R.I.P. Ilya Zhitomirskiy

| Staff Columnist

Recently, 22-year-old Ilya Zhitomirskiy died. He was a New York University dropout, and was one of four co-founders of the social network Diaspora*. His death sent minor reverberations around the Internet; it made the front pages of various tech blogs as well as Gawker and Yahoo. Eventually, major news outlets, such as CNN, NPR and the New York Times picked up and ran their own versions of the story.

I found out about this when my girlfriend’s Facebook newsfeed exploded. Ilya attended her high school, and neither anyone who knew him in his pre-college days nor I thought that this was anything more than a local affair. He was just a hometown kid whose life took a tragic turn, and Facebook users, as they’re wont to do, were spreading the word and posting their own thoughts on the situation. One read, “he was a person, not a headline.” But that doesn’t make his story any less applicable to anyone our age. We can still learn from Ilya.

I was confused that his death was being treated as anything more than a barely-noticeable blip on the social networking scene. I, as well as many others, had never heard of Diaspora* before his death, and its story is, so far, singularly unremarkable. In 2010, four NYU students were upset by Facebook’s privacy policies and set out to make a social networking site with a system that better enables users to control who sees what. It raised its startup capital using the site Kickstarter—a site that solicits donations for creative projects—and is currently in a very early stage of development. The project is apparently experiencing financial difficulties, as last month the Diaspora* Foundation (which develops Diaspora* software, but not the independently-controlled community) started a new fundraising campaign.

I don’t pay particularly close attention to the social networking scene; Wikipedia has a list of more than 150 “notable, well-known sites,” most of which I haven’t heard of (including Diaspora*). But I like to think I’m not completely out of the loop, and Diaspora* never registered on my radar. The story here seems to be that the largely unknown founder of a largely unknown and potentially failing Facebook competitor died.

But that’s hardly news at all, and certainly doesn’t merit the national attention it has garnered. In fact, Zhitomirskiy’s death is a human-interest story, presented in the guise of news, but one that is no less valuable for that. By all accounts, Zhitomirskiy threw himself into Diaspora*. “There’s something deeper than making money off stuff,” Zhitomirskiy said. “Being a part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome.” Diaspora* was that “stuff for the universe,” and according to Finn Brunton, a teacher at NYU involved with the project, Zhitomirskiy spent nights “sleeping under the desks because it is something that is really exciting and challenging.”

An official statement has yet to be released as to cause of death, but police are confident that Zhitomirskiy committed suicide. The picture painted by the media is of a tireless young man, toiling, he believed, to benefit humanity. The implicit message is that the stress finally got to him; the long nights never leaving the makeshift office and the financial difficulties weighed too heavily upon him, and he took his own life.

It is a message applicable to all of us here at Washington University. The academic demands are at times staggering, and the pressure to excel, from others and ourselves, can be overwhelming. It is important to remember that the courses of our lives will not be determined by this or that test, and that long hours of feverish study, day in and day out, are detrimental to our mental health. We are young, and we must not forget the value of taking a break, relaxing, and if only for a little while, allowing our cares to slip away.

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