A scene from move-in day at the University of Florida, a school that lets its thousand of incoming freshmen find a roommate on Facebook. (Credit: Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET)
In 2007, Facebook had been open to the public for less than a year, but a troublesome tendency -- now commonplace among nearly every college-age teenager in the country -- had already begun emerging: The moment incoming students received their roommate's name, they would type it into Facebook to learn all they could.
That singular action -- which often inspires overbearing parents and judgmental teens to flood housing offices with complaints -- led Robert Castellucci to co-found RoomSync, a pre-eminent roommate pairing service that operates right within Facebook.
"We looked at the landscape and we're like, 'Everyone's going onto Facebook to research their roommate after they're assigned," said Castellucci, acting CEO of the Gainesville, Fla.-based company. "So we said, 'Instead of fighting this trend,' -- which frankly housing offices are not crazy about -- 'let's incorporate Facebook into the process.'"
Robert Castellucci, CEO and co-founder of RoomSync, had the prescient idea that Facebook might one day become the official -- and unofficial -- roommate marketplace. (Credit: RoomSync)
The service, which was founded in 2007 but only started working with its first client in 2009, hit a milestone of 50 schools in June, up from 20 two years ago. Among his customers: Northwestern University, University of California at Davis, and the University of Maryland.
Chalk up another example of technology shattering long-held practices. With teens living so much of their lives online, the idea of a surprise college roommate is becoming an antiquated notion, like waiting for a picture to be developed.
The change has been gradual, and tied inextricably to Facebook. As the social network moved from Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm to colleges and then the rest of the world, universities started seeing a rise in roommate requests. Facebook, it seemed, encouraged it. You could connect with people, find common friends, see shared "Likes." And so some schools started easing restrictions and letting people choose who they live with.
Now, thanks to the ubiquitousness of the social network -- remember, Zuckerberg recently shot down the idea that teens aren't using Facebook -- the approach is becoming status quo for schools across the country.
"If you look at the national trend, the scales are starting to tip," said T.J. Logan, the associate director of housing at the University of Florida, a RoomSync customer.
A less risky alternative When Alexis Yannarelly, an incoming freshman nursing student at Minnesota State University, settled into her dorm on August 22, she was already more than a month into a friendship with her new roommate Macy Johnson. She even knew her preferred frozen yogurt order after meeting up in person, Johnson having traveled from neighboring Wisconsin to do so.
"Some people did say that having a random roommate might be better," Yannarelly said. "Yes, it could be a really good thing -- you could end up being best friends. But you could end up with someone who's unbearable. I didn't want to take that chance."
The process was simple. The school e-mailed Yannarelly a link with an access code that let her log into Minnesota State's special housing portal on RoomSync, all within Facebook. "We're starting to see a sentiment shift. Housing people are understanding that Facebook is not going away."
From there, Yannarelly filled out a simple questionnaire -- things like sleeping habits and cleanliness levels that you would find on a standard school survey -- and was then given algorithmic suggestions based on her answers and info gleaned from her Facebook profile. After that, RoomSync is hands off.
Incoming students, as if looking for a date, can search for people who share interests and majors. They strike a connection, exchange messages and, once both users confirm the match on the app, the housing officer receives it and makes it official. (Credit: RoomSync)
Though this pretense for seeking out others online is quickly becoming a booming business for RoomSync, it's been years of waiting for Castellucci to see potential customers come calling.
"We're starting to see a sentiment shift. Housing people are getting it," he said. "They're understanding Facebook is not going away."
The success of self-selection Because of how chaotic the traditional, random roommate pairing method has become in the Facebook era, some universities release room assignments on a Friday evening -- an attempt, at least, to give the housing department a weekend to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of phone calls and e-mails from nervous students and finicky parents.
Prior to 2010, University of Florida housing department did all room assignments this way -- by hand in a room of 20 people assigning more than 7,500 residents over a single weekend. At that point, incoming students were only asked their gender and if they smoke.
"We have come a long way since then," said Carolynn Komanski, the assistant director for Administrative Services at the University of Florida. That's why University of Florida turned to RoomSync.
Now, 87 percent of the approximately 4,500 freshmen who live on campus use RoomSync. Even better, UF's complaints -- which amounted to 670 the year before RoomSync's implementation -- dropped by 67 percent for the 2011-2012 academic year.
While it is important to note that UF's "conduct office also adopted a new conflict-resolution model around the same time," Komanski said, RoomSync has helped.
The random element of the traditional college experience Not all schools are ready to let Facebook take over their process. After all, inspecting someone's Facebook profile is hardly enough information to get an accurate sense of who they really are.
That's precisely why Stanford University -- in a nice twist, considering it's at the epicenter of Silicon Valley -- still picks roommates by hand. In fact, the school doesn't let incoming freshman know who they'll be living with until the day they show up on campus to start school. For some schools, self-selection is a no-brainer, no matter how safe it may be with respect to helping push students outside their comfort zones.
"I feel like the beauty about Stanford is that the Stanford roommate pairing system forces you to be with someone who you would not have met otherwise," said Elliot Williams, a junior at the California institution. Coming from upstate New York and fearing the roommate disaster stories, Williams was surprised to find that his Texan roommate was in fact "awesome," and they bonded over their eerily similar sense of humor, he said.
"To allow students to pick their roommates could be good in terms of comfort level, but not in terms of challenging students and breaking down walls between different groups, which is what higher education is supposed to do."
While the elite Stanford, with its modest incoming freshmen class size of 1,700, can afford to align its roommate pairing process with its diversity-driven mission, many other institutions aren't as lucky. For some, self-selection is a no-brainer, no matter how safe it may be with respect to helping push students outside their comfort zones.
So regardless of how you slice it, the ultimate winner here may just be Facebook. As more and more colleges see the approach of self-selection as an appealing way to deal with the headache of roommate pairing, the utility of the social network extends beyond a drama-filled reflection of high school and a social playground for share-happy adults.
Zuckerberg may have to spend more time than he'd like dispelling the rumor that teenagers are abandoning his site en masse -- but in 2013 it's looking like an increasingly important place for a college-bound teenager to spend time online, if only to avoid living the roommate horror story one is often told on move-in day.
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