More than the ‘freshmen fifteen’, snogging in the library and the rumpled walk of shame after a night of debauchery, the undergraduate experience is defined by roommates. For the majority of students, living away from home for the first time overlaps with sharing close quarters with a random person, and can lead to the most remarkable, experimental living conditions. Suddenly, you realize that your roommate has never vacuumed ever in his entire life: not only does he not do it, he never even thinks of it. You wonder if he believes that machine with the long hose in the common room is some sort of abandoned conceptual art piece. At the same time, he quietly fumes at you for always having your friends in the room, sitting on your bed, loudly discussing the plot intricacies of whatever high school TV soap is currently in favour, while he tries to finish his paper on Voltaire which should have been handed in last week.
Movies, books and TV shows about college life always touch on the summer-winter conflicts of mismatched roomies. On Undeclared, Judd Apatow’s short-lived series which was a training ground for his crew of lovable slackers, Jay Baruchel was sexiled from his room in the middle of the night by his hot roommate. He meets an entire colony of pyjama-clad sexiles camped out in the lounge who play team-building exercises and create their own subculture. Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons describes the exact same experience. In Felicity, the over-ernest heroine had a gothy roommate who dumped her stuff in the middle of the night, and wasn’t seen again until, in a painfully awkward scene, she walks in on Felicity discussing how weird she is to her friends. Mismatched roommates remain a source of inspiration for characters long-out of university: Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, Chandler and Joey on Friends, even Ernie and Bert. (Who are just roommates, guys! Although I’m still unclear on whether they are supposed to be kids, like Big Bird and Grover, or Muppet humanoid adults. Thoughts?)
But odd couple roomies may go the way of pagers and land-lines thanks to a new social-networking app called Roommate Finder. As described by Zosia Bielski in The Globe and Mail, UofT’s housing website now allows students to create profiles (complete with cute personalized avatars), list their likes and dislikes, and cross-reference them to find a suitable match. After only a month, UofT’s Roommate Finder has six hundred users, and York, Mount Royal and University of Calgary have all adopted the similar program StarRez.
“It’s like a dating service,” a housing rep at Calgary said. “It’ll tell you that this person is 90 per cent compatible with you and then you can look at their profile.”
But on the downside, it’s like a dating service. As anyone who has every plentyoffish-ed knows, how a date comes across online can contrast starkly with the real person sitting across from you. And in this case, rather than simply suffer through an awkward coffee date, you’re looking at nine months of listening to their keyboard clacking.
But there’s a more central problem with Roommate Finder: sometimes you might not know what you want. Part of the incredible adventure of university life is being thrown together with people from different backgrounds and interests than your own. It can turn out terribly, but it can also fundamentally change who you are. Bielski acknowledges this in brackets: “And who knows, random, seemingly impossible matches by administrators might just yield students a friend for life.”
The girl profiled in Bielski’s piece had two major requirements, that she was okay with her being loud and that she also liked Glee. Now I’m all for bonding over late night DVD watching, but having a TV show in common does not mean your personalities will compliment. If I sought roomies based on two of my favourite shows I can envision finding people very different from myself: The West Wing might snare me a dweeby policy-wonk, while Sex and the City might attract an orange-tanned, peroxide blonde with a status purse swinging from her arm. (I realize while I type this that, if I followed my initial argument, I may very well end up being the best of friends with the dweeb or Elle Woods, because you never know with people, but the fact remains that a mutual TV show does not a friendship make.)
Speaking of Sex and the City, we had a roommate pair at Guelph who illustrates my point nicely. One was a tall, classic-rock loving artist from Toronto, the other a petite English student from a small town. The former decorated her walls with Rollingstone covers, the later with holographic illustrations of fairies. When she joined her roommate and I watching Sex and the City, she had never seen it before, but knew instinctively she was a Charlotte (the traditional one). In the scene in which Samantha (the non-traditional one) claims that she’s dating a guy “with the funkiest-tasting spunk in the world”, she was so shocked, she considered getting up and leaving the room. But when the character Charlotte responded on the show by getting up and leaving the restaurant, she was too embarrassed to do the same thing, so she stayed. She ended up loving the show, had a good relationship with her roommate, and she and I, the farm-girl and the queer atheist, are still friends.
There was a similar situation with a young woman who came out as lesbian shortly after moving in, and her roommate from Virginia. The girl from Virginia showed up in a pick-up truck and to pass the time on move-in day actually whittled. The lesbian told me later that she was thinking ‘Oh good God…!’ But they also turned out to have a good relationship. I’ll remember them for their refrain for dealing with issues directly before they became passive-aggressive nightmares. They would say something like, “Dear Roomie, I love you a lot, you are an amazing person and I cherish you in my life, but if you leave your clothes on the floor (or whatever) one more time I’m going to SCREAM.” As far as I know, it worked.
Part of university is meeting different people, testing yourself and expanding who you thought you were. I worry that, by scoping out six hundred people’s profiles to see who also likes Arcade Fire and The Wire, students will become as fickle with roommates as singles are with dating. It’s funny that social networking which was born of university life (facebook, before your aunt Lorraine joined, was for embarrassing drunken pictures, and it was founded by former college roommates), may deny the next generation of undergrads one of the defining experiences of young adulthood.