There's something shady about these college class Facebook groups.

There's something shady about these college class Facebook groups.

As college decisions have started to come back, I did what any enterprising child of the internet would do: hurriedly searched for incoming student Facebook groups, worried that I was already too late and that I had lost my chance to meet people and to make a name for myself in the university social scene.

These groups are places where future students meet roommates, talk to other students to make a decision about college, and discuss plans, academic and otherwise. There’s also a variety of groupchats for each college, major, and interest – these came into public view last summer when a group of Harvard students had their acceptances rescinded when they were caught being racist idiots who (and I’m editorializing here1) probably didn’t deserve to be admitted to Harvard in the first place. The class groups, however, seem fairly innocuous and well-intentioned.

The first acceptance I received was from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Engineering. They did this whole social media thing the right way2, including a conspicuous link to an official, school-moderated Facebook group specifically for Engineering students in their acceptance email. It’s linked3 to their official page, had a nice note from admissions staff and is moderated by current UIUC students and staff. Sure, It’s a little ominous having admissions staff watching everything you do, but everyone is in the group and there’s no risk of what happened to other school groups.

I then received word from the University of Michigan Engineering. They didn’t include a link to any social media pages, but they did include a link to their app, which is sorta weird but didn’t include any reference to social media pages. I went to Facebook and searched University of Michigan class of 2022, which returned this group:

U of M Group

There’s a few things off about this. The first issue someone is likely to notice is that when they click the “Join” button, they are presented with a question dialog:

U of M Group Questions

It struck me as odd that an admissions office would directly market third-party products to students through Facebook, but didn’t think on it too much because many schools do use third party marketing firms and services, such as ZeeMee and SlideRoom in their application processes. I simply filled out the form and said “No” to each of the questions, and moved on. I also decided at around this time that I should join the U of I whole-class group, in addition to the engineering one. I was delighted to find this group4:

U of I Group

This time, I noticed that the “About” section was nearly identical to the “About” section in the U of M group, and that this U of I group also asks you if you have created a Roomsurf[.]com account.

About block comparison

It’s also worth noting that the groups are moderated by some of the same people – definitely strange considering admissions representatives only represent one school5.

Group moderators

Mousing over their profiles reveals that they are likely bot/fake accounts. Each has a stock photo as a profile picture (Here’s Kayla Thomas’), and has a large number of followers but has chosen to keep their friend count secret. It’s easier to buy followers without being detected by Facebook than it is friends.

Each of the accounts with header images (Kayla Thomas and Nicole Danielle Schlumberger) have only their college info public, and have shared a couple public posts with some relevance to college. They both indicate that they attended schools not even remotely similar to U of M or U of I.

The two Samuel Huang accounts (1 and 2) follow a similar pattern, but the first one appears to have a bit more legitimacy, and is therefore more interesting. The profile picture doesn’t show up in a reverse image search, and another picture of him with comments!

Samuel Huang

When I did request to join the groups (for testing purposes only!), this account was the one that accepted my request, which makes me believe this is either a real person working behind the scenes or a script that auto accepts group requests:

Samuel Huang

Observant readers will have also noticed that Samuel Huang actually list a business inquires email address, which brings us back to RoomSurf, and their parent company, eCampus Ventures.

It turns out that these groups are part of a whole slew of phony class groups set up as a sort of guerilla marketing scheme for RoomSurf, along with some of their partners.

From what I can tell, it’s extremely effective and in most cases these class groups appear to be the largest for their respective schools. When a student goes to join each group and is prompted by the questions form to sign up for the service, they probably assume it is a university-approved/endorsed service and sign themselves up. The use of the question form avoids Facebook’s spam/impersonation filtering, because the company is able to avoid putting sponsored information in the Group “About” section.

There’s no way of telling for sure how many groups like this have been set up for schools across the country, but I was able to find the following:

What’s more disturbing, perhaps, is that RoomSurf is able to market directly to the kids in the group, dropping posts and promotions whenever they want. RoomSurf’s blog mentions Facebook class groups multiple times, but they never include any links to the “official” groups. The service itself is fee-based and doesn’t appear to be affiliated with any college or universities, although they do offer to sell their services to them. They have been accused of shady marketing and have been hit with concerns from universities in the past, although they have simply deflected.

Their parent company’s CEO, Justin Gaither is even in the U of M group. Facebook prohibits the use of false identities and has strict policies regarding impersonation, and have reportedly been made aware of RoomSurf’s activities in the past, not that this has resulted in any action.

Moral of the story: watch out for shady guerrilla marketing schemes and corporate humanization on social media.

1 Not that I don’t usually editorialize….

2 UIUC also does a great job on their marketing and recruitment materials in general, but that’s another article.

3 When I say a Facebook group is linked, it means that a Facebook Page has been associated with the group. This makes the Page and admin of the Group and changes a couple things about how the group “about” page looks. For example, I have linked the NCP Class pages to the NCP Student Council Page (which you should Like, by the way!), which makes the groups show up under the Page’s “Groups” tab.

4 Interestingly, the U of I group already had some of my older friends (that actually attend U of I) in it.

5 There are some other shared moderators between the groups, but I’m choosing to just analyze these four for simplicity’s sake.

Ziggy Ziegelmueller

Justin Ziegelmueller

Aspiring Architect

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