Both the New Yorker and The Atlantic published long stories about the late 26-year-old computer whiz Aaron Swartz today. These join lengthy profiles from New York, Rolling Stone, Slate, The Verge and The New Republic. This overwhelming outpouring is not a surprise: The suicide of a 26-year-old computer genius is the kind of story magazines were made to cover: complex but instantly engaging, offering a window into an unusual world.
But who has time to read 60,000 largely redundant words on even a fascinating person like Aaron Swartz? Luckily for you, I do, because I'm paid to do it. So for your convenience, here's a list of Aaron Swartz magazine stories ranked by indispensability:
Unsurprisingly, The New Yorker profile stomps all the others. A good magazine story about something so fraught as Swartz's death cuts through the bullshit to the core truths. By judiciously deploying long quotes from those closest to Aaron, Larissa MacFarquhar gets past the rhetoric that Swartz was "murdered by the government" over his allegedly illegal downloading of thousands of academic papers. She shows that:
"This claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it. They believe that he would not have killed himself without the prosecutors, but they feel that there is something missing from this account-some further fact, a key, that will make sense of what he did."
What follows is a careful portrait of a brilliant but difficult man. The story also hints at discord behind the scenes of Swartz's defense. When Quinn Norton, Swartz's ex-girlfriend and a journalist who writes about hackers,, began cooperating with the Secret Service investigation it infuriated Swartz's family. "We were going out of our minds," Swartz's father told MacFarquhar. "We were trying to tell her to stop, and she wouldn't."
Speaking of Quinn Norton, she has written her own first-person account of her involvement in the case. This is a poignant read, but the extreme subjectivity of the storytelling can sometimes be tough to swallow. Prosecutors are made out to be cartoonishly incompetent Keystone Cops who get so mad they turn "red in the face" when Norton stonewalls them at a hearing. The piece's biggest downfall is the bewildered tone, which takes each facet of Swartz's case as evidence of the prosecutor's unique sadism, when it's really standard operating procedure in high-profile hacking cases. (See: Weev.)
The archetypical take on Swartz as hacker martyr. Aaron Swartz is driven by his passion for open access into an intractable conflict with The Man, who destroys him. Wesley Yang concludes: "It cannot serve society's purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice." Well-written, but not very enlightening.
Tim Carmody's tech-focused article does the valuable work of debunking the myths that arose about Swartz's technical prowess. (He didn't "invent" RSS, for example.) And it offers a clear-eyed take on what his accomplishments as a coder actually meant.
The counter-intuitive take: Aaron Swartz is a martyr here again, but a misguided one. The high-pressure hacker/hacktivist world he inhabited from such a young age is blamed for making his suicide "inevitable." This angle is tempting whenever a young smart hacker commits suicide. But it's the flip side of the facile argument that Swartz was "murdered" by his prosecutors, and just as unconvincing in the end. If computer hackers are under such uniquely intense pressure, what explains the many, many well-adjusted geeks happily coding their way to riches?
Slate gets points for being the first one out of the gate with a comprehensive take on Swartz, beating New York by a few hours. If you didn't read it when it came out, though, there's not really any reason to read this one if you've read any of the Top Four on this list. It's straightforward, but it does go deep into the history of the Open Source movement which heavily inspired Swartz.
Hits all the same notes as the Slate's No. 6. No need to read this one unless you're a Swartz completist.