Tonight I attended a public memorial service in San Francisco, California USA for Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of the start-up social network Diaspora*. The service was held at McAvoy O’Hara mortuary at 4545 Geary Boulevard. I took the picture below of McAvoy O’Hara as I was departing.
Ilya Zhitomirskiy died Saturday, November 12, 2011 at his home in San Francisco. The preceding link is to his lengthy obituary in the New York Times newspaper, a testamant to Zhitomirskiy’s influence. Such coverage is remarkable for someone whose idea that made them famous has not officially launched yet. Such coverage is remarkable for someone just 22 years old at their passing.
I met Zhitomirskiy only once, and I don’t remember the meeting except in the vaguest sense. My friend Matthew Wise introduced me to Zhitomirskiy at an office warming party for CloudFlare, which I wrote about here at the time. Wise reminded me two days ago at his Foods Startup event that he had introduced me. I recall that Wise had mentioned Diaspora* at the CloudFlare party. I had heard of Diaspora* back then, but I didn’t appreciate the significance of meeting one of the co-founders because I wasn’t aware how much attention the project had already garnered.
With that introduction you might wonder why I went to the man’s memorial service. On a group hike some weeks back I had a long and interesting conversation with Bobby Fishkin. Fishkin was a good friend of Zhitomirskiy, and yesterday Fishkin sent out a broadcast email to his connections inviting them to attend Zhitomirskiy’s memorial, which was described as ‘open to all.’ Fishkin can write a moving email, and his text was so descriptive and colorful that I decided to attend. In part, Fishkin wrote:
“He was a visionary and revolutionary. He approached the world out of love and then used a profoundly gifted analytical mind to approach what could be done based on that love to circumvent all the forces of the world that would otherwise get between us and those we love. He founded Diaspora to achieve this. But more than this, he sought solutions to global challenges and gave us all further confidence to speak our truth.”
How could I not attend the memorial after an introduction so uplifting?
I am glad that I did attend, as this was the most moving and thought provoking memorial I have yet attended.
It made me cry many times and I wasn’t even Zhitomirskiy’s friend.
Over 100 of Zhitomirskiy’s friends were in the room, and I estimate 20 of them came to the podium to share their memories. I feel like I learned the essence of who Ilya Zhitomirskiy was in the course of this memorial. I wish I had gotten to know him better, as he seemed like a remarkable thinker.
A recurring theme his friends recounted was that Zhitomirskiy kept extensive to-do lists on Post-It notes on how to change and improve the world. He collected these notes on one of those skewers pointing in the air that restaurants stick their filled receipts upon. These notes and lists apparantly are so profound that one of his friends collected them and made a website dedicated to just displaying Zhitomirskiy’s to-do lists.
Zhitomirskiy talked of slaying metaphorical dragons frequently, I learned.
He dreamed of traveling the world as a public speaker, and longed for a way to have such travel and talking paid for. I have that in common with him…
He talked too much, but in a way that mesmerized his friends. One of his most ardent friends, Elizabeth Stark
(I didn’t learn her last name, and it seemed the wrong place to ask), an instructor at Stanford University, described passionately how she could stay up until 5am talking with Zhitomirskiy, and that such conversations seemed to just fly by they were so engrossing. I got the distinct impression that Elizabeth is a very smart woman, and she looked to be 10 years older than Zhitomirskiy. He must have been quite an impressive guy to keep her attention until nearly sunrise.
His friends over and over promised Zhitomirskiy that they would work hard in life to help finish his to-do list. They said Zhitomirskiy lived by a code where he advised keeping good company and making outrageous demands of them. He was known for his epic (sic) parties, and for his intense drive to introduce people to each other at said parties. He even started a website themed around these parties, but I couldn’t find a working site at the domain name mentioned, epicparty.com or epicparties.com.
Zhitomirskiy’s passing brought so many of those in attendance to tears. They clearly and dramatically loved him. His friends and family I hope will take tremendous comfort that Ilya Zhitomirskiy so profoundly touched so many impressive people. The whole room seemed to be filled with impressive and thoughtful people. One Asian woman who spoke at the podium had only known Zhitomirskiy for a month, yet her remarks were insightful and lovely. I meant to tell her so after, but she was engrossed in a conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt her.
It’s so sad when a bright light goes out too soon. I reflect on my own life at times like these. I pledge to redouble my efforts to help others and bring more happiness and good to the world. Thank you Ilya Zhitomirskiy for the inspiration you gave me to write about you and reflect on your short yet meaningful life.
I predict your influence Ilya Zhitomirskiy will remain upon the globe for many moons. May you rest in peace.
PS – I particularly invite Zhitomirskiy’s friends to introduce themselves to me by sending me a message or friending me on Facebook here. I’d like to learn more about your friend, and I’d like to know you as well, as it appears he kept quite good company from what I saw this evening.
[Additional: I added this November 24, 2011. After I wrote the above post, a friend of mine sent me a picture taken March 3, 2011. The picture is from the CloudFlare party I mention above, and it shows me with Ilya and four others. It’s a great picture, so I posted it to my blog here.]
[Additional: I added this February 9, 2012. I added the last name of Elizabeth to this post, as I found out her last name.]