A few months ago podcaster Lex Fridman released a list of books he planned on reading for the following six months. The post stirred up a lot of attention and controversy, which many threw off as another case of useless internet drama. And while that was true, I couldn’t help but think that there might be more to the story.
Lex Fridman is just about the least controversial person on the internet. He talks very dryly about peace and love and interviews a wide array of important but (not until recently) uncontroversial characters. His podcast was able to blow up over the wide array of connections he developed over the years as one of the research heads at MIT (particularly in the self driving/computer vision department). He is a hivemind acolyte, sure, but other than that there is little that pokes out about the man.
On December 31st, he posted a list of books he planned on reading the following year. When I first saw the post, I didn’t think much about it. When I saw it again, I actually read the list and thought it was pretty inoffensive. When I saw it a third time, I briefly considered creating one of my own, before deciding that my reading schedule was far too disorganized for that to ever be done properly. When I then saw it a fourth time, I began to realize something was wrong.
When you see something on the internet the first three times, especially if its made by a popular figure, it can be chalked up to coincidence. Any more times after that, and its a story.
But it didn’t make sense. This was a reading list. Seriously, its a bunch of fucking books some guy plans on reading. Where was the story? What was the conflict? What was the overarching narrative? I began to dive deeper — I rarely use Twitter myself — and I began to find more bizarre flags. Persons of interest, high up on the clout ladder, began discussing the post in hushed tones, referring to it solely as “that list”. Drama cows such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, arguably the Keemstar of academia, began to hound the post. The more the reading list came to the front of my conscience, the more I began to see it pop up again and again.
It seemed like it was one of those things where everyone had to have a take. Which was strange, since there really wasn’t any take to be had. The wide majority threw it off as a some silly internet drama, meaningless trifle that goes on all the time in the webosphere, and went on their day.
But this one stuck with me. Sure, a lot of internet drama is meaningless. But almost all internet drama has two key characteristics: conflict and/or controversy. Conflict here is defined by a negative interaction between two people (i.e. one Youtuber calls out another) and controversy defined by a topic that is meant to incite a response (i.e. a Twitter user condones an unproven diet regime). The particularly strange thing was that this reading list had neither. Lex Fridman was not directly getting involved or interfering with a third party, and his list was, to anyone who knows reading, quite possibly the safest thing possible.
This also couldn’t be covered under controversies regarding “Top X” lists. Often when a website like Rolling Stone releases a list entitled “Top 100 Albums of All time” or some such, there’s a bit of meaningless scuffle surrounding it. But this would be covered by the controversy clause, as making an objective claim about subjective value is inherently controversial. But Fridman isn’t making any value claims! It’s just a list of fucking books to read, for godssakes! He even just outsourced the list to his Twitter following only two weeks prior!
There was internet drama — fast moving, pitiful, done primarily for short-term impressions boosts — and then there was this. Where others saw just another case of Twitter being silly, I saw something deeper. But I just couldn’t wrap my head around what it was.
And then, two weeks later, after all the dust had settled… I found it.
Introducing Mass Psychosis
Mass psychosis is defined as an event where a large subgroup of individuals briefly lose touch with reality and begin to hallucinate a threat which isn’t there. The occurrence is extremely rare, and to this day it is debated by scholars as to whether or not it is even real in the first place. But fortunately I am not a scholar, I am just some rando on the internet who can make shit up if it makes things interesting.
Mass psychosis typically has a series of events leading up to the psychosis which serves as the catalyst, usually a sudden intensification of stress. It is worth noting that this stress must effect multiple people in order for it to work. For example, if John Doe gets cancer and then one day sees something that reminds him of the cancer, it will cause a stress build up in him but would rarely effect others. On the other hand, if a mass shooting incident occurs in the United States, this can cause stress to be built in the subsegment of people who live in the United States.
Perhaps the first example that comes to mind of something I would deem as “mass psychosis” is the 2007 Boston Mooninite panic. Adult Swim, advertising their upcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie, placed small electronic placards of the film’s mascot character — the Mooninite — across the city of Boston. However, this occurred on the eve of US terrorist concern reaching one of its many heights, and when some citizens saw the unmarked placards they immediately began to worry and reported the authorities. This escalated to a bomb threat scenario being put in place across the city as well as the (temporary) arrest of those placing the LED cards.
This story, in many ways, seems to parallel the one we just discussed. This drama occurred from neither conflict nor controversy — placing funny looking alien creatures all over Boston is hardly a crime — and yet caused a brief panic which was later deemed to be “just another boring news cycle”. Additionally, we can call this psychosis because a series of events (increase IED bomb scares in US) caused a sudden intensification of stress in a subgroup (Boston citizens) thus resulting in a brief panic that seems detached from reality (thinking silly light up fellas are out to kill you).
So, we seem to have mass psychosis down, and can trace it back to Fridman’s reading list. All we need now is the series of events that caused all of this…
Diving A Little Deeper
I hinted near the beginning that Lex Fridman was a fairly unassuming character until recently. What exactly caused this shift?
Two things. The first was that Fridman, as of the past three months or so, decided that he was tired of having old boring scientists on his podcast. This was first marked by his popular interview with Kanye West, but followed up in quick succession with his interviews with right wing thinker Ben Shapiro and left wing thinker Steven Bonnell. The second thing, perhaps more relevant to his experience with Twitter, revolves around his sudden association as an “Elon Musk reply guy”.
Elon Musk and Lex Fridman are friends. This is pretty well known to anyone who knows about the two. Musk is a regular on Fridman’s show, and most of their back and forth on Twitter and beyond was been cordial. But after Elon Musk made the controversial decision to purchase and take control of the social media platform, Fridman began acting… weird.
This behavior, the constant dotting on Musk and upholding his most controversial takes, was out of the ordinary for Lex. Many people caught on. A few assumed that he was being tricky — that he did not exactly mean what he had said, but was playing diplomat and trying to unite the Pro-Musk and Anti-Musk sides. Others, particularly those who had not heard of Fridman before these tweets, assumed he was just fanboying and not thinking of the consequences. Either way, people assumed something was wrong.
This all culminated in a particularly dangerous tweet Fridman had made where he asked Musk to take over Twitter. The tweet was made in a partial joking manner, but it was clear that Lex would accept if given the opportunity. There was a brief back and forth between the two, until Musk appeared to reject Lex’s offer.
This tweet officially marked the point where Fridman, likely for the first time in his life, began getting haters. Many people saw him as a pushover, a fanboy, someone who used the words of “love” and “peace” and cried about being attacked as a way to manipulate people into what he wanted. Some people even began to question his MIT credentials, noting that he was not a tenured professor but rather a senior researcher (this line of thinking was quickly debunked by many of Fridman’s MIT colleagues, though could have been assumed as false given virtually all of his early content was MIT-focused).
And, to make things particularly spicy — a lot of this we still don’t know the answer to! Fridman could be manipulating people, and could be using his connections to bide himself power and influence. All us Fridman podcast veterans may have been duped by the mans love speech, and in reality he could have more dubious intentions. Things seem to float to be more likely that he’s good than bad, but the jury is still currently out.
Anyway, let’s bring this back to the point from earlier. This whole controversy had only occurred in December. The reading list was posted December 31st! Suddenly, things are beginning to make more sense. The reading list controversy had absolutely nothing to do with the reading list — it was all carried-over trauma from the Twitter debacle, which did certainly have the controversial elements to be considered a proper drama. We can call this psychosis because a series of events (Fridman’s reply-guying and armchair Twitter CEOing) caused a sudden intensification of stress in a subgroup (Twitter users) thus resulting in a brief panic that seems detached from reality (thinking someone’s personal reading list was out to get them). There you have it! The cognitive dissonance is gone, we can all go home, QED.
(Final note, to those who are particularly stern and boring: yes, obviously, this is not how science or psychology or sociology or whatever actually works. This is more just an interesting theoretical discussion in groupthink. I am not making any broad scientific claims, just stirring the pot as I always do.)