Setting the record straight on Aaron Swartz's contributions

I don't have more to say about Aaron Swartz's death; I knew him a little, but felt his loss keenly. As coverage appeared, however, I found myself concerned about his legacy. Aaron did so much in such a short period of time, but several of his accomplishments have been glossed over in a way that distorts his contributions.

RSS co-inventor: no

Aaron co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification. Impressive enough for anyone at any age, Aaron was perhaps 15 when he accomplished this. But he didn't co-develop RSS itself, as most mainstream press accounts have stated. RSS originated at Netscape (as version 0.9) to handle channels on its portal site, based in part on previous work by Microsoft and others. Netscape revised the spec to incorporate ideas from Dave Winer; Winer revised RSS further, incorporated it into his firm's products, and evangelized its adoption. He also updated the spec to version 0.92 to add audio enclosures, which led to the spectacular growth in what rapidly became known as podcasting. (That was partly due to work by Winer and Adam Curry to demonstrate automatic delivery of podcasts to iPods and other MP3 players.)

RSS 1.0 was an entirely separate effort spearheaded by O'Reilly Media with the participation of many other interesting Internet media and syndication firms, and which used RDF (Resource Description Framework) elements, which form the basis of the Semantic Web. RDF comprises both ends of a link (not just a hyperlink pointer) and the relationship between them. RSS 1.0 was a dead end in itself, though still in wide use because many blogging system generate RSS 0.92, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, and Atom syndication files. But Aaron and others went on from RSS 1.0 to work at great length on RDF at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The Semantic Web remains an important concept, still not fully realized, and Aaron was a critical part of that evolution.

Winer's RSS went from 0.92 effectively to 2.0, the rights to which he transferred from his firm to the Berkman Center at Harvard, which then released it under Creative Commons license in 2003. The Atom spec was meant to replace RSS with something fresh and designed around how blogs and commenting were being used, but has ultimately only complemented RSS. The RSS Advisory Boardhas become a kind of keeper of the flame making minor tweaks and having been formally assigned by Netscape the 0.90 and 0.91 spec and by Yahoo the Media RSS spec.

Reddit co-founder: yes

It's a minor quibble, but has provoked many arguments over the years. Reddit was founded in June 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. There are varying accounts by the two of them and by Aaron over the years as to when Aaron became involved, but it was after the start. Aaron moved Reddit from lisp to python, and later released the script into the public domain that was the framework for running Reddit. (Reddit later moved to other code.)

Aaron's existing firm, Infogami, merged with Reddit in late 2005 at the suggestion of Y Combinator, which had funded both. Ohanian often calls this an acquisition by Reddit; Paul Graham of Y Combinator has repeatedly called it a merger. Condé Nast acquired Reddit at the end of October 2006. Aaron moved to San Francisco and worked out of Wired's office (also a Condé Nast property) until he was fired or asked to resign after an extended vacation and (Aaron said) convalescence.

Aaron didn't technically co-found Reddit, although he claimed in May 2007 that he had worked on it earlier than Ohanian and Huffman agree. Ohanian posted a Google+ item in 2011 trying to clarify with a timeline when Aaron joined after his arrest for the JSTOR incident pointing to a 2005 Wired story with quotes from both Aaron and him in it. But it seems clear that Y Combinator's head, Paul Graham, anointed Aaron a co-founder after the merger, since the three were founders of their respective firms. The press release from Condé Nast announcing the acquisition (PDF) also called him a founder; that would have been approved by Reddit before being released. is one of many pieces of code that Aaron wrote and released either into the public domain or via broad Creative Commons licenses. Between that code, his early involvement in Creative Commons, RSS 1.0, and RDF its likely that a good hunk of the Web pages in existence have some connection to his work.

Aaron's reach was huge, and his loss incalcuable. But his work should be accurately remembered.


  1. I greatly appreciate your clarification on the oversimplification by the Media in general as to A.S.’s involvement in things like RSS. Even I believed he had basically created RSS by the age of 14 or so… or something to that effect because of his portrayal (everywhere) as such, until now. And, I’m glad to say that I’m not disappointed by the news that he didn’t literally “Create” RSS, as is ‘nearly’ being depicted elsewhere, and I’ll tell you why… because even I know some of the depths to which A.S. went, to bring general scientific knowledge to me, you, and the world. Efforts you failed to even discuss.
       This brings me to my ultimate point, which is that “Accurately remembering” A.S. as you claimed to have attempted to do, would have included something a little more poignant and revealing about his efforts to change the World, than two instances of disproving his involvement in helping to create the change you barely site at the end of your ‘clarification’ with a cop-out sentence of a real effort, by saying that… “Aaron’s reach was -huge-“, and that… “his loss -incalculable-“. Great, now tell us what that means to you… Next Time, and create an “Accurate Remembrance” that includes something he DID do. And (as if I know what I’m talking about), to accurately remember someone, please take a little more time to come up with something better than “huge” & “incalculable”. 
       Like I said though, the ‘clearification’ was necessary, but that’s all this was.
    And thank you for it. I had a great time being schooled on how uninvolved he really was (or may have been). I know you don’t have to say more about his death, but, in a Remembrance, you must go much, much further into his Life… peace.

  2. James, I have written extensively about the loss of Aaron, who I knew a bit. This is about the record of someone’s life being distorted. Also, BoingBoing as a whole has published and linked to a few dozen articles about his death and his memory.

  3. Another thing that should be set straight is the notion that he wanted to post a mirror of the JSTOR articles.

    First of all, he denied it was his intention.

    Second, if he was going to get into that battle, he would have picked a better target than JSTOR. 

    Third, Aaron Swartz had a talent for taking a large corpus of written work and distilling fresh insight from it (see his essay on Who Writes for Wikipedia). It’s far more believable that he had some hypothesis to test on the JSTOR corpus, not to mention that this is what he said all along. It also explains why he got so obsessive on getting those articles. 

  4. Thanks for this and all your recent writings about Aaron, Glenn. I’ve been kinda surprised that Rael hasn’t posted a remembrance (at least, that I’ve seen; maybe he’s done something on Twitter) of the RSS-DEV Working Group days.

    FWIW, it appears that Ortiz has rebooted her attempt at image rehab. Essentially, she was just doing her job. Well, at least her hubby’s not the sharp point of the spear for this one. WSJ has her statement; Ars has some reaction.

  5. I was also one of the people (HP Labs, Bristol) working on RSS 1.0   Although web syndication was clearly a hot ticket, and probably the reason why Aaron came to the party, it pretty soon turned instead into the RDF poster child application.  _This_ was why all the smart kids became interested in RSS, as this was how we were explaining the beginnings of SemWeb to the rest of the world. This is why the RDF basis of RSS 1.0 was both so significant to RDF, and so potentially powerful for RSS.

    Aaron rapidly gained huge respect from everyone involved – and this was already a pretty smart group of people, most of us jaded from years of working in Dilbert cartoons to pay our bills. It was a joy to hack it around with someone who just wanted to build the best, smartest and shiniest piece of tech we could, unhindered by investor value or a suit upstairs. Truly a beautiful mind.

    1. Andy, thanks so much for this comment. I have spent days explaining to people that while Aaron didn’t invent or co-invent “RSS,” that the group effort behind RSS 1.0 and his work in particular were invaluable parts of the evolution of the Semantic Web. I think the concept is too much in the information science realm to be as easily explained as plain old RSS.

      I want Aaron’s patrimony to be remembered accurately as well as forever. RSS 0.9x/2.0 had a lot of drama associated with it, and has also been invaluable to the evolution of information distribution. But it’s a whole different thing.

  6. Thanks, Glenn, for this clarification. We have to support young geniuses like Aaron and let them know we can help. That his case ever got as far as it did is a tragedy. Let’s do what we can to keep it from happening again!

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