Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a 22-year-old co-founder of the hyped Facebook rival Diaspora committed suicide this weekend in San Francisco. Now the tech community is reeling, and asking hard questions about the pressure facing young tech entrepreneurs.
Silicon Valley is mourning today for Zhitomirskiy, a recent NYU
grad dropout, who by all accounts was a bright, motivated geek with big ambitions. "Every time I saw Ilya he had a new plan to save the world. He was optimistic without irony," wrote Twitter design researcher Karina van Schaardenburg.
In September of last year, Zhitomiriskiy told New York Magazine that Diaspora was a project of pure passion. "There's something deeper than making money off stuff," he said. "Being a part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome."
But many are also asking the obvious question: Did the pressure of running a struggling, much-hyped start-up—not just any start-up, but a Facebook killer—contribute to Zhitomirskiy's death?
"Burnout is one thing but serious depression is another altogether," writes Bill Patrianakos on Hacker News, a sort of digital water-cooler for the tech industry. "The pressure of starting a small local business is enough to drive a person mad. Just think about the guys being covered... the widely known ones, the 'stars' of the tech startup world."
Zhitomirskiy and his three co-founders have been very much rising stars in the tech startup world. Diaspora burst onto the scene by rasing more than $200,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter while they were still at NYU. They attracted breathless coverage from TechCrunch, and managed to sneak a dirty nerd joke into a glowing New York Times profile. Prominent New York Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson kicked in a substantial donation—even Mark Zuckerberg contributed.
Diaspora promised to give users ultimate control of their personal information and privacy—unlike Facebook. "Share what you want, with whom you want," went the slogan.
But development of Diaspora stalled soon after the initial burst of publicity, as the reality of developing a social networking site from scratch hit the inexperienced team's admirable goals. When Diaspora released its source code, hackers howled at its gaping security holes. Outside of a few appealing screenshots and a closed alpha, Diaspora has only resurfaced recently to ask supporters for a second round of donations because it was running out of money.
Diaspora's continuing obscurity has been met with rising criticism among tech insiders. Last month, Newsweek's Dan Lyons wrote off Diaspora as "cool," but "the sad fact is… most people will still go to Facebook simply because that's where all their friends are." Even the post on Hacker News about Zhitomirskiy's death is haunted by Diaspora haters. "It's a laughing stock," wrote Hacker News user josteink. "As a social network this is a failure on absolutely every aspect I can find measures for."
Zhitomirskiy's death adds a tragic undertone to the tech industry's obsession with young founders. Venture capitalists ache for the next Mark Zuckerberg, the bright young guy with an idea that will change the world. The tech press is filled with relentlessly sunny stories about kids who can barely drink selling their startups for obscene amounts of money; Peter Thiel has his crazy scheme to pay kids to drop out college and launch a startup.
As thrilling as it is to watch brilliant young people make cool stuff, it's equally as wrenching when things go horribly wrong.