Like everyone else in the part of the web that I exist in, I've been reading lots of stuff about Aaron Swartz over the last few days. The stuff written by professional reporters are mostly vain attempts to explain something they don't understand. Even the ones who have been covering tech for a long time miss what's important. Imho.
I read one piece, written by Aaron himself and published in Fast Company yesterday, that really nailed it, about who he was. It was in the form of an email he had written to Ronald Lemos of Creative Commons Brazil, explaining, among other things, his involvement with RSS.
He said he had been writing web apps, after visiting Philip Greenspun's web class at MIT, and trying to make reading news sites more automatic. Sounds about right. That's the frustration I was dealing with too, but I didn't know Aaron at the time. He says that then, when the RSS 1.0 effort became visible, he immediately wanted to be involved. That's when our paths crossed for the first time. You can read all about it in the archive of the RSS-DEV mail list on Yahoo Groups. Here's the first message Aaron posted. It was the second message of the group.
To the extent that I participated, it was to express my dismay that this format was incompatible with what we were using. I didn't think they should call it RSS, because that would add confusion. Of course that's ancient history. But people have asked why they don't see my name on that spec. That's why.
"When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don't think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn't more talented. And I definitely can't claim I was a harder worker -- I've never worked particularly hard, I've always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious -- but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you'll get in trouble. Very few people's curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity."
After spending a lot of time in the last few days reading about his intellectual explorations, I'd agree. He nailed it. That is what made him unique. And that's of course a great thing. The world would be a better place if more people were driven by curiosity. Too many people accept things as they are. Aaron wanted to know why things worked the way they did, and wanted to see if there were other ways that might work better.
Amen and right on Aaron, who now belongs to eternity. We'll try our best down here on earth to remain curious and keep following where it leads.