After listening to her friends recount horror stories about their college roommates, incoming freshman Alyssa Handschuch was relieved to meet someone she wanted to live with via the group for accepted students at the University of Michigan on Facebook.
“This year one of my friends is stuck with someone she had no desire to room with,” she said. “I didn’t want to be put in that situation.”
With the increased prevalence of Facebook and other social networking sites, incoming freshmen now have the choice to look for roommates online, instead of leaving their housing decisions in the hands of the University.
University Housing is currently in the process of testing a social networking tool to help students find roommates without resorting to sites like Facebook or uroomsurf.com — a site that matches incoming students based on certain criteria.
About a year and a half ago, University Housing officials started to create a new website to provide students more choices in selecting their roommates. The pilot program was offered for the first time this year to incoming Mary Markley Hall residents.
Currently, University Housing offers incoming freshmen the option of being matched with a random roommate or requesting a roommate, possibly with the aid of uroomsurf.com or other roommate finding sites.
While developing the new program, officials consulted LSA Student Government and the Residence Halls Association.
LSA-SG junior representative Adam London worked on the project last year and said LSA-SG’s role in the project provided input from a student perspective.
“It was certainly a collaborative process,” he said. “University administrators at all levels were very willing to meet with LSA-SG to discuss nuances of the plan.”
The resulting University pilot program acts as a self-contained networking site, allowing users to send and receive messages and to create personal profiles based on their responses to a survey.
However, unlike other online social networking tools, the University process still maintains some degree of “blindness.” Students are given anonymous identification numbers instead of being labeled by name. They can choose to give out personal information only after messaging anonymously with another user.
University Housing spokesman Peter Logan said this system allows students to portray themselves free from social pressure, in a way that other sites don’t allow them to do.
“Facebook pages are not always the best judge of a real personality,” Logan said.
By eliminating all external factors like photos and other media, the process allows students first to find people they are compatible to live with and then to learn everything else about them.
In addition to the anonymity, the University Housing option avoids excessive hobby and interest questions, like music preferences, instead focusing on “background-neutral questions” like study and room organization habits.
Michael Zabriskie, director of the Housing Information Office, said the office likes to focus the questions on rooming habits to prevent students from seeking roommates exactly like themselves.
“We value the differences that are present within our student population,” he said. “And we hope students will take advantage of those opportunities too.”
Logan said the questions are constructed to be extremely open-ended, forcing students to be as genuine as possible.
“The key thing is framing questions so that you don’t predispose students to answer in a certain way,” he said.
Another important element of the University service is that it doesn’t automatically match students, instead implementing a “self-selection process” that asks students to browse other profiles before making a selection.
Zabriskie said instead of clicking a single button and generating a roommate, students embark on a search that forces them to reflect on what behaviors they truly can and cannot live with.
“We’re not looking for anything like eHarmony where you click, and we find the perfect match for you,” he said.
He added that another advantage of the self-selection process is that students are more involved in the process, which strengthens the relationship between roommates.
“If they feel like they’ve been invested in the process they’ll try harder to make it work,” he said.
Despite past measures to revamp the roommate system, Logan said the pilot program is the University’s first “controlled effort” in involving social networking tools in University Housing because it statistically measures the effectiveness of the project.
This week marked the fourth data collection from participants in the program, comparing its success with a population of students who did not participate from the same key demographic.
Zabriskie said the program was offered to upperclassmen during housing sign-up this year, with about 200 participants, though it is still in the process of being evaluated.
“We don’t want to not offer the service while we’re figuring out if its effective or not,” he said. “If nothing else we are offering students more options, which I think is always good.”
While the program is being assessed, University Housing officials said they still are unsure which population of freshmen will be offered the program next year and how it will be implemented.
Uroomsurf.com is a relatively new roommate finder tool similar to the University’s pilot program. The site was created by Dan Thibodeau and Justin Gaither after the pair observed hundreds of incoming college freshmen searching for roommates on Facebook.
“At that point we had an, ‘aha!’ moment, because we knew there could be an easier way to find compatible roommates,” Thibodeau wrote in an e-mail interview.
The resulting site matches incoming freshmen based on their responses to a survey that includes topics like “hygiene, spirituality and study/party time split.” Users can choose to enhance their uroomsurf.com profiles by uploading profile photos or videos and by including additional information about their hobbies and interests.
Students make official roommate requests through their schools’ housing systems after being matched.
The site launched on Feb. 1, 2009, and attracted 3,000 users by the end of its first day. The counter at the bottom of uroomsurf.com’s homepage continues to click upwards as thousands more students sign up each week. As of April 9, 2010, uroomsurf.com boasted more than 45,000 users and networks from over 700 colleges and universities.
Thibodeau wrote that the positive response to uroomsurf.com has been overwhelming.
“We get e-mails almost every day from students thanking us for creating the site,” he wrote.
Of the site’s current users, 364 are incoming University of Michigan freshmen. Handschuch said she first heard about uroomsurf.com from others in the accepted University student Facebook group.
“I haven’t made an account, but I checked it out briefly to see what it was about,” she said. “If I hadn’t already found someone to live with, I’d definitely consider using it.”
University students who do not request roommates report varied experiences.
LSA freshman Bailey Torvinen opted to “room blind” and said a selection service like uroomsurf.com or the University’s pilot website would have been beneficial to her during the housing process.
“I wish I had that tool available to me because then, even if things didn’t work out, at least I’d know we had things in common, like maybe the same sleep schedule,” she said.
School of Education sophomore Laura Felosak said the “blind” roommate she was assigned by the University became one of her closest friends.
“She was more athletic in high school and I was more musical,” she said. “But as we got to know each other, we found out we had more in common than we thought.”
She said she might not have located her roommate had she used a networking site because initially it seemed like they had nothing in common.