September 8, 2003

WebRoomz in national news

Eric Rangus

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 it: WebRoomz.

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 story.

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, etc.).

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’ decision.

“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, Schill said.

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.”