Education Opinion

Learn, Try, Gab, Build: Advice from a Teen Who Helped Build an Open Internet

By Justin Reich — January 15, 2013 7 min read
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We all inhabit multiple communities and spaces. This week, my colleagues who are immersed in the code, regulation, and infrastructure of the Internet mourned the passing of Aaron Swartz, a young man who made remarkable contributions to free culture, online and beyond. If you read things on feeds, if you reuse content with a Creative Content license, if you celebrated when SOPA and PIPA didn’t pass, then Aaron Swartz helped shape the way you read, live and learn.

My feeds and networks involving tech-saavy teachers and educators did not activate in the same way in response to this event, which is fine. There is so much to know and learn in this world, and it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone who builds on top of the Internet to understand its history and inner workings, any more than we expect drivers to understand what’s under the hood of the cars.

But this seems a good moment for educators to pause and reflect on how the openness that we increasingly depend up for creating our learning environments—for empowering our students to share, remix, and publish—is not an inherent feature of the Internet. People fight for it. People build it. (David Wineburger has a good introduction to Aaron Swartz’s contributions.)

One remarkable feature of Aaron Swartz’s life is that he started this fighting and building as a teenager. To some extent he was precocious, and to some extent adults continually forget (or choose not to recognize) how much potential young people have to fight for and build towards a better world.

He had some advice for others who seek to learn to make a difference in this world, and I have an edited version below (original version). As I read it, I think more deeply about how we can go about creating educational systems that empower more young people with the passion, commitment, and skills to make a difference in their communities, whether that’s a neighborhood or the Internet.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

How to Get a Job Like Mine
Talk, as prepared, for the Tathva 2007 computer conference at NIT Calicut.

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut used to always title his talks “How to Get a Job Like Mine” and then proceed to talk about whatever he felt like. I’m in a bit of the opposite situation. I was told I could talk about whatever I felt like and I decided that, instead of pontificating for a while about the future of the Internet or the power of mass collaboration, the most interesting thing I could talk about was probably “How to Get a Job Like Mine”...

Step 1: Learn
The first thing I did, which presumably all of you have already got covered, was to learn about computers, the Internet, and Internet culture. I read a bunch of books, I read enormous numbers of web pages, and I tried stuff. First I joined mailing lists and tried to understand the discussions until I felt comfortable jumping in and trying to participate for myself. Then I looked at web sites and tried to build my own. And finally I learned how to build web applications and I started building them. I was thirteen.

Step 2: Try
The first site I built was called get.info. The idea was to have a free, online encyclopedia that anyone could edit or add things to or reorganize, right through their web browser. I built the whole thing, added lots of cool features, tested it on all sorts of browsers, and was very proud of it. It actually won even a prize for one of the best new web applications that year. Unfortunately, the only people I knew at the time were other kids in my school, so I didn’t really have anyone writing a lot of encyclopedia articles. (Luckily, several years later, my mother pointed me to this new site called “Wikipedia” that was doing the same thing.)

The second site I built was called my.info. The idea was that instead of having to scrounge around the Internet for news from all sorts of different web pages, why not just have one program that went and grabbed news from all those web pages and put them in one place. I built it and got it working, but it turned out I wasn’t the only one who had that sort of idea at the time -- lots of people were working on this new technique, then called “syndication”. A group of them split off and decided to work on a specification for this thing called RSS 1.0 and I joined them.

Step 3: Gab
It was summer and I was out of school and didn’t have a job, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. And I spent all of it obsessively reading the RSS 1.0 mailing list and doing all sorts of odd jobs and whatever else they needed someone to do. Soon enough, they asked me if I wanted to become a member of the group, and I ended up becoming a co-author and then a co-editor of the RSS 1.0 specification.

RSS 1.0 was built on top of this technology called RDF, which was a bit of a source of heated debate on the RSS lists, so I started looking more into RDF, joining the RDF mailing lists, reading things and asking stupid questions and slowly starting to figure things out. Soon enough, I was becoming known in the RDF world and when they announced a new working group to develop the next RDF spec, I decided to sneak on.

First I asked the working group members if I could join. They said no. But I really wanted to be on that working group, so I tried to find another way. I read the rules of the W3C, which was the standards body that operated the Working Group. The rules said that while they could reject any requests to join from an individual, if an organization that was an official member of the W3C asked to put someone on the working group, they couldn’t say no. So I looked down the list of W3C member organizations, found the one that seemed friendliest, and asked them to put me on the Working Group. They did.

Being a Working Group member meant weekly phone calls with all the other members, lots of mailing list and IRC discussion, occasionally flying off to odd cities to meet in person, and lots of all-around getting-to-know people.

I was also a true believer on the subject of RDF, so I worked hard to get other people to adopt it. When I saw that professor Lawrence Lessig was starting a new organization called Creative Commons, I sent him an email saying he should use RDF for his project and explaining why. A few days later he wrote back saying “Good idea. Why don’t you do that for us?”

Step 4: Build
And then I left it all and went to college for a year.... It’s got some great professors and I certainly learned a bunch, but I didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies.

But towards the end of the year, I got an email from a writer named Paul Graham who said that he was starting up a new project, Y Combinator. The idea behind Y Combinator is that you find a bunch of really smart programmers, fly them out to Boston for the summer, and give them a little bit of money and the paperwork to start a company. They work really really hard on building something while you teach them everything they need to know about business and hook them up with investors and acquirers and so on. And Paul suggested I apply.

So I did and I got in and after lots of pain and toil and struggle I found myself working on a little site called Reddit.com. The first thing to know about Reddit was that we had no clue what we were doing. We had no experience in business. We had hardly any real experience in building production software. And we had no idea whether or why what we were doing was working. Every morning we woke up and made sure the server wasn’t down and that our site hadn’t been overrun by spammers and that all our users hadn’t left....

Words of Advice

What’s the secret? How can I boil down things I do into pithy sentences that make myself sound as good as possible? Here goes:

Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.

Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree -- whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.

Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

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