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Is Aaron Swartz the Paris Hilton of Web 2.0?
48 points by qwertyy on Nov 15, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 103 comments
Is he "famous" for no reason? He speaks at web 2.0 conferences, there are stories about him on news.yc all the time... (Yes, I'm using the word "famous" liberally.) Why? What has he done exactly?

Here's what I've got. Feel free to add more. He:

a) worked on rss 1.0 when he was 13. woopty-doo

b) there was the Infogami - Reddit merger, which made the AOL - Time Warner merger look like a genius move for Time Warner in comparison. it is often said that aaron added no value after the merger, while taking a huge chunk of reddit's stock in the process. There's a lot more to this story, but I won't go into the details.

c) started a half-dozen half-baked startups. (I'm using the word "startup" liberally here).

d) has a blog

What am I missing? Can we stop up-voting every story that even mentions the guy now?

Guys, I'll tell you the same thing that I tell to people who attack Paris Hilton: lay off. If I see Steve or Alexis make a post like this, which I haven't, then I'll pay attention. For everyone else, what the hell did he ever do to you? He's contributed an impressive portfolio to the open-source community before even turning 18 -- bested, off the top of my head, only by Blake Ross and Marcello Tossatti -- and if he's created six half-baked startups, then he's done three times as much baking as the vast majority of the people reading this thread.

Anyone who enjoys a moderate amount of success combined with publicity, accolades or seeming "legions" of followers / blog commenters, inevitably becomes the victim of personal attacks.

Having an abrasive (see Calacanis), or egotistical, or whatever your bit may be, can be an effective way of gaining more readers and attracting a following.

The opposite would be waffling, and we'd all be talking about how Aaron doesn't seem sure of himself and waffles on issues he talks about.

So you're screwed either way, really.

But the 'startups' that get posted here from him are lame IMHO An on line book library catalogue thing? A text based wiki thing? I mean come on. Credit where credit's due, and it's certainly not due IMHO.

Almost all startups are lame when they're first created. Most people wait until they're somewhat less lame before releasing them, but Aaron seems to like doing everything in public. At least he's putting things out there, which is more than can be said for most people on this board (myself included).

I just wish he'd grow some balls and actually finish a project instead of giving up and moving on to the next thing. Successful startups that start out sucky keep on improving even though everyone says they suck. Aaron seems to move on to the next great idea in hopes that it'll suck less, and it inevitably doesn't.

>I just wish he'd grow some balls and actually finish a project

It has nothing whatsoever to do with cajones! This is a common trait of inventive individuals - they have so many great ideas that it's hard to keep on one track. What Aaron needs to find is his more conservative counterpart to wrangle his concepts into full-fledged businesses when he grows bored and moves on.

I think it does have to do with courage. The reason inventive individuals have trouble keeping on one track is that they're afraid one of their other ideas is better, or that they'll otherwise miss out on some other opportunity elsewhere. The courage comes in saying "Damn it, I don't care what else is out there, I'm going to pick this one project, take it down the rabbit hole, and see where I come out, regardless of what else is out there."

I say this as someone very much like Aaron, with a long trail of half-finished projects and a couple that I actually saw through long enough to bring to fruition.

It's fair to criticize an idea you don't like, but nastier to attack the person. Think of what you might say to his face, that's what's appropriate to post.

Point taken. Perhaps all the 'publicity' is actually unwanted. Perhaps he doesn't consider himself to be 'all that'.

Maybe he does, but do we really need to discuss it?

Do we really need to blindly upvote any article that mentions him? ;) ok enough...

You can't tell yet. A lot of good startups sound that lame when they first launch.

If I had heard the idea for reddit I would have shrugged and said "done already". In 94 or 95 I would have told Sergey, Larry, or Jerry Yang they could have great jobs at Lockheed Martin or Motorola with their resumes, quit that hobby web crap and get serious. And that was when I was in my 20's! So I would agree here.

Sure. Re-reading my comment it does sound a bit harsh, and I agree - the idea doesn't have to be earth changing to be wildly successful. I guess we'll see in time what becomes of his startups.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

I think if you're going to say something like this, you should sign it with your real name. Whatever his flaws, Swartz wouldn't sink to what you've done: if he was going to criticize someone he wouldn't do it anonymously.

I'm not sure which is worse-- criticizing Swartz anonymously as qwertyy has done, or criticizing everyone else in a public, self-centered, and conceited way as Swartz has done.

I don't think his projects are bad or anything, but his writing just drips of egotism that makes him a great target for attack.

I can't remember him attacking a lot of people by name.

As for the dripping with egotism bit, that is an interesting problem. I probably would have sounded like that too at his age, but back in the pre-Web era there was no way for anyone to read what most 20 year olds wrote. Now that people can start publishing so much younger, we'll have to learn to be more tolerant of various flaws of youth.

"As for the dripping with egotism bit, that is an interesting problem."

Maybe he needs someone with more life experience who is experienced at writing for the web to advise him on how not to "drip" his egotism quite so much while still communicating his point. Maybe even someone with a past business relationship with Aaron who he might respect.

Not to name names or anything. :)

Wow. It's very interesting to suggest that egotism is a "flaw" of youth. I think it tends to come hand-in-hand with intelligence/genius, too, so is egotism also a flaw of being intelligent? Swartz meets both criteria, so maybe that's why he's a hyper-egotist.

I wonder what Swartz will be like when he's 40.

Philip Greenspun 2.0

He will have to become a master of dry wit. Greenspun kills me with the bland hilarity.

why do people call him egotistical? is it because they are offended by his intelligent and well-rehearsed writings?

this is like the movie idiocracy where luke wilson gets called "faggy" because he has a command of the english language.

i think pg defends him so (puts him into yc, puts him in reddit etc..) because aaron has a good balance of intelligence and doing things well. he's a good weapon for anything intellectual.

"With this amount of noise in the signal, it's hard to tell good hackers when you meet them. I can't tell, even now. You also can't tell from their resumes. It seems like the only way to judge a hacker is to work with him on something."

(From http://www.paulgraham.com/gh.html)

I wonder what the reddit guys think of aaronsw.

Good question. Come to LA in a couple weeks, let them get sauced and we'll find out!



Submitted for evidence.

I thought that one was pretty tame.

"And what did he talk about? A screwup by a restaurant he went to. And how the host worked hard, overhard even, to pacify him about it."


"Cooling out marks is how institutions persuade people to accept things they think are wrong. The con-man convinces you getting stolen from is OK. Your job convinces you it's OK that they're corrupt. The restaurant persuades you it's OK that they're incompetent."

So, if someone at a restaurant makes some kind of mistake, and the host works hard to make it right, it is important to not forgive them and go on holding a grudge, because that would just make you "the mark". I think that's the moral he's putting forth here.

And furthermore, you should hold the same kind of grudges against inanimate entities, like "the economy".

"Did the economy cheat you, fire you, stick you in some crappy job with a crabby boss? Listen, the motivational speaker explains, it's not the economy's fault."

So, remember, the Economy is out to get you! I don't even know what this means. Corporate CEOs, sure. Congress and the President, sure. Illegal immigrants, I suppose you could argue a case there if you really wanted to. But anthropomorphizing the economy seems a little off, to me.

Obviously, Aaron is a guy with high intelligence and substantial skill. He played a part in a successful company at a very early age, has contributed some highly praised source code to the open source community, and is still ambitious, idealistic and involved in a lot of things. But reading his blog makes me think he's also a little wacky.

But, as pg pointed out, thank God I didn't have a blog that the entire world could read when I was in my early 20s!

For the sake of balance, I thought this was really good:


How to write software that people want is something Aaron knows about and he expresses himself well on that topic.

Or they will have to get used to people ripping them down (sometimes for valid reasons, although in a childish way).

Let's look at it from the perspective of the target in both cases:

a) Somebody anonymously and publicly calls you names in plausible-seeming ways that others will read.

b) Somebody publicly claims to be better than everybody, including you the reader. Everybody reads him.

It's pretty clear that a is more damaging. Even if it goes out to fewer people. It is fallacious to reason that it's not so bad because it is hurting one person rather than many. On the one hand generality dilutes criticism. On the other the effects of libel can be greatly non-linear in who reads them, and when.

What is the significance of signing off with his real name? Anonymous criticism happens on the internet, and since this is a self linked comment, anyone can respond directly.

If his criticism is wrong, let it fail on its own merit. I love your essays Paul, but this seems like a "Support the Troops" style deflection.

I agree. This is one of the reasons that I use my real name and link to my site in my profile. I own my comments.

Perhaps you could publish qwertyy's IP address.


Why? So people can randomly ping him? So internet detectives can hunt him down and lynch him? He has the right to say what he wants to and be it anonymous or not. So now that he's said it, be the bigger person and just move on.

I don't want people to go out and lynch him, but this is not a case where anonymity is important. If that person is willing to post a question like this, they should at least be willing to be identified.


Don't you think the person should have the right to remain anonymous, regardless of your opinion whether he/she should be?

I realize that online anonymity is an important issue for many people, but I don't believe that it's a fundamental right. Forums like this one are public and I think that anonymity is a mistake because it allows trolling and a general falling away of normal behaviours that would be present if people were identified.

Now, I'm not saying that people don't have a right to privacy. You'll note that I don't talk about private issues on my blog (such as my family) and I think those are irrelevant to my interaction in a forum like this. But I'm much happier when people identify themselves so that I can follow them over time.

There are good arguments for being able to be anonymous on the net (for example in the case of human rights abuses in countries it may be useful to be able to transmit information anonymously; or if we implement voting on the net). I don't think those arguments apply in a public discussion forum like this.

Of course, I'm probably an outlier on this, I'd expect a group of engineers to be fairly pro-anonymity.


This is an interesting debate. I do believe that anonymity, especially in a public forum like this, should be a fundamental right on the internet. I know this can cause problems with "trolling" and abuse of the system, but in a community this small, that seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

I've noticed that a surprising number of people live two lives-- one on the internet and one in person. I can respect a decision to live like that, even if the behaviors differ between the online and offline lives, even if the two lives are separate. Now, I don't exactly condone this behavior, but I think anyone should have the right to do it. Forcing everyone to forgo anonymity prevents some people from doing that, because it fuses the online and offline lives.

The guy in question neither has a good image or a bad image in my mind, so the post didn't hurt or help him one way or another in my eyes. I'm not much on cults of personality.

But I can certainly understand where somebody has a public image that can be damaged by some random poster, so I'm with pg to some extent. I think a better question would be about this whole hero worship idea in general. Guys like Woz are great hackers, no doubt about it. But are they really worth the elevated platform many of us put them on? I don't think so. I don't read pg essays because hey, it's another pg essay! I read some of them because they were helpful.

So I can understand the frustration many people feel when it looks like they are being sold on reading blog material simply because of the hype surrounding somebody's name. Quite frankly, I find that useless to me personally. So make the comment about _that_, and not some particular person.

The interesting undercurrent in this discussion is that the technical world is very much a reputation, name-dropping, hero worship kind of place. As much as we all understand the importance of finding and servicing users in our startups, let's be honest: teams are going to get rewarded by both the investment community and the marketplace based on PR factors. That makes an attack like this one even worse, cause it hits somebody right in the pocketbook.

Clearly, you're an outlier. Most people here wouldn't presume to waste everyone's time and screen space with "John" at the end of every comment.

Despite the tone of your message you are the first person to actually give me a good reason not to sign my messages. Here and on Reddit people have objected to me signing my messages (which is odd because for _years_ I signed like that on /. without a peep) without any real justification.

Your argument that I'm wasting vertical space makes a lot of sense, especially given the clean look of reddit/news.yc compared with /.

From now on I'll stop signing.

What annoys me is not the wasted space, though. It's the principle of it. You're imparting information in the readers of your comments that has no other purpose than to serve your ego. When I read a comment, I only look at who wrote it when the comment is something special. But you force me to know that John wrote it. Why? Do you think you deserve a special place in my (and everyone else's) mind?

But that would be fine, if you didn't try to pass off your personality defect as an ideology for everyone to follow, as you did in this thread. That was what sent me over the edge.

There's a distinction between me signing messages and me not being anonymous. My lack of anonymity is guaranteed by the user name I chose plus the fact that my profile links back to my personal web site.

Signing messages was unrelated to anonymity, it's a years old habit that I started on Usenet and continued in online forums like this one. I don't claim that signing messages is part of the ideology I was talking about above. If I did I wouldn't have stopped.

It amuses me that you choose to describe it as a 'personality defect' from behind an anonymous account here. If we were standing face to face would you describe me signing messages in that way?

No, I probably wouldn't, and our discourse would be poorer for it. Anonymity guarantees honesty and impartiality. Face to face, why would I want to make an enemy out of you, when I could make a useful acquaintance? It's not like I get paid for pointing out the truth.

>but this is not a case where anonymity is important.

How do you figure? There are enough people who like Swartz and have pull in the Web 2.0 world that a post like this could really hurt your career.

Personally, I think it would have been better if had been done in a less vicious way and not done it anonymously, or just not posted it on the internet, but now that it's done I think he(?) has very valid reasons for wanting to stay anonymous.

I agree so this person hides behind anonymity so that he can throw out an insult. He could have posed his question in a much less aggressive manner and have posted non-anonymously.

And I don't agree that a post like that could really hurt your career. It's nonsense to think that being an asshole is going to ruin your career. There are plenty of total dicks out there (not saying that the original poster is one) who are successful. What matters is not that you are Web 2.0 and buddy-buddy with someone who's got a high profile blog, what matters is that you make a decent product.


At least he continually puts himself out there to be judged. He's managed to get noticed and people actually care what he's up to. That's a heck of a lot more than most people. I think it's totally fair to critique his public work, but there's no reason to get mean about it. Let he who is without personal faults cast the first stone.

I don't know where qwertyy's bitterness is coming from. Criticising his body of work is fair enough but to tear him down personally like this, in a forum like this, is uncalled for.

Do you realize that all of what you said applies to Paris Hilton, too?

In 50 years, she'll be bigger than Mother Theresa

Have you read the book he is writing? It's much better than most of the crap I read on blogs these days (most of which constitute things like your comparison here: is X like Y? here's why blah blah)

Most of the books he recommends are really good (I just bought "Punished by rewards" after finding it through his site. It's a great book.)

So he doesn't finish his projects and does some drama. So what? His projects are almost always decent (I enjoyed reddit, have played around with web.py, have used books.theinfo.org several times and liked the first few chapters of his novel), sometimes noble (the site giving advice to school kids) and quite often useful.

Get a life and lay off him. The real reason you are doing this is because he got rich of Reddit while still a teenager and you think he didn't deserve it. So what? That's life for you and he's still an o.k. guy.

If you like Punished by Rewards, then I'd recommend No Contest. I loved Punished by Rewards, but I think No Contest is actually more insightful. And certainly better written.

Thanks for the recommendation. Just added it to my wish list.

Most web stars from the codinghorror guy to joel are not actually better than many others in the field technically, it's more a matter of ability to write things with a strong style and the ability to analyze facts to express an original point of view. Many other hackers may just don't have the time or the inclination to write. About Aaron specifically it is a clear creature of the "PG effect", a lot like reddit itself.

Personally I've never been a big fan of Aaron and wasn't impressed by all the hype around him 'co-authoring' RSS. But I have to saw my opinion of him changed after playing around with web.py

Although I dropped web.py for Pylons for new project I really like the idea behind web.py and applaud him for starting and continuing to oversee this project (though a bunch of new work is being done by other great hackers like Anand).

Why did you switch to Pylons? Would you now recommend it over web.py? I'm still on a quest to find the best Python framework for myself.

I also switched from web.py to Pylons. Long-term, I think you're better off with it; it's much more mature and won't choke on things like deployment, or internationalization, or multiple database servers.

But if you're new to Python web frameworks, I'd start with web.py and write a few apps with that. It's much simpler to get into, and you'll understand how things work a bit better.

I _also_ switched from web.py to Pylons. One of the biggest reasons was a horrible security gaffe that Aaron made -- he recommended doing sessions by pickling the data and directly storing it in a cookie, which is a perfect candidate for exploitation. If he could recommend that on the web.py mailing list, I don't want to use any other software that he could have made security mistakes in.

Aside from that, Pylons is just a better design. Routes, Mako, and SQLAlchemy are an incredibly powerful toolset, without being overcomplicated.

Well, I like the simple approach to web development that web.py offers and the fact that you get to essentially lay out your own directory structure and pretty much create your own framework. But what really attracted me to Pylons is the interactive web based debugger. If you haven't seen it yet you need to give it a try. In "development" mode it will give you a page with the actual traceback and you can interactive inspect the stack, check the value of variables or just run arbitrary python, all over the web. Makes debugging a lot easier.

web.py -- is good. I am using it, even thou i am replacing it's parts bit by bit with my own implementation, it is a good start for a very basic python framework (then you can grown your own out if it).

That it is still pretty good for a young guy. He probably has work/startup ADD. Starting lots of things, but never finishing anything up. Maybe lack of discpline, b/c of lack of work ethics guidance when he was a kid?

Other than that boh... Now qweartyy, why so jelous of him?

I suffer from work ADD, so I can relate.

He can't be -- Robert Scoble is the Paris Hilton of Web 2.0.

Maybe he can be the ESR of Web 2.0 then?

Yeah. Aaron has a lot more homemade videos to make before he catches up with those two.

Couldn't you say the same sort of things about almost anyone? What have Larry and Sergei done that's so great? They figured out a way to compare web pages. Big deal. Well, yes, it is a big deal. What did Richard Feynman ever do that was so great? He wrote some stuff. What had Donald Knuth done by the time he was 23?

I like Aaron Schwartz. He's smart and original and he writes well.

I would not, however, pay him $200,000 to show up at my party.

Come on, give Aaron his due. He's had an impressive career to date, for such a young chap. He's a smart kid, hopefully, he has a shell to protect against such silly demeaning posts like this...

Lots of startups end up going nowhere, it takes more than brains and ingenuity, a bit of luck and fortunate timing also comes into play...

Still, Aaron has had a heck of career already -- hell, I didn't even graduate from college until I was 23 (of course at that time, the PC was just a toy, and most Americans did own one, and programmers mostly worked on 24x80 green screen terminals in that day...), yet he reached the pinnacle for a programmer...

Like Paris Hilton, Aaron does seem to spawn lots of useless, uninteresting discussion in other people. That probably is less his fault and more the fault of people like qwertyy.

""famous" for no reason?"

just a side note for fun

Paris Hilton is a marketing genius ...

her stake in the Hilton hotels is worth just under 30mil in total

she makes over 20mil annually just by selling her own products, and using her name

she is not the only rich girl out there, but she def is the most successful one no matter how much you like her or hate her

and she does have a huge target market and does a great job at satisfying them

also: it won't be hard for you to prove pg is wrong, just sign your name and leave a link to yourself on your profile... but I wonder if you'll do that?

I don't think you guys get it: qwertyy IS Aaron Swartz!

Who is Aaron Schwartz?

Really I don't know. But now I guess I have to look around and find out. Thanks for letting me know that I should know something about this celebrity, lest I come off like a bumpkin.

Actually screw it. I am lazy and not interested in this. So I will just be a bumpkin who doesn't know. Besides I am 40 and thus will never run with the celebrity crowd in any case. Yawn...

You can read about who he is on his site: aaronsw.com

What's in it for me? I am interested in technology and opportunity. Personalities of the digital culture kind of bore me. It sounds like a waste of time.

And what have you done qwertyy? Aaron has managed to start many companies and wrote software that others use. He hasn't started the next Google and he hasn't written the next awesome Python API, but why fault him for that? He is trying, and by most measures, he is very successful.

Your points:

a - That's pretty impressive, at 13 what were you doing, and the rest of us?

b - I don't know the specifics of the merger, but that happens all the time, and good for him.

c - He is a good starter and most people go through many startups before they hit it big.

d - That many people seem to like.

This whole comment has nothing to do with hacker news or startups. I'm surprised it got past PG and I can't believe how many people actually commented on something that isn't worth commenting on. Thanks for wasting my time.

pg, can we get one down arrow per month?

I'm inclined to wonder if 18 real users voted this up, or if qwertyy created a bunch more sockpuppet accounts.

I'd be inclined to think that people vote it up not because they agree, but because they enjoy the drama. Or they made a smashing good comment and want people to see it.

Somewhere an irony detector explodes from massive overload.

But pg got famous after eating breakfast!

That's really unfair. The whole thing about Paris Hilton is that she's famous for no good reason. Aaron Swartz, on the other hand is an _incredibly_ productive guy - he's been running several great free software projects, is developing the open library, writes in his blog and lately in print too. I sometimes wonder whether he sleeps at all.

You're just being nasty, and doing it anonymously ... really.

>Can we stop up-voting every story that even mentions the guy now?

Like this one?

"... Is he "famous" for no reason? ..."

I wouldn't say famous which is such a "media cliche". More recognised for his contributions. There's the

- rss spec http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/start.html?pg=5/

- rdf spec - http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/w3c-rdfcore-wg/2001Apr/0...

- webpy python web framework http://webpy.org/

- writing http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/productivity

Maybe the biggest thing Aaron may have to offer is speaking out - a trait that seems to be devoid in his generation ~ http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/shifting1 As much as he might an annoying "shirt" to some, you cannot take credit away from the technical work he's done at such a young age.

If you think he is so bad, why not take it as a life lesson: if he can do it, you can do it, too! Once again, the difference is in the doing or not doing. I for one liked his writing, but apart from that, it seems many famous people are not that great. It just goes to show that by putting yourself out there, you can still win.

Sounds to me like sour grapes at another's success on the web?

PG, The more important thing that should worry you is, "Do you have cabal/clique detection and elimination built into Hacker News" - that's what basically ruined reddit.

If he's Paris Hilton, you're another Star Magazine. You're only contributing to his fame. I only point this out because you seem to have a problem with him.

qwertyy: Did you create a new profile just to post this? Gosh, get a life dude!

Well I think that he has a lot of interesting things to say and that he can hack like a man. What else do you want?

leave the guy alone!

please do a video about Aaron Swartz in the style of "leave Britney alone!!!!".

After watching said video, I must say I second this demand.

Some of his writing is good, though. I get something out of some of his essays.

Yeah, a lot of his writing is worthwhile and/or interesting. The six chapters of novel he wrote were worthless, though.

He announced it as an experiment and never claimed to be the new Shakespeare. Where is the problem? Experimenting with writing is what blogging is about, among other things.

Ok, "worthless" is a bit harsh and failed the "would I say it to Aaron's face" standard. His 6/30ths of a novel was an interesting experiment.

You have to admit he's a pretty awesome writer and is quite intelligent. That combo is enough for people to respect you.

Last time I checked Paris Hilton didn't exactly fit in this category.

sounds like you've got a crush!

This is why I'd want a down-vote on submissions.

qwertyy - put your rubbish up on http://www.iheartrant.com/ - there you can write anything you want and get it out of your system.

qwertyy: news.yc is as good as you are. If there's stuff that you want to see, post it. If you don't, just STFU or get down with Greasemonkey to edit out whatever you don't want to see.

Is quertyy the Paris Hilton of Trolling 2.0?

If so, this thread is the sex tape.

Don't lay into qwertyy for laying into Aaron. For a start Aaron's a public figure and qwertyy's not.

> For a start Aaron's a public figure and qwertyy's not.

qwertyy's a throwaway pseudonym with one post to his name. If he gets publicly humiliated, he can simply create a new account, and nobody's the wiser.

I think he's funny.


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