept in touch often, and spent a bunch of time together at Foo Camp . This image from a spontaneous photo I then took is still what comes to mind when I think of Aaron. We carpooled back to San Francisco, and all I remember is how quickly it went by, our seemingly non-stop conversation intensely interesting the entire ride, often punctuated by his inspiring laughter.
The last personal anecdote I shared happened in . Thanks to danah boyd, we happened to gather in Dolores Park on a warm sunny February weekend afternoon, as San Franciscans often do, and argued and ranted about many things, as geeks often do. I'd been thinking a lot about user interfaces, cognitive load, efficiency, how much typical web interfaces, even email, were incredibly frustrating to use, and shared a few hypotheses for why that might be.
Hearing out my rants and proposed hypotheses, Aaron's response was a firm and vocal encouragement:
You should blog that!
If you knew Aaron, you know that in discussions he wouldn't hesitate to criticize any mistakes made, any logical flaws, no matter how small. So I knew when Aaron quickly confirmed my hypotheses that I should blog them. I did and it turned out to be one of my most popular posts (evhead, web2summit).
But the larger point here is that he turned a rant into a positive action. He challenged me to do something about it, to blog what I'd figured out, to provide a clear constructive encouragement instead of just a criticism.
No matter how much we argued, debated, or ranted, each of us challenged the other to do something constructive and productive about it, and that above all is what I remember about Aaron.
If you believe something passionately, you should blog that.
I will always remember you Aaron, with your positivity, and your encouragements.