Facebookgate, the 2010 edition
Admissions officers more than a year ago started noticing something odd about the Facebook groups built around their incoming classes: The creators weren't newly admitted students. Or current students. Or alums. Or anyone with any tie to the universities.
Brad J. Ward, who then worked in the Butler University admissions office, began to compare the groups from colleges across the country -- including Georgetown, Virginia Tech and George Washington University -- and realized they were all created by the same handful of people. "There's something going down on Facebook. Pay attention," he wrote on his blog, Squared Peg, in December 2008
With help from admissions workers across the country, Ward traced these individuals to College Prowler, a Pittsburgh-based company that publishes campus guidebooks, and a not-yet-launched roommate-matching Web site called MatchU, started by a recent college graduate named Justin Gaither.
Admissions officers, who dubbed the incident "Facebookgate," fought back and eventually got the sites shut down. Case closed, the admissions officers figured. Until now.
Late last year, another roommate-matching service began popping up on Facebook with a giant blue U logo and the name URoomSurf.com. And who is one of the founders?
"So, here we go again," Ward wrote in an update to his famous blog post a year earlier. "Here's the spreadsheet of all of the groups and member names to date, feel free to chip in. We're already seeing the same trends as last year, such as common names starting groups as administrators."
Gaither and URoomSurf.com co-founder Dan Thibodeau say they learned their lessons last year. They are making a point to be more open in everything they do this year, as they attempt again to market to incoming students. The two 23-year-olds have been working on the site ever since they graduated from the University of Miami in 2008.
"We made some pretty poor decisions coming out of college," said Gaither. "The big thing that we learned from all of that is just to be transparent... We have a phone number on our Web site. A lot of sites that have our traffic don't have a phone number. We don't have anything to hide."
Gaither describes the site as the match.com of finding a roommate: Students log on, fill out a survey and are matched to potential roommates. If they find someone they like, they can contact the housing department at their school and request to live with that person.
The start-up runs out of a Miami apartment and relies on a staff of interns. It markets directly to students on Facebook by creating groups at more than 600 colleges, posting links in already established Class of 2014 groups and asking students to spread the word virally.
When a student complained on Twitter that there were only five people from her future college in the site's pool of roommates, they tweeted back: "If you post a link in your class group that should help your network grow a bit more - more members = more matches!"
Since launching on Monday, Gaither and Thibodeau say it has gotten more than 200,000 page views and claims to have matched nearly 500 roommates. Once they build a fan-base they are hoping to partner with universities and get paid to offer the service.
Ward's blog post about the Web site has led to 50 comments. This include complaints from from those who work in college admissions and persistent defense by URoomSurf.com representatives.
The college admissions crowd is upset the site is using their school name and student base for business purposes. They don't think the site understands or respects the complicated process of matching roommates. And many just don't trust the start-up.
An admissions dean at the University of Virginia says she has been "deleting this group's spam posts from the Class of 2014 group I created for over a month." A University of Hartford employee has been arguing with the Web site over a Facebook group called "Future University of Hartford 2014 Students Looking for Roommates."
J.D. Ross, the director of new media at Hamilton College in New York, wrote on his blog that Gaither had obscured his identity when asking the housing office questions.
URoomSurf's founders have disputed all these charges in comments on the blog posts and, in defending themselves, have cited links to Facebook pages and school admissions sites showing that what they did was appropriate. They say they never claim to be affiliated with the schools or housing offices. They aren't doing anything wrong, they say over and over.
"The concept that no one else can reach out to a group of students -- it's not something that we agree with," Gaither said. "The purpose of these groups is the students. We really hope the university doesn't censor that."
Ward is surprised the Web site is sticking to its guns: "I know they've learned a lot from last year. They seem more prepared to fight. And they are not backing down."
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