Aaron Swartz and the Dark Side of Movement Building

Originally posted on the Collective Agency Blog 

Remember when we won the battle for the Internet?

Remember when the entertainment industry tried to restrict our digital freedoms in order to protect their profits?

And remember how quickly SOPA was smacked down? Remember the movement that galvanized millions and left the dinosaurs with their tails between their legs?

Every movement starts somewhere. And one critical catalyst in the anti-SOPA movement was Aaron Swartz.


By age 26, Aaron had created some of the Internet's most powerful tools (Reddit & RSS), and he had fought successfully to protect them.

And at age 26, Aaron lost a battle with depression. With that loss, the world that so many of us are working to build lost one of its most talented champions.


I didn't know Aaron. And I didn't know Ilya Zhitomirskiy (the founder of Diaspora, the "open alternative to Facebook," who took his own life in 2011).

But in a way, I feel like I did know them. Through the stories I've heard from friends who were close with them, they remind me of many people who I love.

And frankly, they remind me of me. 

Aaron and Ilya were driven to create a better world. They could easily see the flaws in big systems, and they saw the untapped promise of decentralized networks to solve them. They built global movements that unleashed the power of the Internet to transform all of our individual actions into collective agency. They knew that all of this would be hard work... but they did it anyway.

At the time of their suicides, both were being prosecuted: Aaron by a court of law, and Ilya by the court of public opinion. While I can't and shouldn't make assumptions about what factors led to their deaths, it's not hard to imagine how much stress they were under.

And therein lies the dark side of movement-building: the greater your success, the more you are thrust into the harsh light of public scrutiny. Your movement creates a powerful avalanche of attention, but you can easily get buried under it.

I know this all too well because three years ago, I found myself in a similar situation.



For the better part of a decade, I worked tirelessly to end the War on Drugs. I quickly found myself as a leader of a burgeoning movement, and within just a few short years, my organization recruited and trained thousands of incredible activists the world over. We changed several state and federal laws, while shifting public opinion in the direction of justice. It was exhilarating.

Although the organization was beautifully decentralized, collective attention often has a habit of narrowing its focus on individuals. Our brains just aren't trained to see networks; we're trained to see leaders. And too often for my comfort, that gaze was affixed on me.

So when I burnt out, I burned on a massive stage of my own creation. After a downward spiral of anxiety and depression led me to miss an important grant deadline, I sent a tearful resignation email. I was devastated.

The following weeks were filled with suicidal thoughts. I felt I had let down the community that had become my family. And by extension, I let down the millions who were relying on us to change the laws that impacted them.

Thankfully, with the help of close friends, I weathered the storm.

And I'm so glad that I did.

It has not been easy, but that humbling experience catalyzed a lot of learning and growth. I've committed to balancing my passion for changing the world with the health that's needed to sustain it. And until I attain that balance, I'm hoping to serve others who find themselves giving birth to movements.


Collective Agency was born out of a desire to assist the most important movements of our generation. I want to find people who are at the vanguard of the future, and help them speak their vision so that it reaches millions. If successful, I'll have helped inspire thousands of Aarons and Ilyas to shun a comfortable life in favor of purpose.

But in wanting to serve in this way, I've had to face something that makes me sick: I could inadvertently be leading someone to their death. The news of Aaron's suicide reinforced that reality at a gut level.

So I'm making a promise to myself to remember, and teach, the most important lesson I've learned:

If you want to build healthy systems... the most important system is you.


If you know how to think about systems, then you already have many of the conceptual tools in your toolbelt.

Single points of failure make systems less resilient. So don't keep your anguish bottled up. Create a peer support network. Be vulnerable.

Unchecked feedback loops can damage systems. So take a break. Meditate. Go on a Digital Detox.

Resilience is the best prevention. So don't wait until you're at your breaking point. Establish practices ahead of time. Start now.

These may seem like obvious interventions, but if you're like me, they can also seem like distractions. After all, there's so much work to be done!

But if you're really serious about the movement you're building, then the health of your system is more important than any other system you might be trying to heal. 

We need you. And we can't afford to lose you.

Sending love to Aaron's friends and family...