My wife just sent me this article on Le Monde about the legacy of Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz was found dead in early 2013 after committing suicide. I felt a shock when I heard the news, facing the unfair disparition of a brilliant mind and a proactive activist of the web’s underworlds.
I met Aaron Swartz once, in October 2007, to interview him. He looked very young at the time. We met at a Ground Coffee on Mission street and talked about one of his startup products, Jottit.
Aaron Swartz is one of the rare bunch on earth that made me feel small when I met them. It wasn’t about arrogance. He was barely 21, and let aside everything that he already had accomplished, it was his intellectual ease that left me unarmed. But you could also sense fear in his eyes. Aaron talked openly with me but I noticed that he kept having those suspicious looks sometimes, like “who’s this guy? what does he really want from me?” A little paranoia, but the good one, the one that keeps you alert. Despite lots of media coverage on the person since he passed away, I rarely read about the fact that he seemed to be often ill and forced to stay at home, with difficult moods to overcome (I used to read his blog). Thus he had a very hard personal struggle, and his struggle for the freedom of speech on the web may be correlated with his medical condition and his fight against it.
It’s going widely unnoticed that he also wrote amazing, web-formatted stories on his blog, and if you want to know more about the character, I recommend you start reading that.
This article has nothing new to say. It’s just a short trip down memory lane, to remember Aaron Swartz. It’s a weird way to put it, but Aaron Swartz is the Kurt Cobain of the internet: Both got caught up knee-deep in the mud they thought they were standing against, and preferred to depart to stop the madness. His death has a strong meaning, and it’s our duty to carry on his legacy.
I would define the peak of the web 2.0 from early 2000’s – blooming of the blogosphere and the first Friendster-like social networks – to 2008 – up until the iPhone broke in. In 2007, the debate was Facebook vs Myspace, the private (Facebook was walled down then) vs the public approach. While 10 years later it became cristal-clear who won the match, it’s still a good thing to look back and analyze what happened.
Historically, you could say that Myspace opened up the door for Facebook to explode. Myspace made social networks international, vibrant, and a great marketing tool for engaged online communities. The myspace.com/… URL was the first among its peers to walk in the world of traditional ads. Myspace was everything that Facebook became, without the cutting-edge technology. Both companies got financial traction through private investments, but Facebook had the right business ties, and its leader maintained a straight-forward vision that kept the boat afloat. Myspace got unsavvy Murdoch money and our friend Tom did not show clear signs of business leadership, which led to market failure.
That brings me to the topic of leadership in social-oriented technologies. On one end, we had Tom, founder of Myspace :
When you created your account on Myspace, Tom was automatically assigned as your first friend. And everybody was keeping him as a friend, which obviously made him the most popular guy on the site. On Facebook, you were invited to 1.Use your real name, and 2. Connect only with people you know (so no Mark was assigned as your first friend). Tom was some sort of democratic president, not elected by vote, but accepted, legitimized by his popularity.
When you think about it, Tom is the kind of leader we say we want : a like-us, close-to-us person that we can have a beer with, and a leader that doesn’t value business over its network’s social values. Exactly the opposite of the leader of Facebook. Tom failed. And Facebook, with its autocratic approach to social development, became a Big 3. What does that tell us about managing (online) communities ?