Ilya Zhitomirskiy was, publicly, a bright, energetic, idealistic star. He did not fail. Rather, the world he was working to change failed him:
In the wake of the passing this weekend of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the four founders of much-hyped open-source social network Diaspora, an unsettling conversation has begun within the tech community. Zhitomirskiy‘s death, rumored to be a suicide (sources close to CNN Money have confirmed but officially the cause is unknown), has ignited what many see as a much-needed and long-awaited dialogue in the industry: the mental health repercussions of the immense pressure and scrutiny—both internal and external—that young tech founders weather in their quest for the new American Dream.
Specifically, let’s look at the difference between Facebook and Diaspora*…Facebook was a sprint, to be the first to fill in a vacuum and carve a niche out for itself. It was all about timing, first to the finish line, and some marketing glitz. The balance sheet and strategy is completely different with Diaspora*: the project is a marathon. It is a long-term vision of what social interactions via the internet SHOULD be on technological and ethical levels. It entered center stage in a social network ecology that is already full, with more crowding in to carve out their niche each day. The hope and plan for Diaspora* are twofold:
1. Diaspora* puts pressure on — and positively influences — existing and future social networks. It already has, and will continue to do so as long as it exists.
We’re proud that Google+ imitated one of our core features, aspects, with their circles. And now Facebook is at last moving in the right direction with user control over privacy, a move spurred not just by Google+, but more fundamentally by you and tens of thousands of community members, as well as hundreds of thousands of people who’ve lined up to try Diaspora* — that is, by all of us who’ve stood up to say “there has to be a better way.” We’re making a difference already.
2. Diaspora* — and only Diaspora* (barring the creation of another similar-minded open-source, non-profit project) — has the vision, structure, process and intent to realize a holistically ethical social network presence.
Diaspora*’s mission: to build a new and better social web, one that’s 100% owned and controlled by you and other Diasporans.
In this context, Ilya simply did not have the support he needed to continue his work, which also happened to be his life. He gave his all publicly, and as he reached out to the world, a large part of the world stabbed him in the back. Repeatedly. More than anything, those around him who helped creat and shape the public opinion of Diaspora* into a non-sequitur “failure” are responsible for his death. Now these same corporations — media and competitors — are profiting off it by discussing the “intense pressure” that THEY created in the first place.
His death is an ironic tragedy, and a lesson to us. Now, more than ever, is the time to rally the troops in support of Ilya’s vision and leadership of bringing people together for no more reason than the inherent human need to connect, and feel connected. Everything else is secondary.