It’s been reported that Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy committed suicide this week at 22 years of age; while no one is sure of the cause, of course, there has been a lot of speculation that Diaspora’s lack of traction might have been a trigger.
I certainly hope not. I wish he hadn’t done it in the first place, of course; I wish I could have talked to the guy. I wish I could have told him that there’s very little you can do at the age of 22 that’s not undoable, short of killing someone or having a kid; no matter how bleak your situation seems, you can always change it. More than that, though, I wish I could have told him: dude, it’s just a fucking social network. It doesn’t matter.
I think a lot of us lose perspective working in this industry. There’s a lot of hyperbolic and impossibly hypocritical rhetoric thrown around by tech founders and venture capitalists. The words “world-changing” and “revolutionary” get thrown around a lot, and it’s mostly at projects and products that don’t deserve these adjectives.
Diaspora had and has absolutely no chance at “changing the world”. It’s another social network, just like the ones that came before it and have now vanished into the ether. By and large, social networks are not changing and will not change the world, any more than message boards did before them. They’ll be the default exciting way that people interact online for a few years, then somebody will come up with some permutation that’s different enough to warrant another generalized term — “social whiteboard” or some other such ill-fitting metaphor — and Facebook and Diaspora and all their predecessors will be just part of the early history of the global network. This new world of ours is nothing if not ephemeral.
Most of the “revolutions” we generate in this industry are really just incremental improvements on communications technology…and most of the worldchanging we want to do involves the part of the world that is our own bank balance.
What’s really sad though — assuming that Ilya killed himself because he believed his project was a failure — is that failure is not the end of the world. Hell, it’s not even failure, as long as you understand that every new technology or idea is just something you throw at the fucking wall to see if it sticks.
I’ve been involved with two failed startups so far. Both of them were excellent ideas — because, after all, that’s all a startup really is: an idea. One of them never even got publicly announced, because the logistics required to solve the problem it was attempting to solve were simply too expensive and complex to achieve. The other one was probably eight years ahead of its time.
It sucked when they tanked. But you know what you learn, when you don’t kill yourself at 22 because your idea isn’t getting enough attention and it looks like you might not be the visionary you thought you were? You learn that failure is inevitable. And you learn that you simply brush yourself off, go “Oh, okay, that didn’t work,” and look to see what collateral you can salvage out of the thing that didn’t work. Sometimes you’ll find you’ve invented a new technology that might be useful in totally different ways than you originally considered; sometimes you’ll find you learned a new skill; more often than not, you’ll simply walk away with more experience about how the world works, and how it doesn’t.
I’m building my own little sandbox on the Internet right now, and I’m old enough and wise enough not to have any illusions about its potential to change the world or make me a millionaire. I know the odds are against it…the way they are against any startup. If it fails? That sucks, and I’m going to do everything to keep it from happening, but if it does, I’ll just move on to the next idea. I’m never short of ideas.
And I struggle with depression every day. Every day that investors fail to materialize, every day that passes that nobody uses this cool thing I’ve built, I feel like the world is ending, like I should just fling myself under a bus and get it over with. But you know what? The world’s not ending. It’s just the Internet. It doesn’t matter.
It’s a tragedy when anyone who is not terminally ill commits suicide, and it’s even worse when they have their whole lives ahead of them; and maybe there was other stuff going on with Ilya Zhitomirskiy that is not public (and nobody’s business, of course). But if the guy really did it because his stupid fucking social network wasn’t becoming the coolest thing since Cheez-Whiz, that’s even worse, because it means he did it for really no reason at all. It was a meaningless act by someone who lacked the life perspective to understand how absolutely trivial the success or failure of his project was.
If you’re one of us — people like me and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who make up ideas for a living — never forget that. Never forget that there’s always tomorrow, always another idea, always something new and great to do. Don’t believe the hype, yours or anyone else’s. Fight another day.