Does Social Media Affect Student Diversity?

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.” – Mark Twain

In the fall of 2011 there was a New York Times Editorial bashing Roommate Matching technology (like RoomSync) as one of the many new technologies that take the randomness out of life.

In particular, the author highlighted that Roommate Matching via social networks was a pie-to-the-face of his biggest growing experience as a young adult – having a roommate that was markedly different than him.

Technology and Randomness

The premise of the article is that social technology can only introduce self-similar people, but that’s not true. Designers and developers make things people are motivated to use – like ways to make new friends and go on dates and to help find fun stuff to do with these friends and dates. If people want to read Yelp reviews before going to a restaurant (as mentioned in the article), then Yelp is simply providing a service that users want. Does that really take the randomness out of life?

If you think about it, under what circumstances would a tech company build something that users didn’t really want to use? The answer – if it was uncomfortable at first, but ultimately good for you.

Helping you do what you don’t want to

Colleges and Universities – Schools – like very few other institutions, engage in the practice of making people do things they’d rather not because it’s good for them. They create structures which people do insufferable things, like making a Humanities major take Statistics, or requiring a Business major to take European History. Technology can actually do this too, but only if there’s an economy for it.

When looking at our Schools App’s friend matching algorithms, we were asked from a few schools “You’re introducing people based on similarities. Could you introduce people based on diversity?”  Why yes, yes we could. But then we’d have to figure out something else entirely different – how to make users want to do it. We see a potential in these requests as an idea we’ve called the Diversity Algorithm. 

Diversity and Social Media

Research shows students want to meet similar people before they feel comfortable meeting different people. Meeting markedly different people right away can lead to a sense of isolation and even rejection (which is, to a teenager, the most painful experience imaginable.) If we do introduce The Diversity Algorithm, we’d have to do it methodically and in a way both students and administrators get benefit from.

What did you think of the Nytimes Op-Ed on roommate matching? Is social media taking the randomness out of life, or are these new technologies simply meeting student and institutional needs?

  • Rob Castellucci

    Great Post. Very interesting on the diversity algorithm, I think there’s some real opportunity for it if its done the right way. I’d be very interested to see the research about meeting similar people before meeting different people. Intuitively it feels right but haven’t seen any literature on it yet. 

  • Michelle Finizio

    Without programs like Yelp, people are more likely to actually return to people/places they already know and feel comfortable with instead of expanding their experience base. By providing systems like Yelp or in this case RoomSync, people find comfort in having information to work with instead of entering a situation blindly. Therefore, the randomness has not been taken out of life, but instead strategically planned randomness has been put into life. Contrary to the NYT article’s claims, people will probably be more likely to jump into something new if they have background information to go off of. 

  • Lucas M. Engelhardt

    Actually, I’ve occasionally used technology to provide intentional randomness (technically “pseudorandomness”, I guess) into my own life. Example: the “Wheel of Lunch”. You plug in your ZIP code, and it spins a Wheel of Fortune-style wheel to tell you which restaurant to eat at. You can do the same thing with an Excel spreadsheet and a list of anything (I used that to figure out what book to read next at one point).

    So, yeah, I think there are times that we like randomness. But, I don’t think that roommate matching is one of them. If you don’t like the choice, you’re either stuck with this person for a year or stuck with a painful process of changing roommates. A bad roommate is not like a bad meal. The college I went to used a very old-fashioned method of roommate matching (they had everyone fill out notecards with certain preferences – bedtime, tidiness, etc.), and literally went through the cards and matched them by hand. In 2001. But, the method worked – most people kept their roommates for four years, and there were very few roommate conflicts. (In my case, my roommate and I still stay in touch – though we were never best friends. Yet, we stayed roommates for 4 years.) To me, that suggests that you can achieve a better university environment, with fewer needless conflicts, if you’re careful about roommate matching.

    Learning to deal and work with different kinds of people is important – but learning to LIVE with different kinds of people might very well not be.

    • Brandon Croke

      Thanks for sharing Lucas, we definitely share your opinion that smart roommate matching technology is good for students and institutions alike.