Letter from the editor: The love story behind Room Rater, the social media hit of the pandemic

During the darkest days of the pandemic last spring, when everyone was in full lockdown and so much about the coronavirus was still unknown, technology, humanity and a plain old-fashioned love story combined for the pop-culture hit of 2020: Room Rater.

The Twitter account, created by Claude Taylor and Jessie Bahrey, rates Zoom backgrounds on a scale of one to 10. To score a perfect 10 was to be enshrined in the pantheon of pandemic photogenic folklore. 

Taylor, a political activist based in Washington, D.C. and Bahrey, a greenhouse office manager in Vancouver, had been dating for 11 months before the pandemic hit, shuttling back and forth between the two cities.

The project began innocently enough as a fun way for the two to stay connected during the most intense lockdown period last March, when they couldn’t be together in person.

“We were on the phone a lot, doing FaceTime. We’d both be watching CNN or MSNBC, and we would be making offhand comments to each other about the room that the person was being interviewed in,” Taylor told me this week in a phone interview. “We just started informally rating rooms and then it was just, ‘You know, let’s start a Twitter account.’”

With Bahrey watching Canadian news interviews and Taylor taking on the American ones, the account racked up thousands of followers within its first few hours. 

From world leaders to Hollywood stars, the couple spared no one––calling out bleak backgrounds and camera angles and proving that no matter what kind of house money can buy, it can’t buy style. Celebrities? Well, they’re just like us. Tom Brady had probably never scored a one out of 10 in his life until April 26. Jake Gyllenhaal was living in a hostage video with a closet. Ouch. And Meryl Streep needed that martini to go with her Room Rater score of three

After achieving a nine rating, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “I’ll keep striving for that highest, hardest glass ceiling, the elusive 10/10.”

“A lot of it is tongue and cheek,” said Bahrey. “‘Add a plant’ became an inside joke because of where I work.” 

Canadian politicians and pundits also got into the act. Calgary political strategist Zain Velji spent months desperately pleading with Room Rater for that elusive 10 out of 10. It finally took Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, stepping in with a succulent to help Velji seal the deal. 

Of course, it’s not just those on television who have had to think about their home office. Since the pandemic began, we’ve all been judged on our Zoom backgrounds. 

When Goldie Zbornak’s husband lost his job in July after 25 years at the same company, she tweeted that they used a lot of what they’d learned on Room Rater to prepare for his job interviews. 

“I mean no disrespect to Hillary Clinton or Al Roker, but that meant a lot more,” said Taylor. 

It is a fine line between fun and amplifying existing inequality. Not everyone can afford a museum painting or art sculpture to improve their backgrounds. Both Bahrey and Taylor admit it’s a concern, so they’ve tried not to let Room Rater be an ode to the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”—especially during a pandemic that has decimated so many lives.

“I started looking out for rooms that were way more achievable,” Bahrey explains. “A bookshelf with four-dollar plants, artwork from Amazon or something simple.” 

The account now has more than 360,000 followers. It’s all in good fun and for a great cause. According to Taylor, Room Rater has raised roughly US$400,000 to date for PPE, delivered mostly to Indigenous communities and rural hospitals across the United States.

“It’s been face masks, plastic shields, surgical gloves, surgical masks. We bought and delivered 175,000 reusable cloth face masks, one for each member of the Navajo Nation, at their request.” Taylor told me.  

The pair are still figuring out how to accept donations in Canada because the account is tied to Taylor’s U.S. political organization. “Having it tied to a PAC was easy and convenient for us to raise money quickly, but as it has become bigger and bigger we’re looking at different options,” said Bahrey.

So what makes a good room?

It’s very simple, Taylor assured me: “Think of colour, composition, and depth.”

“We like a room where your eyes travel back. You can see some art on the wall on the left and the right. Perhaps there’s a bookcase at the end.” 

With all the newfound attention, the two have themselves been judged on their rooms. Bahrey admitted that it took seven hours for her to score an eight out of 10 in her first television appearance. 

“I was absolutely petrified. I had my iPad on my cat’s perch and brought a big plant from one of the other rooms into my background, and telescopes. It definitely made me realize how the small things really make a difference.”

This past July, the couple forged their virtual partnership with a real-life one. When Bahrey was finally able to cross the border into the United States to visit Taylor in D.C., Taylor proposed. Bahrey said yes.

“Getting to know each other in a working relationship, it’s become a life for us. We both have day jobs, and the relationship and being apart and not knowing when we can see each other again, it’s been interesting,” Bahrey, Taylor’s new fiancée, told me.

“We’ve spent so much time on Room Rater, [and] that has been wonderful because we agree on almost everything, and the things we don’t agree on, we talk about and discuss.” 

2020 will go down as a year like no other, but amid all the loneliness, exhaustion and anxiety, the human spirit marches on. 

As for my own room rating, it took a week before I worked up the courage to submit a photo to the Room Rater gods. The verdict: an eight

I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

As this is my last column until the new year, I want to take a moment to wish you all a safe and restful holiday season and to thank you for reading The Logic. It’s been a privilege to inform and engage with you, particularly this year, when journalism has meant so much to so many. May 2021 bring us all closer in spirit and in vaccine-accelerated herd immunity.

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