Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 1989-2011

Photo: Gabriela Hasbun

Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy has passed away at age 22, the San Francisco police confirmed on Monday. Cause of death has not been confirmed, but an SFPD officer has said suicide is being considered, reports CNN Money.

Zhitomirskiy and three other students from New York University’s Courant Institute—Dan Grippi, Maxwell Salzberg and Raphael Sofaer—started the open-source social network last year, launching their project with a Kickstarter fund that raised over $200 000.

The news of Zhitomirskiy’s death came on the heels of big news for Diaspora. On Monday, the team sent out a round of invites to a redesigned alpha version of its site, TechCrunch reported on Monday. The new version fixes security bugs and emphasizes some new features, but the essential goal of Diaspora will remain the same: to allow its users to maintain whatever degree of privacy they desire. That goal is achieved by supporting decentralized pods of users set up on independently hosted servers rather than a single hub, like Facebook.

IEEE Spectrum reporter Ariel Bleicher wrote about the start-up in our June issue, as part of a special report on the battle for the future of the social Web. Bleicher took a moment today to reflect on the short time she spent with Zhitomirskiy:

Ilya was one of those rare entrepreneurs who delight in the power of their ideas to change people's lives for the better, but he was never preachy. He spoke softly and yet his mind was always whirring. His co-founders at Diaspora called him "the privacy guy." He believed that owning your own data should be a basic human right and that technologies like Diaspora could protect that right while still letting people share and socialize with one another online.

When I sat down with him in February, I asked him what his personal goal was for Diaspora. "To put Diaspora on the mobile phone," he answered. "That would be the biggest win for privacy if you could control your social network on your own hardware." I then asked him when he would know that Diaspora was a success. "I feel like we've already succeeded in that we've brought awareness to the fact that there could be other ways of communicating on the Internet. We've brought Diaspora into the world.”

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