By Sierra Pfeifer
UNC students are now planning their classes for fall semester, but they’re doing it without an online scheduling tool that many used to take advantage of. Coursicle is a privately-owned website that makes course planning easier. But the university is now blocking access to Coursicle after the site started sending users odd and offensive push notifications.
Joe Puccio, who graduated from UNC in 2016, co-founded Coursicle as a student. Since then, he has expanded the reach of the course planning tool to around 900 universities.
Until recently, that all Coursicle was: a scheduling service.
In February, though, Coursicle app users began receiving push notifications that said things like “Twitter dies today” or asked for nude photos of the actress Zendaya. Then, the whole website was replaced. At one point, it displayed a large photo of Mark Zuckerberg with a vulgar insult.
At first, many users thought Coursicle had been hacked, but Puccio soon admitted he was the one responsible.
“I think I went a little too far with some of the messaging on the notification stuff,” Puccio said. “I was going through basically a manic episode … My mental health has been on display for many, many people to see and, and I think that you know, I’m certainly not alone in experiencing that, especially post COVID.”
Puccio said his father took him to the hospital and he spent nine days getting mental health care.
But he said he doesn’t necessarily regret what he did.
“I think that this was a kind of a marking of a change from becoming like going from like a pretty standard company that’s like public facing is pretty boring and you know doesn’t doesn’t say anything controversial,” Puccio said.
He, who graduated from UNC with a degree in computer science and mathematics, said he’s been thinking for a while about changing Coursicle’s identity to focus more on mental health awareness, and the notifications helped do that.
“Tech has the ability to amass a massive amount of wealth, and it also has the potential to impact whether it be small or large, billions of people’s lives,” he said. “I think that it’s kind of like a responsibility, a moral imperative, to use that not just for profit making, but also for advancing social goals.”
But some students, including UNC sophomore Corinna Collins, found the notifications creepy and didn’t understand how they advanced a message about mental health.
“I found the Coursicle notifications very, very strange. … I was just really confused,” Collins said, “I logged out of the app and stuff for a while because it certainly wasn’t telling me my classes anymore so I didn’t understand. It definitely didn’t seem like it was promoting resources or creating an outlet for students’ mental health.”
Brandon Fisher, another UNC student, also said the notifications went too far. “I definitely think there’s a moral code that most of society follows that could be argued for better or not,” he said. “But when it starts to be almost societal harassment, that’s when it becomes a little too much.”
UNC used to have Coursicle directly embedded on its official website. So in February, on some professors’ pages where their courses used to be listed, users instead saw profanity.
UNC’s reaction was severe. It removed Coursicle from its official pages and blocked it on the campus wifi.
In a written statement, a UNC IT official said Coursicle was blocked because “it does not have administrative nor development controls that are minimally required to deliver a production service to the community.”
Some students say UNC’s reaction was too severe.
“I don’t think they should be blocking it unless it’s dangerous to the students,” said Maddie Brooks. “I don’t think they should be blocking things because they think they are inappropriate.”
And sophomore Eva Buckner urged the university to bring it back.
“I think in an ideal world, a CEO of a corporation wouldn’t do something like what happened to Coursicle,” Brooks said. “But clearly my interest with what happens with Coursicle begins and ends with its usefulness to me, and I’m not stopping using it because of what happened … It’s the easiest way to find what I need.”
Coursicle did return to normal after those few days in February. But Puccio won’t promise that it will stay that way.
“It’ll be continuing to have a more candid, less polished social media presence. I think it’s possible that the push notifications could come back,” Puccio said.
UNC said it plans to block Coursicle indefinitely. That means students will have to use the university’s own course planning system – which isn’t as user-friendly as Coursicle … but is free of unrelated content.