In the acknowledgements section of NW, her 2012 bestseller, Zadie Smith thanked a computer application called "Freedom" for "creating the time" she needed to finish the book. It may be the highest-profile printed acknowledgment of a computer program in a work of fiction—The New York Times put NW on its list of the ten best books of 2012—and Smith is not alone in her admiration. The Economist called Freedom "the virtual equivalent of retiring to a remote getaway, or going on a writers’ retreat, to get things done."
Freedom is the creation of Fred Stutzman, an entrepreneur, expert on the intersection of social media and privacy, and visiting professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. Stutzman created Freedom to help him focus as he wrote his dissertation, but its core concept is related to his broader interests. "My research comes from a HCI [human-computer interaction] background," he says, "and the basis of my work is improving people’s experience with technology."
Freedom isn't free (but it used to be)
Stutzman invented Freedom in 2008 when he was a Ph.D. candidate at UNC, the institution where he also did his undergraduate work. In those days, whenever he needed a break from online information overload so that he could focus, read, and write, he visited a Wi-Fi–free coffee shop. But then the place next door got Wi-Fi—no password required—and all bets were off. Seeking a new way to keep the flood at bay, he created Freedom.
With Freedom, the user sets a period of time during which she or he wants the Internet turned off. Once it's set, you can't check Facebook or your e-mail until the period of time you specified has passed, so you're free from the temptation to check your e-mail, surf the Web, or chat with friends on Facebook. If you change your mind and want to override the program, you have to reboot your computer.
Soon after creating Freedom, Stutzman put it online, and people started posting their reactions. Some found it simplistic. A few were bothered by the idea of a technological fix for inadequate willpower. But no small number of pragmatic souls has proved willing to give it a try: So far, the program has been downloaded more than 300,000 times. It's so popular that when you type "freedom" into Google, it's the top result. A copy can be yours for just $10.
After Freedom became a hit, Stutzman released "Anti-Social," which blocks only social networking sites. There's irony in that, considering a key finding of his thesis, Networked Information Behavior in Life Transition: Facebook, Stutzman found, is a useful tool for students, facilitating social support that can help them adapt to college.
There's an even deeper irony, and also a retro element, in the idea of taking a powerful productivity machine like a modern laptop computer and shutting down some of its core functions in order to increase productivity. Stutzman's research methods have a similar character: In addition to modern, sophisticated "big data" techniques, he used semistructured interviews, a tool long employed offline by social scientists.
To learn that skill, he earned a graduate degree in survey methodology from the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science at UNC. "This probably added a year to my stay in graduate school," he says, but "if you want to understand a socio-technical phenomenon, big data is just one lens you can bring to bear." His part-ethnographic approach offered qualitative insights into the data sets he was studying. When choosing an approach to a research problem, he says, he prefers not to get boxed in.
Those social science studies weren't the only detour on the path to his Ph.D. In 2006, Stutzman and fellow UNC student Terrell Russell co-designed ClaimID, a service that would let users take charge of their digital identities: all the stuff that's recorded about people on the Web, both good and bad. A tool like ClaimID could be useful, for example, for students ready to join the workforce after years spent documenting their social lives with photos of their exploits.
Courtesy of Fred Stutzman and UNC
"We made a few trips to Silicon Valley, but in the end [we] didn't have the horsepower to engineer at scale against the bigger players," says Russell, who is now a data management research scientist at the Renaissance Computing Institute at UNC Chapel Hill. "Also, we thought other lifetime goals (other than money) were better served by finishing our degrees" instead of dedicating themselves to the company full-time, which, he says, they would have had to do to make the company a success. The ClaimID site still functions for 130,000 or so customers, but new registration is turned off.
ClaimID wasn't Stutzman's first experience at a startup. His first software job was as a programmer for The Motley Fool, in 2000, the peak of the Internet boom. After that, he worked at ibiblio.org, a public digital library, for 5 years, becoming the director of technology.
Then Facebook came along. Stutzman saw immediately that it was a phenomenon worth studying. "I entered graduate school in 2005 with a ready-made research project," he says. "There are ways of understanding problems and proposing solutions that come only out of deep study. I wanted to get that skill set, which a Ph.D. could give me."
Stutzman followed his UNC Ph.D. with a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University. "Postdocs are becoming more popular in information science, though these tend to be of shorter duration than in the physical sciences," he says. He did two 1-year appointments at the Pittsburgh school with Alessandro Acquisti, a professor and digital privacy researcher.
If there's a common theme to Stutzman's work—his academic research and the software products he has developed—it's an acknowledgment of the realities of online life: The Internet is good and bad, a great tool with hazards that must be managed. There's an inherent tension, for example, between privacy and online exposure, an issue he studied as a postdoc. Social media will be more effective—and less flawed—if this tension is intelligently addressed, Stutzman says.
For his postdoc, he helped design an app that could match up photos to people's names, as a provocation to regulators and policymakers, to demonstrate how privacy can be compromised. "It was also to get policymakers thinking, ‘If these researchers can do it, what can companies do?’ " The goal is to improve policies so that they result in lower privacy hazards to users.
The best of all worlds
While working on his Ph.D., Stutzman was a teaching fellow, teaching two undergraduate classes: Online Social Networks and Technologies of Friendship. As a postdoc, he found that he missed teaching. "There is something about designing and developing courses on emergent topics which gives me immense satisfaction," he says. So he returned to his alma mater as a visiting professor.
He has just completed his first semester in that post, which allows him to build things, teach, and research human-computer interaction. He enjoys not having to choose, but he knows he'll soon have to. "It is becoming quite obvious to me that both jobs—academia, entrepreneurship—are full-time," he says.
What's the next step? People with information science Ph.D.s often take academic jobs, but they may also work in research labs at companies such as IBM, Google, or Microsoft. A few start research-based technology companies. That's the direction Gary Marchionini, Stutzman’s Ph.D. adviser, expects Stutzman to pursue. Marchionini calls it "a kind of translational research for information science."
Marchionini says that Stutzman "could be a brilliant academic, and … I am somewhat disappointed that he will not likely become a professor at a top school, at least [not] right away. However, his ideas for helping people manage privacy and online behavior has broad and important practical impact in today's world, so I am quite happy to see him develop his company. He will surely do some teaching on the side and, who knows, [he] may come back to the academy full time in the future."