Monday, November 14, 2011

Founder of (Diaspora) Open-Source Facebook Foe Dies at 22

Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the co-founders of Facebook-alternative Diaspora, died Saturday night at the age of 22. Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a co-founder of the startup social networking site Diaspora that put an emphasis on privacy and user-control, has died, a company spokesman said Monday. He was 22.

The cause of Zhitomirskiy’s death in San Francisco wasn’t immediately known, and neither the company nor the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office would release details. A spokesman for the San Francisco medical examiner's office confirmed the death of Zhitomirskiy to, originally reported Sunday by popular tech news blog TechCrunch. He was unable to confirm reports that the young man committed suicide.

Confirmation of the final cause of death could take weeks, he said. The New York University graduate was struggling to launch his social network Diaspora -- an open-source social network Zhitomirskiy started building with classmates Dan Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg and Raphael Sofaer early last year. Their goal was to provide an idealistic Facebook alternative with an emphasis on user control and privacy.

The team struggled with money as it worked to release its website, despite quickly raising $200,000 in funding through venture capitalists and microfinance startup Kickstarter after being featured in The New York Times.

But a blog post from the company on Oct. 12 begged followers for more money; the company argued that PayPal had been "mysteriously and arbitrarily" freezing donations to the site. PayPal reportedly liberated the funds.

The site’s founders described Diaspora as a "distributed network, where totally separate computers connect to each other directly, will let us connect without surrendering our privacy." Last year, they released the first version of the site to a limited audience.

The team’s efforts even got the attention of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated money to the project. “I think it is cool people are trying to do it,” he told Wired. “I see a little of myself in them. It’s just their approach that the world could be better and saying, ‘We should try to do it’.”

Friends and fans came together on Twitter to mourn the young entrepreneur’s death.

“This is very #sad; I also wish the @joindiaspora team strength,” one fan said.

"Shocked and deeply sad for the world that my friend @zhitomirskiyi, co-founder of Diaspora, is dead... The world needed his voice," said Mozilla interface guru Aza Raskin

Diaspora has launched a site redesign in the wake of Zhitomirskiy’s passing.
The fledgling social network's home page at on Monday featured a picture of a giant dandelion going to seed next to an image of Zhitomirskiy seated in a classroom. Beneath the image was his name and "1989-2011."

"We'll all miss Ilya more than we can say," Diaspora co-founder Peter Schurman said in a statement released late Monday.

"Ilya was a great friend and a brilliant person, a visionary whose work for a better future online brought hope to many people," he continued.

Public memorial services are being planned for Friday in San Francisco and two days later in Philadelphia, according to Schurman, who said details of the events would be released after arrangements are finalized.

"In life, Ilya brought people together," Schurman said. "In death, he would have wanted the same thing."

Zhitomirskiy and three fellow students at New York University built Diaspora as a "privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network."

Diaspora opened to software developers in September of last year and a version of the online network went public two months later.


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