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Diaspora was supposed to be the “Facebook killer.” Then 22-year-old cofounder Ilya Zhitomirskiy committed suicide. E.B. Boyd reports on how his death has touched a nerve in Silicon Valley – and forced one of its biggest secrets out in the open.

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New York magazine and the New York Times. IEEE Spectrum,

personal privacy in the Facebook-Google era. They emerged

a respected technology magazine, got a look at an early

from the auditorium determined to save the world. Their

version of Diaspora’s software and deemed it “vacant”

weapon would be Diaspora, a new kind of open-source

and “amateur.” That same month, Google unveiled its

social network that would protect private information by

own curiously Diaspora-like social network. Soon the

replacing a single corporate behemoth with a so-called

Kickstarter money ran out amid questions about how it

federation of pods. Users could join whatever pod they

had been spent, and, without explanation, PayPal briefly

wanted, and if they didn’t like how they were being treated

froze the account the partners were using to raise more

at that one, they could pick up their personal data and

funds. Then in October, on the eve of the planned beta

move somewhere else. Deep human connection without the

launch, one of the startup’s key players abruptly quit.

Big Brother overtones—that was the utopian promise.

twice the age of the Diaspora founders, never mind kids

The students figured they’d need a few months and

All of which would have been hard on entrepreneurs

$10,000 to build a prototype. But Facebook had just made a

barely out of their teens with little experience to steel

huge misstep—a series of features that seemed to imperil

them against the startup life’s inevitable pressures and

users’ privacy to a stunning degree. As outrage ricocheted

setbacks. “They had failed. Publicly,” wrote a comment-

around the web, Diaspora went from being an intriguing

er on Hacker News, the forum of the tech incubator Y

but untested concept to the media-proclaimed “Facebook

Combinator. “This can be very devastating psychologi-

killer,” and the money started rolling in. The NYU students

cally to someone who has always succeeded in life.”

ended up with 20 times more than they had sought in their

fundraising appeal on Kickstarter—even Mark Zuckerberg

Zhitomirskiy’s death focused on the depression that

made a contribution. “I think it is a cool idea,” he

frequently accompanies startup stress, and some speculated

told Wired. “I see a little of myself in [those guys].”

that this may have been a factor in his suicide. “I met

this kid [Zhitomirskiy] at a half way to halloween party

In the Hollywood version of the story, the four

Indeed, a lot of the chatter following

friends would’ve holed up in their dorm rooms banging

at NYC Resistor,” a Valleywag commenter wrote. “He was

out code until they’d created a site that lived up to

sharp and passionate but had a glassy eye look I know

the hype. They would’ve become famous and, despite

my self from my own hypo mania / depression [sic].”

their professed indifference to money, fabulously rich—

worthy, perhaps, of an Aaron Sorkin sequel. In the un­

of symbol for the tech community—not just the anti-

forgiving environment of the newly booming Silicon

Facebook but a reminder of the emotional impact of

Valley, though, the reality was far more grueling, dis­

the New Boom on the very young, and potentially very

heartening—and, ultimately, tragic. Last November, some

vulnerable, entrepreneurs at the center of it.

18 months after moving to San Francisco with his three

cofounders, 22-year-old math whiz Ilya Zhitomirskiy was

failure—that a willingness in the culture to take huge

found dead in his Mission home, an apparent suicide.

risks and learn from mistakes is why great innovations

happen there. You can crash and burn in the Valley, the

Of the Diaspora founders, the sweet-faced

Suddenly, Diaspora had become a new sort

Silicon Valley likes to say that it celebrates

Zhitomirskiy had seemed to be the most optimistic and

lore goes, and still have venture capitalists lining up

idealistic. A unicyclist and ballroom dancer whose

to fund your next company; there are plenty of people

family had emigrated from Russia when he was a child,

who even insist that you haven’t really earned your

he was fascinated by artificial intelligence and by

entrepreneur stripes until you’ve failed at least once.

technology as a powerful agent for good. Cheerful and

outgoing, he threw epic parties and had an uncanny

record of success and a wide network of contacts; it’s

ability to connect with complete strangers, whom he

quite another when you’re 22, just out of college, far

would often keep up late into the night, talking about

from your family and friends, and completely green.

his dreams of making the world a better, freer, place.

Or maybe, egged on by self-proclaimed disrupters like

“There’s something deeper than making money off stuff,”

investor Peter Thiel, you’re one of those high school

he told an interviewer back in 2010. “Being a part

geeks who didn’t even bother with college. Maybe you

of creating stuff for the universe is awesome.”

have a condition—Asperger’s syndrome, say, or bipolar

disorder—that makes you well suited to the intellectual

But for Diaspora, as for most startups, the

But failure is one thing when you have a track

challenges proved daunting. There were long hours at the

and creative challenges of the tech life but also makes

keyboard, frustrating meetings with potential investors,

it much harder for you to cope when adversity strikes.

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and sniping from bloggers about the gushy treatment from

students went to a lecture about the growing threats to

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One winter night in 2010, four New York University

burning through. While some entrepreneurs say that the Valley’s top VCs can be a founder’s best source of support,

cofounder of the online-payments company WePay. Today,

taking funds from angels or investors who can’t afford

WePay—which offers individuals and small organizations

a loss, or who aren’t willing or able to help a startup

simple, user-friendly ways to collect money and sell

through the inevitable rough patches, can be a huge

goods—looks like a Silicon Valley success story, with

liability. “The ones who give you money and walk away

nearly $10 million in funding from the likes of PayPal’s

aren’t in the trenches with you,” says Ben Huh, founder

Max Levchin. But the first year, when Aberman was 23

of the humor site I Can Haz Cheezburger. “When things

and the startup was struggling, was harrowing.

start going south, it can feel like they’re putting more

pressure on you rather than helping you find a way out.”

The idea for WePay began when Aberman was

trying to arrange a bachelor party in 2008—14 guys

spread across the country, $4,200 in expenses, and no

secting every angle of startup success has been remark­

efficient way for the group to collect and distribute

ably close-mouthed about the emotional vulnerability of

the money. Seeing an exciting opportunity, he and a

its workforce and the psychic toll of the entrepreneurial

college pal, Bill Clerico, put their respective plans

process. The result, noted a Valleywag commenter, is that

for law school and Wall Street on hold. Aberman was

people who are hurting believe “it’s just me who is weird

inspired by a 2006 BusinessWeek cover story about Digg

and sick.” “Oftentimes, my clients do not tell anyone

founder Kevin Rose (“How This Kid Made $60 Million in

in their lives that they’re seeking psychotherapy,” says

18 Months”). “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, all he did was

Dr. Sarah Villarreal, a psychologist who counts founders

come up with a great idea, and he built it, and he made a

among her Silicon Valley clientele. “That exacerbates

ton of money,’” Aberman says. “‘That’s not that hard.’”

the feeling that they’re alone in their struggles.”

Only afterward did it occur to Aberman that he

Yet the industry that makes a fetish of dis­

After Zhitomirskiy’s death, Ben Huh decided to

didn’t know how to code: “You spend three weeks learning

break the silence, blogging about contemplating suicide

how to program, and you realize it’s going to take you

back in 2001, when his former company was floundering.

another 10 years to get good enough to build something

“Loneliness, darkness, hopelessness…those words don’t

saleable.” He and Clerico had no idea how to catch the

capture the feeling of the profound self-doubt that sets

interest of VCs or the media, either, but they had

in after a failure,” he wrote. Such despair can be so

already gone all in—failure was not an option. “It’s

debilitating that it “makes you question if you should

impossible for you to draw a bridge from where you are

even exist anymore. I spent a week in my room with the

now to where you’ve made promises about where you’re

lights off…thinking of the best way to exit this failure.

going to go,” Aberman says. “That feeling leads you to

Death was a good option—and it got better by the day.”

paralysis.” Suicide, he says, can seem like “an escape.”

scheduled to speak at two conferences. “Almost everyone

The tendency of entrepreneurs to overidentify

The post went up shortly before Huh was

with their company compounds the pain of failure, says Cass

I met had read it,” he says—but they were only willing

Phillipps, a veteran of a doomed startup who now organizes

to admit that in private. “Maybe three of us would

the FailCon conferences, which analyze how companies go

be having a normal conversation and one person would

wrong. Halfway through her own startup’s first year, it

leave, and the other one would say, ‘By the way, I read

was clear the idea—a plan to aggregate conversations in

your post. And I know what you’re talking about.’”

online forums—wasn’t working, but one of the partners

resisted the decision to shut down. “He felt like his

for all the abstract idealization of failure, the real

personal worth was being judged by our startup’s value.”

thing makes Silicon Valley deeply uncomfortable. “I

have to act as if I’m going to take over the world,

The tech-blog culture, with its breathless

Entrepreneurs are left with the feeling that,

coverage of fundings and launches and its tendency to

even if inside I’m struggling,” says an entrepreneur

ignore promising ideas that bomb (except to viciously

in his late 30s who founded a startup two years ago

tear them apart), can amplify the pressures and feed

and this winter considered shutting it down.

the insecurities. Then there’s the terror of having to concede defeat to the people whose money you’ve been

From left to right, Diaspora co-founders, Ilya Zhitomirsky, Daniel Grippi, Rafael Sofaer, Maxwell Salzberg

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If anything, the myth of the young geek

genius sets people up for failure, says Rich Aberman,

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morning of November 12. The night before had been November 11. Of the year 2011. Ever the math nerd, the theory goes, Zhitomirskiy might have found some poetic delight in departing this earth when the clock hit 11:11 11/11/11.

The truth, of course, died with Zhitomirskiy, and

his cofounders, who might come closest to knowing what happened, did not respond to requests for interviews. It’s

“We are very accepting in Silicon Valley of career

failures and decisions that were made incorrectly if the

worth noting that Diaspora is not the failure many assume;

founder can be, like, ‘I figured everything out. I’ve got

donors happily contributed $45,000 on PayPal after the

it under control.’ We as a culture love that,” Phillipps

Kickstarter money ran out, the beta launch is still in the

says. “But we don’t know what to do with a founder who’s

works, and top-flight VCs have been sniffing around. With

depressed or who says, ‘I’m really confused.’ Our response

Facebook’s continuing success and huge IPO (“Zuckerberg…

to that is, ‘Figure your shit out.’ Even before the diaspora

has created a wholly owned Internet,” one writer put it),

tragedy, momentum was building for a healthier, more open

the hunger for an alternative will only grow.

and compassionate approach. Last April, Ben Horowitz, a

former entrepreneur and a cofounder of the vaunted VC

“busted open a door on this conversation.” It’s time for

firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a widely read post on the

the tech community to start recognizing the hallmarks

emotional challenges of being a tech leader, admitting,

of mental illness and extreme distress, she says. And

“By far the most difficult skill for me to learn as CEO

it’s time for Silicon Valley to jettison one of its most

was to manage my own psychology.” Phillipps’s FailCon

cherished ideas, one she calls the Mark Zuckerberg problem:

idea dates back to when she and her cofounders couldn’t

“The myth of the single perfect hero who gets it right is

figure out what they were doing wrong, and the events

bullshit.” Fraser says all founders need to have someone

they attended—mostly whiz kids talking about their

they can be completely candid with. She has played that

successes—offered no insight. Though much of FailCon’s

role for some entrepreneurs, including one very successful

focus is on impersonal issues like hiring and growth, “by

founder she’s advising, whose startup has done quite

signing up for a conference that says you have [failed],

well by Valley standards. “I came in one day, and they

or you are going to fail, you walk in with a slightly

got teary,” Fraser says. “They said, ‘I don’t know how

more exposed mindset,” Phillipps says. “It’s beginning to

I’m going to cope.’ So we just laid it all out. We did an

change the tone of the conversation between founders.”

hour’s worth of work organizing the stuff on their plate.”

One of the most valuable things about the pro­

What matters now, says Fraser, is that his death

FailCon’s Phillipps goes even further. “To

liferation of startup incubators around the Valley is

raise VC money, you need an advisory board,” she says.

the way they allow, or force, these kinds of conver­

“It would be so cool if every startup was also required

sations to happen—and youthful poses to be dropped.

to have an emotional adviser, someone who could give

WePay’s Aberman says an emotional turning point was

psychological support when the founders are in trouble.”

getting accepted into Y Combinator, whose cofounder

Paul Graham talks about “the trough of sorrow” as an

who aren’t running startups but who are caught up in the

almost inevitable phase of a startup’s growth. While Y

frenzy and ferocity of the tech economy just the same? One

Combinator doesn’t have an explicitly emotional component

night last December, 25 such men and women, ranging in age

to its curriculum, the incubator approach—a number of startups per “class,” with 150 or so other young geeks to lean on and commiserate with as they try to get their companies off the ground—inherently addresses the psychological strains of entrepreneurship, Graham

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and his partners believe, and Aberman concurs. “At

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from their 20s to their 50s, shuffled into a conference room at No Starch Press in SoMa. They were responding to an invitation from Mitch Altman, cofounder of Noisebridge, the beginning of our class, you’d ask people how their

the Mission hacker space that provides geeks (including

start up was going, and they’d be like, ‘Excellent, great,

the Diaspora guys) the infrastructure and support to

super,’” he says. “But a few weeks in, you’d ask the same

explore their passions and bring their ideas to fruition.

question, and they’d say, ‘We’re so screwed.’ It made us

Altman, who battled serious depression for the first

realize we weren’t doing any worse than anyone else.”

half of his life, had been deeply upset by Zhitomirskiy’s

death. He decided to convene the meetup after getting

Yet sometimes even having that kind of support

isn’t enough. Among Zhitomirskiy’s friends and colleagues,

more than 100 responses to a blog post he’d written about

there are different theories about what led him to take

his own struggles. “So many people expressed how thankful

his own life. One possible trigger, of course, may have

they were that someone was openly talking about this,”

been his despair over the project’s problems and the

he says. “We need to create an environment where people

way its idealistic goals were being subverted by the

feel it’s totally OK and natural to talk about feeling

likes of Google. “He thought Google+ was a knockoff,”

depressed, even suicidal. Then people may not feel they

says a fellow entrepreneur—one that had replicated

need to hide, and maybe they can reach out for help.”

some of Diaspora’s features (or so it appeared), but

hadn’t embraced the underlying idea of giving people

meetup has turned into a regular gathering, and similar

control over their data. “He was feeling upset about

events are starting to bubble up around the world.

that in October and November,” the friend says.

At a recent conference in Berlin, organizers asked

Altman to throw together a panel on the topic, and

Others note that Zhitomirskiy suffered from

Four months later, the “Geeks & Depression”

serious psychological issues that might have proved

he’s planning another for the annual HOPE (Hackers on

crippling no matter what happened at Diaspora. “Ilya had

Planet Earth) conference in New York this summer.

a bipolar disorder,” says Janice Fraser, the former head

of Adaptive Path, cofounder-CEO of the LUXr incubator

the new willingness among geeks to bare their souls

and an adviser to the Diaspora crew since they joined

in public. For all their vulnerability, Fraser sees an

LUXr’s inaugural class in the summer of 2010. But

emotional upside in the fact that today’s entrepreneurs

sometime before his death, she says, Zhitomirskiy had

are so young. “The kids who are coming up today are more

decided to stop taking his medication. That’s common,

courageous,” she says. “This is a generation of people

adds Fraser, who suffers from depression herself and

who are used to letting it all hang out on Facebook.

who’s seen several other members of her family grapple

So if I say, ‘Talk to me about mental illness in your

with mental illness, including a brother who committed

life,’ probably somebody would tell me their story.

suicide. She says Zhitomirskiy seems to have planned his

And that’s really different than 10 years ago.”

What’s striking to Silicon Valley veterans is

suicide, perhaps scouring the Internet for guidance. While Diaspora’s stresses may have aggravated his condition, Fraser believes his decision was based more on realizing what it would mean to have to live with his illness— how it would affect his capacity to think and enjoy life. That wasn’t something he wanted, she believes.

It’s even possible to see significance in the

date of his death. Zhitomirskiy was found early on the

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And what about all the other geeks—the ones

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photography: Gabriela Hasbun, story: E.B. Boyd, photo editor: Randi Klett, layout & design: Julian Weidenthaler Images originally shot for IEEE Spectrum, story published in San Francisco Magazine on February 17, 2012

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