The start of each school year is always big news on
the Emory campus—as well it should be. The opening days of
the 2003–04 academic year, however, have been a bit more noteworthy.
Sure, Emory has a new president, but that isn’t why national
news organizations have been calling for the last month. Newspapers
and TV stations have wanted to report about Emory’s innovative
new way to match up roommates in University Housing through a software
program that shares the name of the Atlanta-based company that developed
A front-page story about WebRoomz in the Aug. 7 edition of The
New York Times started the proverbial ball rolling. The piece
was plucked off the wire by newspapers like the Salt Lake Tribune
and the Arizona Republic. Even a newspaper in Brazil ran
The Associated Press eventually wrote its own piece. So did USA
Today. On Aug. 25, the day freshmen bid for classes, The
Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave Emory and WebRoomz two-thirds
of that day’s front page of the Living section.
Print was not the only place WebRoomz appeared. Radio stations in
New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul talked about it. The program was
discussed on ABC’s World News Tonight and soon will be on
Good Morning America (featuring an on-camera appearance by Melissa
Trifiletti, associate director of residence life). The FOX station
in Tampa, Fla., did a feature; in all, Emory and WebRoomz have been
mentioned by more than 75 newspapers, and television and radio stations
around the country.
“We had no idea that we’d get this much attention,”
said Todd Schill, assistant vice president for housing. “And,
of course, that’s not why we did it. We knew we were going
to be one of the first schools in the area working with WebRoomz,
and the program has been a success. We really feel like we are at
the forefront of where campus housing is going. I believe this is
the way things will be run [nationwide] in the future.”
WebRoomz is an online matching service in which students can choose
their roommates using a detailed questionnaire that provides information
ranging from personality attributes (outspoken, happy, adventurous)
to lifestyle (occasionally play loud music, immediately clean dirty
dishes, never smoke) to food preference (Indian, Chinese, Cajun,
Students check the profiles to find someone who matches their interests.
They then can contact them anonymously (everyone has his or her
own screen name). What happens next—whether the students end
up as roommates or keep on looking—is the students’
“The system gives the individual a lot of empowerment,”
Schill said. Previously, University Housing matched students up
using a much-less-detailed questionnaire.
Schill said Emory was committed to WebRoomz even before all the
publicity. Future enhancements could include a feature through which
students could request room maintenance work online. WebRoomz also
could serve as a database for student emergency-contact information.
Prior to the system’s implementation, facts such as the names
of a student’s immediate-family members were kept in vertical
files. Now, the information can be retrieved with a couple of keystrokes,
But the novelty of WebRoomz is what drew the media’s attention.
As the story grew, Lisa DeMik, assistant director for university
housing, found herself playing the role of media liaison. Media
requests would come in to the Office of University Media Relations,
and Assistant Director Beverly Clark would funnel them to DeMik,
who then would work with Clark to line up interested students from
the newspaper or TV station’s area to offer a local perspective.
Once stories began appearing, some journalists, like one from the
University of Pennsyl-vania’s student newspaper, which ran
an Emory/WebRoomz story late last month, would just call DeMik directly.
“The reporters were all tremendously polite, but they needed
everything very fast,” DeMik said. Upon receiving a media
request, she would contact students looking not only for geographical
relevance but also people who were articulate and willing to be
quoted in a newspaper or appear on camera. The work was unexpected,
tense and labor-intensive, but not unpleasant. “It’s
actually been sort of fun,” DeMik said.
Reporters aren’t the only people who have been calling, either.
“Recently I’ve been getting calls from other schools
who want to know more about the program,” DeMik said. “They
want to see about potentially using it themselves.”