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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
The Observer

Coursicle co-founder offers ‘An Explanation’ for deluge of push notifications, advocates for mental health empathy

Students across campus received the puzzling push notifications in early 2022, which ranged from soliciting nude pictures of Zendaya to raging against Big Tech figures like Mark Zuckerberg.

The notifications were sent through the class scheduling app Coursicle, which helps students keep track of their schedules and set up notifications about closed and waitlisted classes. The app underwent outages during the period. 

According to Coursicle co-founder Joe Puccio, over 60% of Notre Dame students use the app. This is the second campus where Coursicle was introduced.

Though he doesn’t shy away from being an eccentric, Puccio says there was far more at play in the notifications and outage. 

Coursicle co-founder Joe Puccio speaks to Notre Dame Silicon Valley Semester students in February 2020. Puccio experienced a manic episode two years later, making national headlines for a flood of controversial push notifications.
Courtesy of Notre Dame California
Coursicle co-founder Joe Puccio speaks to Notre Dame Silicon Valley Semester students in February 2020. Puccio experienced a manic episode two years later, making national headlines for a flood of controversial push notifications. / Courtesy of Notre Dame California

Puccio released an essay called "An Explanation" on his personal website Thursday, which marked the one-year anniversary of the meltdown. He paints a more complicated picture of the circumstances around last February, describing his experiences of a manic episode.

“One year ago today I was admitted to the hospital for disorganized thinking, unbounded elation and highly risky behavior. I was sending crude, lewd, and bizarre push notifications to hundreds of thousands of college students,” he writes in his explanation. “I was sleeping two hours a night while writing essays. And I nearly bankrupted my company when I tried to spend $1.2 million dollars on an ad attacking Mark Zuckerberg. News coverage only motivated me to continue.”

Puccio co-founded Coursicle as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina (UNC), where he graduated in 2016.

“When I was an incoming freshman at UNC, I spent like seven hours planning my class schedule, and when I went to register for my classes, I only got into one of the five I needed to take,” Puccio told The Observer, speaking from an office in New York City. “And so that night, I wrote a program that would notify me when a class I wanted had an open seat. And then my friends suggested opening up to other students.”

Slowly but surely, the program spread from campus to campus. Puccio said much of the brunt work was around publicity and marketing.

The project had been co-founded with his then-girlfriend, and after graduation, they moved to San Francisco. In his essay, Puccio describes how his anxiety became a problem in their relationship and ultimately led to their breakup after 10 years together. 

“But there was still one more thing tying us together: Coursicle. In order to get the most money for her stock, she removed me from the board and took full control of the company. After months of deliberation, enormous stress and tens of thousands in legal fees, the Coursicle lawyers convinced her to restore my position and negotiated a price for her equity. Finally, I was free,” Puccio writes.

He writes that this legal battle, instability regarding a potential eviction and antidepressants that did not address his bipolar disorder all came together in a mental health episode that would bring him “delusions of grandeur” and apocalyptic thinking about the imminence of artificial general intelligence (AGI).

Puccio called the White House to warn them about AGI and became deeply paranoid over a trackpad malfunction on his computer, thinking that Apple and Google were “battling over control” of his computer.

And he began sending out millions of push notifications on the app.

“I certainly do have some memory loss from that time because that happens when you have a manic episode to some extent, but from what I remember, a lot of it was it was mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff, any little thing that popped in my head. I was having conversations with hundreds of people online and any little thing we were talking about or some little joke someone thought was funny, I would send a notification out,” Puccio said.

At the time, the hints about his manic state were not hard to find. In a Feb. 10, 2022 note on his website, he wrote that “for those too f***ing daft to understand why I'm talking about Zendaya nudes. It's because I'm in pain and I want to draw attention to my cause as fast as possible so the pain will end and the best way to do that is to be provocative.”

Regardless, the Coursicle notifications became something of a meme across social media and dining hall tables. The response to his erratic behaviors came in a wide spectrum. His alma mater blocked access to the Coursicle app, while he received pieces of encouragement for some of his ideas from Steve Wozniak, Noam Chomsky and the CTO of Reddit.

“There was some lewd, provocative stuff in there,” Puccio said.

But there were also some things he’s happy resonated with his audience.

“I think that some people, they picked out the good and these are sentiments that I absolutely have. I mean there is obviously—I think we can all agree—a massive wealth disparity that's worsening. And tech companies are consolidating an enormous amount of power,” Puccio said. 

He received many messages and communications, and looking back, he recalled just how confusing the public response was.

“To the people who resonated with some of the stuff that I said, that's good. Sometimes you’ve got to take the bad with the good. And I'm glad that I was able to connect with some people,” he added. “That's the one thing that I struggle with—I have no sense of what portion of people liked that messaging or part of it, versus just found all of it despicable.”

A year after his episode and hospitalization, Puccio said that he’s “eager to explain what happened” for a number of reasons.

“This was an incredibly public mental health episode and so I feel like the response to it needs to be just as public, that's why I'm trying so hard to disseminate it,” he said.

Mental health destigmatization is core to his effort.

“If I'm going to write about something I have to go all the way. I am an incredibly candid person,” Puccio said. “This was something that was very defining. All of my mental health struggles have defined me in a lot of ways.”

He said that he hopes this explanation promotes what he deemed as “mental health empathy,” leading people to view irrational behaviors in a more compassionate light.

“I think that it helps people realize hopefully, the scope of what was going on because a lot of people I would imagine, they just see this guy as kind of an a**hole, he's just sending notifications, some that are inappropriate, blah, blah. But to give them a sense for how irregular my thought was at the time, potentially contextualizing those messages and understanding them and empathizing with them more,” Puccio said. 

Puccio also said he hopes that his episode will help others recognize something similar.

"It’s not just the messages, but also behind the scenes, something that's much grander, that's much more concerning,” he added.

Puccio said that society is moving in the right direction towards destigmatization as well as larger “acceptance of eccentricities,” but there is more progress to be made. 

“Hopefully, people realize that it's not that someone is damaged or wrong or just completely irrational or whatever, it's that they're suffering from a disease. I certainly don't think that we should view any mental health problems any differently than any physical disease, and I think that society has a long way to come for that. There’s still absolutely a stigma towards mental health problems,” he said.

The notifications were a temporary phenomenon that were ultimately swiped off from user’s lock screens, but there were other notes and essays that Puccio wrote in the throes of his manic episode. He’s decided not to delete them.

“Another thing that I thought about a decent amount is I decided not to take down anything that I wrote at the time. And I think part of it is because for one, it was a combination of my unusual brain and the illness that produced that, and I'm not ashamed of that stuff. I hope that it would be enlightening to people to see what it is. I don't like a lot of what I wrote and I certainly don't agree with a lot of it now, but I still don't think that it's right to you know, completely shy away or hide,” he said.

Puccio’s essay invites people to talk with him.

“I met hundreds of Coursicle users who reached out directly, some giving support, others in need of it. One thing I discovered in the psych ward was how gratifying it is to help someone who feels alone with their disorder. If you'd ever like to chat, you can text or email me,” he wrote.

He concludes his essay with an appeal to look deeper.

“My hope is that sharing my story will encourage others to share theirs and that anyone who is ashamed of their affliction will feel a little less so. I believe empathy is built from exposure, and if we explain to others what we feel, when we feel it, and, if we're fortunate enough to know: why we feel it. Then maybe they'll understand. Maybe they'll see beyond our symptoms,” he writes. “Maybe they'll see us.”