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Monday, May 7, 2007

A Chat with Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, now in his early twenties, rose to internet fame as technology whiz kid a couple of years ago, working on such things as W3C standards or the Creative Commons. He was also blogger behind the very successful Google Weblog. Via instant messenger, I interviewed him on Reddit, activism, Google and more.

 

Can I ask you what you’re up to these days? Are you working for Reddit as full-time programmer?

No, I left reddit several months ago.

Why did you leave?

My boss asked me to.

Can you explain what happened?

For Christmas, I went with some friends to Europe. Towards the tail end of the trip I caught a cold and holed up in my old apartment in Boston for a week. I headed back to San Francisco over the weekend and when I came in Monday morning I was asked to leave. I spent a little while trying to figure out what had gone on, but without too much success. Eventually, I decided that I should just accept this as an opportunity. And not look a gift horse in the mouth too hard.

How long had you been with the Reddit team and what did you do there?

I was with the Reddit team back when we were coming up with the idea, in the months before the first Y Combinator Summer Founders Program started. We eventually began working together full time around that November and started a port of the site from Lisp to Python shortly after that.

There were three founders – me, Steve, and Alexis. Steve and I did the programming and Alexis handled promotion and customer service and office management and business development and the myriad of other tasks that came up. Christopher Slowe also worked with us part-time as he finished up his physics Ph.D at Harvard.

It was an exciting time, but working at an office job was quite different.

In what environment did you work before that?

Before Y Combinator, I was a student at Stanford. Then I worked at Reddit for a while – the four of us packed into a small 3-bedroom apartment in Somerville, MA (I slept in the cupboard). Then we got bought by Condé Nast (the publishers of Wired, Elle, The New Yorker, Details, GQ, etc.) and they moved us out to San Francisco to work at the Wired offices and then they fired me. On the plus side, I did get this nifty shirt.

Oh my. If you had to take a guess though, why do you think they let you go? Incompatibility with an office environment?

Yeah. I was unhappy working in an office and didn’t hide it. So I’d come in late and set up lots of off-site meetings and stuff. And my boss wasn’t really thrilled about that.

Also, I think he was upset about me disappearing for so long on vacation. One of the places I went to in Europe was the Chaos Computer Conference. And while I was there I hung out with my friend Quinn Norton, who was reporting on the event for Wired. She took my photo for one of her articles and it was featured on wired.com’s front page. “Heh,” I joked. “I bet the first time my boss finds out where I am is when he sees my photo on the front page of his own website.”

Heh. That was in Berlin?

Yes. But the best punch line was that Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, later wrote on his blog that he didn’t find out when it was on the front-page of his website – he found out when I posted that fact to my blog!

Lawrence Lessig and Creative Commons

In Berlin, did you meet Lawrence Lessig? I’m sure you met him before...

I’ve worked with Lessig for years; I was one of the original people working with him on Creative Commons. But, yes, I did go visit him while I was in Berlin.


Creative Commons’ Lawrence Lessig with Aaron, some years ago.

You worked on the technical side of the Creative Commons, like the metaformat for websites right?

Yes, I think my official title was “metadata advisor.” I was in charge of designing their metadata format for describing the licenses. And naturally, since it was a small team back then, I helped out with a bunch of other stuff.

How did you get to be involved with the Creative Commons originally? Did Lawrence call you up? Did you hang out on conferences...?

I think they may have known me from hanging out at conferences, but initially I saw a story in a San Francisco paper about it. I later found out the story wasn’t actually supposed to come out until after the launch, but this one came out right as the group was starting. I saw it and sent Lessig an email noting that in the article he said he wanted to have machine-readable licenses. So I emailed him and said “I’ve been working on this machine-readable stuff with the W3C called RDF, and you should use it for reasons X, Y, and Z.” And he wrote back and said “Sounds good. Why don’t you do that for us?”

On misogyny

“If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them.”

Back then you must have been the youngest W3C evangelist. Is that a good or bad thing?

I enjoyed it. People at W3C meetings and other conferences didn’t give me much trouble about my age.

It’s typical for the hacker spirit, right. Who cares about age and looks, as long as you’re smart!

I’d like to think that’s the case, but seeing how the tech community mistreats women and people of other races, I can’t endorse that wholeheartedly.

Can you give some examples of misogyny or racism?

If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.

I really noticed this when I was at foo camp once, Tim O’Reilly’s exclusive gathering for the elite of the tech community. The executive guys there, when they thought nobody else was around, talked about how they always held important business meetings at strip clubs and the deficiencies of programmers from various countries.

Meanwhile, foo camp itself had a session on discrimination in which it was explained to us that the real problem was not racism or sexism, but simply the fact that people like to hang out with others who are like themselves.

The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. And I should be clear, it’s not that there are just some bad people out there who are being prejudiced and offensive. Many of these people that I’m thinking of are some of my best friends in the community. It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.

The last barcamp I was at, in Nuremberg, had a men/ women ratio of about 80/ 2. It was quite sad, and I was wondering what the cause of this was. Is it partly also a problem of the hacker culture, to behave anti-social, and that this puts off more social people? Many good programmers I know, for instance, aren’t too social.

I think that’s probably part of it; many people don’t have the social skills to notice how offensive they’re being. But even the people who are quite social and competent misbehave and, furthermore, they support a culture where this misbehavior is acceptable. I don’t exclude myself from this criticism.

So you think it’s partly also about creating a male-only business network?

I’m not sure it’s anything so intentional, but it definitely has that effect. If you look at the top levels of any industry, you find just incredible levels of misogyny.

For one example we have good data on, the FBI taped the executives of a major US agribusiness company, ADM. And so we have, on tape, some of the incredibly offensive things these guys said. There’s no reason to believe other firms are any different.

What do you tell someone who says, “women simply aren’t as nerdy as men, on average... that’s why they’re underrepresented in the rather nerdy tech industry"?

I think this is a big way people justify the discrimination to themselves. It’s always easier for people to blame the victim. But the fact is, we have evidence of discrimination and we have no evidence of differing aptitudes for nerdiness. Indeed, psychologists like Carol Dweck have done experiments that have found that girls’ scores in things like math can easily be raised by teaching teachers to be less discriminatory.

In Germany, there’s something called “Girls’ Day,” a chance for female students to get a sneak peak into a tech job. Do you have similar programs in the US?

There are things like Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and a few small nonprofits trying to get women into science, but I haven’t heard anything quite like that.

You also mentioned racism in the tech industry. Can you explain?

I have less data on the racism, but I’ve certainly heard prominent tech people make racist comments and the paucity of different races at tech conferences is striking.

Current activities, Google Summer of Code

I wanted to briefly go back to the Creative Commons. Are you still following the developments? I was surprised they removed the RDF stuff in version 3, apparently...

I’m still on some of the mailing lists, so I follow them a little. They moved to RDFa, a format that allows RDF to be embedded more directly in HTML. We were some of the pioneers for RDF-in-HTML and my coworker from the tech team, Ben Adida, was a big person behind the RDFa work, so it’s not surprising that they switched. Indeed, Ben from Creative Commons is the chair of the RDF in XHTML Task Force.

Are you actively involved in any current W3C initiatives, or any of the related initiatives, like... HTML5?

No, I’m pretty much out of the standards world these days.

So what are you up to these days? After having been fired...

I’m working on a bunch of open source projects, doing some writing, hanging out with my roommates. I’m going to be mentoring two Google Summer of Code projects soon. And I’ll be overseeing two more, as they’re for the project I started, web.py.

Can you briefly explain what the Google Summer of Code is, and what your role in it is?

The Google Summer of Code project is a way for Google to donate some money to so-called “open source” or free software development. Major free software projects apply with Google; Google accepts some of their applications and they recruit applications from college-age students who are looking for a summer programming job. The projects pick the best applications and then Google pays the students to work on the project for the summer.

Each student is paired with a mentor to oversee them on the project. So I helped decide which web.py applications would be accepted, organized mentors for them, and am mentoring two myself. I’m really excited about the projects; they’re going to be really fun.

What is web.py?

web.py is a free software web application library for Python. It makes it easier to develop web apps in Python by handling a lot of the Web-related stuff for you. Reddit was built using it, for example.

Google engineers use a lot of Python for smaller scripting purposes, I heard...

Yes, Python is used an enormous amount internally. Even some of their smaller web apps are written in Python, I believe.

What’s your relationship with Google? Have you ever worked at the Googleplex? Been invited? Applied...?

I’ve never worked for Google, but I’ve visited numerous times and have received many offers to work there. When I wrote a critical piece about Google, a lot of people claimed that it was sour grapes – that I had been turned down from working on Google. That’s certainly not the case.

Why did you decline Google job offers of the past?

Well, I didn’t want to work at Google when I was at Stanford, I thought I should finish school. I didn’t want to work there when I was at Reddit, working at a startup was much more exciting. And now? Well, post-IPO, Google isn’t the same exciting place that it once was. None of the people I’ve spoken to at Google seem to have jobs that strike me as particularly appealing. Interesting, certainly, but not something I can really see spending my 9 to 5 doing for long periods of time.

Chomsky, activism & Wikipedia

In your blog I read you also planned on writing a book. Are you writing it at the time? And what’s it about?

I’ve been working on a couple book ideas, but none of them are far along enough that I’m willing to talk about them publicly. I do have a long article attacking John Martin Fischer’s theory of moral responsibility, though, if anyone wants to publish it. :-)

Understand. Is the concept of your book related to the epiphany you’ve mentioned in your blog once... namely, of being introduced to writer Noam Chomsky’s work?

I am working on a book about that, but it’s a very long-term project.

Have you ever met Mr. Chomsky in person, actually?

Yes, briefly a couple times. Run into him around Cambridge, MA and stuff.

Did you feel any heat after blogging about Chomsky and Understanding Power? Other than an increased number of comments, I guess.

A lot of comments and emails, a couple small remarks in person, nothing too bad. I didn’t really say anything substantive, though.

But if I remember correctly, you once made a bet for you to pay anyone who actually disproves a statement made by Chomsky. Is that true? How did that work out?

That is true. I have not paid out the bet yet and have debunked a couple of submissions. Someone submitted like a hundred supposed falsehoods and I haven’t gotten a chance to debunk them all yet.

Would you consider yourself a political programmer? Or a programming activist? Or...?

I don’t really think of myself as much of programmer anymore. Maybe a recovering programmer.

Have you ever merged the two “interests"? Programming a political website, for instance – putting your skills to use for activism.

There are a couple of political tech projects I’ve been interested, but I think the most important work doesn’t involve technology.

What do you consider most important today?

I think we need to do a better job explaining the state of the world to people, which is mostly an old-fashioned research and writing project. There’s an enormous amount of curiosity these days about how things like the government and the media work and how, in the US, things have gone so wrong. But nobody is doing a very good job of providing the answers.

But there’s blogs, mainstream news TV, newspapers, news magazines... aren’t they supposed to help us understand the world?

Blogs, TV, newspapers, and magazines barely do a good job helping us understand the news of the day, let alone the larger issues of the world. TV, newspapers, and magazines are largely advertising driven; so stories that offend advertisers get killed. And blogs can be a little better, but it’s a difficult format for expressing big, new ideas and mostly people just read blogs about old ones.

“I’d much rather have a poorly-edited encyclopedia with good content than a well-edited encyclopedia with no content.”

Do you think Wikipedia provides a better understanding for the larger issues you mention? For instance the entry on the Arab/ Israeli conflict.

Wikipedia is definitely an improvement in many areas, but even it tends to reflect the bias of the mainstream media world that all its users are saturated in. I’ve often tried to add additional background to political Wikipedia pages, only to see it deleted. And I’m not exactly a novice Wikipedia user.

You’re a Wikipedia editor, right?

Yes. For a while I was in the top 1000; I don’t think that’s still the case.

In the top 1000 of users ranked by number of edits...?

Yes.

Is there a tool at Wikipedia to measure this?

Yeah, there’s a list.

What other involvement do you have with Wikipedia? You were once a candidate for the Wikimedia Foundation board, how did that work out?

I gained a fair amount of attention, but lost the election to Erik Möller, who had endorsed my candidacy. I haven’t really followed things at Wikipedia very closely since then.

As part of my candidacy, I did a study about who really writes the majority of Wikipedia content. I hope to polish that up and publish it as a journal article. I noted that people like Jimbo Wales and the other Wikipedia leaders claimed that a small, tight-knit, Gang of 500 wrote the vast majority of Wikipedia content. Jimbo claimed to have evidence this was the case – he’d done a study looking at who contributed edits to the site and found that most of them were contributed by a small number of users.

I was suspicious and instead counted the number of characters contributed. (An edit is every time you save a Wikipedia page; a character is each letter you add to an article.) I found that much of Wikipedia’s content was contributed by one-off anonymous users or otherwise users who had only made one or two edits. This didn’t win me any favors with the Gang of 500 who is largely in charge of Wikipedia bureaucracy. Some of them even refused to believe my results, suggesting I had fudged the numbers or made them up somehow. It definitely goes against their world view.

But it seems to make sense – there’s so many exotic special interests, it’s hard to believe the 500 Wikipedians are all experts in all of those special interests. I know about my little home town, for instance, but there’s more than 500 little towns in the world.

Right; I think it’s completely implausible to believe that 500 people wrote an entire encyclopedia by themselves. It makes much more sense to think that millions of people each wrote a little bit about what they know about. But I think the Gang of 500 doesn’t stand back and think about it much; instead they spend their time in the trenches, getting in debates and doing little edits, and the only other people they see are other members of the Gang.

But both parties have their important roles. Because I might be an expert in an exotic subject, but I’m not an expert in Wikipedia editing syntax... so maybe I mess up my edit, technically.

Sure. But I’d much rather have a poorly-edited encyclopedia with good content than a well-edited encyclopedia with no content.

On Google, and censorship

I wanted to go back to the topic of Google for a bit. Was your Google Weblog your first blog?

No.

What blogs were you writing before? And how did the Google Weblog come about?

I had been keeping a personal blog for a while and probably some others that aren’t coming to mind right now. I started the Google Weblog when I heard about Google Catalogs from a friend. I wanted to know what other Google features were out there that I was missing. But there didn’t seem to be any good place to find them. So I decided to start a blog myself and hope that people would email me when they found new Google features.

What year was that?

2002, according to this post.

To your knowledge, was that the first blog focusing exclusively on Google?

I think so. I looked for others before I started it.

It went popular really fast, right? I remember you were actually the top-ranked result for a Google search for the word “weblog” itself...

Yep. That lasted a shockingly long time.

One funny side-effect of that was that people who wanted to start blogging would google for weblog, see my site (“Google Weblog” just read to them like “Internet Weblog”) and hit the submit button and start writing their own blog posts! I got a lot of interesting emails that way.

People actually confused your blog with a blogging system? Wow. Did you ever consciously decide to stop focusing on the Google Weblog? Today, new posts are rare...

I never made a conscious decision but over time I just became busier with other things and submissions dropped off. It’s not the most rewarding job in the world, sifting through email about someone else’s web site and posting it.

So you just worked with news submissions, from the start?

Pretty much. At the very beginning I did some research on my own.

“Google’s hackers are a lot smarter than the Cisco people building the Great Firewall of China. Google’s skills are in building clever technology, not persuading foreign governments to be nicer to their citizens.”

Google grew up quite a bit in the meantime, do you agree?

Oh, indeed. That was way before the IPO.

Do you think the IPO had influence on the core company culture?

Oh, definitely.

In what ways?

The company has grown so fast and become so stratified that it’s lost a lot of the glamor and excitement of its early days. It’s become much more like a regular company now, instead of the special, magical place it once seemed.

Were you surprised when Google announced they enter China, with all the censorship compromises that brings?

Yes, I think it was quite disappointing. I wasn’t as surprised as many commentators, but I wasn’t very happy about it.

The old Google would have said “We don’t compromise on free speech” and started investing in software like Tor so that people in China could reach whatever web sites they pleased.

Now they’ve also added a self-censored Google Maps search, image search, books search and so on... and the censorship in some of these is very implicit (e.g. they don’t even add international publishers to the book search on Google.cn). What do you think is the right reaction from people to online censorship?

I think all censorship should be deplored. My position is that bits are not a bug – that we should create communications technologies that allow people to send whatever they like to each other. And when people put their thumbs on the scale and try to say what can and can’t be sent, we should fight back – both politically through protest and technologically through software like Tor. (Tor is a program that allows for completely anonymous Internet use, by routing your traffic through dozens of other machines.)

But most technology makers today seem to go a different route. They compromise, and they might defend this compromise by saying it will bring greater freedom in the long run. What do you say to this argument?

How is compromising supposed to bring greater freedom in the long run? That’s like saying “I’m going to beat you up now so that you don’t have to be hit as much in the long run.” The right answer is to stop beating people up.

I think Google’s official stance is that they do some mild beating, to join the group of aggressors, so that in the long run they have some political leverage to tell these aggressors, “OK, stop the beating now.” It would be interesting to see where we’d be if some of these engineers, some of them the smartest in the world, would be working on anti-censorship technology today.

Indeed. Google’s hackers are a lot smarter than the Cisco people building the Great Firewall of China. Google’s skills are in building clever technology, not persuading foreign governments to be nicer to their citizens. It’s absurd to say that the best thing for the people of China is to do the latter instead of the former.

Have you ever been exposed to censorship yourself?

Computers at my high school were censored for a while; I wrote a program to get around the censorship.

I think my site has also been blocked by some censoring software, although I don’t recall the details.

Growing up with computers

How big a role did computers play when you grew up? Were you always around computers at your school, for instance?

I was around computers from birth; we had one of the first Macs, which came out shortly before I was born, and my Dad ran a company that wrote computer operating systems. I don’t think I have any particular technical skills; I just got a really large head start.

Imagine the kids of today, in 10 years. At least in societies which have lots of computers around. When did you start programming? And which language?

I started programming in BASIC, like many people I know, when I was really young. I don’t remember the exact year. But I started writing big projects in Tcl in 1998 or so.

You were what, 12?

Yeah, 12 or 13.

What kind of projects were those?

My first big project was called theinfo.org; it was basically Wikipedia, except long before Wikipedia had launched. I wrote custom software for it, whereas Wikipedia launched using existing Wiki software. But I was in middle school at the time, so my site didn’t make it into the New York Times, while Wikipedia did.

What state is theinfo.org in now?

The server that ran it choked years ago and I never bothered to repair things.

Isn’t it the right time in your life now to start another “big” project? Are you working on anything of the sorts?

No comment. :-)

Making a living, and text link ads

How do you make a living these days?

I made enough money off of the Reddit sale to live on.

I noticed some text link ads on your PageRank 9 homepage... have you heard of the text link ads controversy?

What are you referring to?

At the bottom of aaronsw.com, there’s a couple of text links, one for instance is titled “Payday Loans” (www.my-payday-loans.net). Aren’t those ads?

I meant by “the text link ads controversy.”

Well, some people accuse text link brokers – and in effect, those who work with them – of gaming search engines (selling PageRank). Search engine makers introduced the “nofollow” attribute. And Google’s head of webspam team, Matt Cutts, argues that “nofollow” ought to be used for text link ads – like yours, for instance – as well. So I take it you haven’t heard of this controversy? Do you sell your own text links, or do you sell them through a third-party broker?

I don’t really want to comment on this subject.

OK.

At some point I will write publicly about this, but I haven’t yet.

You mean you want to write about your opinion on the controversy?

That’s all I’m going to say.

Reading habits, and what’s important

OK... On the subject of real-life, what do you do to escape the online world – the world of “microattention,” often enough?

Well, I try to read at least a book a week. And I collect longer articles to read on my phone while walking or on buses or things like that. I also collect longer podcasts for similar use.

What kind of sites do you go to to find interesting podcasts?

As far as I’m concerned, the best three podcasts/radio shows out there are Behind the News with Doug Henwood, Counterspin, and This American Life. When I’ve exhausted those, I also watch the Onion News Network and Media Matters with Bob McChesney. But that’s more than enough to fill up my listening time.

And what book did you read last week?

Last week I finished Adam’s Fallacy. (I also skimmed Intentionality by John R. Searle.) And I hope to finish Writing in America (Fischer and Silvers, eds.) today. And probably Allegra Goodman’s Intuition.

Would you say there’s a common theme among the books you’re currently reading?

6 of the last 10 books have been about philosophy, but I’m just kind of following my whim lately.

Reading a book is almost on the opposite side of the attention span zone... on the other side there’s blogs, or social link sites like Digg, or Reddit... You can get consumed in all of those bits and lose sight of the bigger picture. Which web sites do you “hang out” on these days, if any? Which blogs, news sites and so on...

I try to avoid reading those things, but I have a few bad habits I can’t seem to shake. I have a reflex to type in a couple sites when I’m not paying too much attention. Right now those sites are mostly daringfireball.net and crookedtimber.org. Sometimes 3quarksdaily.com and delong.typepad.com as well. And I always keep out hope that bactra.org/weblog/ will update. Like everyone else, I am in awe of Cosma Shalizi.

Who’s he or she?

He’s a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who’s just about the most brilliant, wide-ranging academic who writes publicly. He writes amazing essays and blog posts about subjects from the philosophy of Marxism to the statistical analysis of scale-free networks, with humor and clarity and intelligence.

Hey, thanks for taking all the time for this interview. Is there any particular thing you might want to talk about that I didn’t ask?

Nothing comes to mind.

Then can I ask you, where do you see this web thing going?

Hehe. I’m reminded of Zhou Enlai, who when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, supposed responded “It’s too soon to tell.”

Seriously, though, the Web is what we make of it. We have a powerful, widely-deployed, largely uncontrolled communication network. It’s up to us to decide where to go next.

 

 
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