Dorms are a fundamental part of the four-year college experience. Acting almost like a bridge between family living and true independence, dorms give students room and board and a support infrastructure — while also allowing them a bit of space to live their life and set their routines.
Beyond this, however, dorms offer a social space. Thousands of students are housed in close quarters; inevitably communities arise, people make friends, communicate and seek out those among them with whom they share common interests. Through dorms, new students become further enmeshed in the fabric of university life.
Well, dorms were.
On August 28, barely more than a month before the start of the Fall 2020 academic term, UC Santa Barbara announced that — except for those with special circumstances — undergraduate students would no longer be allowed to live in university-owned student housing for the foreseeable future.
Citing the novel coronavirus pandemic and a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in Isla Vista, Chancellor Henry T. Yang wrote that the decision was made in an attempt to “to comply with Santa Barbara County, California Department of Public Health, and University of California guidelines.”
However, even though dorms are shuttered, there may be hope for an undergraduate dorm experience in another sense.
Inspired in large part by the pandemic, Victor Cheng, an alumnus of UCSB, and Aspyn Palatnick created SixFeet, a social media platform which aims to provide new and old students with a “virtual dorm.”
“A lot of people recognize [life in the dorms] as one of the most fun times in college. Since most people aren’t able to do that we thought we’d try to extend this experience to everybody [through SixFeet],” Cheng said.
Cheng and Palatnick invited me to demo SixFeet for myself, where I had the opportunity to explore the platform alongside the two.
In designing SixFeet, Cheng and Palatnick wanted to create an environment where students can connect with those who share similar interests, reach those who take the same classes as them and engage with the undergraduate community in a more organic, spontaneous way. By their own account, the two of them collectively talked to about 200 people in order to craft a platform which would best serve this purpose.
One begins their time on SixFeet by finding and subscribing to subjects which they’re interested in. It’s a “topics-based approach” which others can access simply by hovering over a user profile.
On the main page of SixFeet, one finds themselves in their dorm room: a square which functions as a virtual chat room where one can invite others to hold video calls and communicate. This room is arranged in a block alongside others in similar chat rooms. To the left of these chat rooms is a roster of all of the students currently online in SixFeet.
I entered my dorm room video chat and let Cheng and Palatnick inside my room. They demonstrated a number of functions and walked me through others only I had the power to do. They showed me how to increase the number of occupants in a room, rename a room, bring up random question prompts up during a call and even start games — all inside my room.
“The idea is that while you’re in the video call, we want to make it as social — and easy to be social — as possible,” Palatnick said.
Hovering over the users in a particular room even allows one to see what those people are interested in — allowing students to gauge what sort of common interests there may be without even asking to enter.
This has a use in academics as well.
“Say there’s like 100 people online and you want to search for other people in CS 140, you could search for CS 140 and find other people [in that particular class],” Palatnick said.
Thus, SixFeet is able to connect both those with overlapping interests and an overlapping curriculum.
Currently, Cheng and Palatnick are gathering people who sign up for the platform on a waitlist. SixFeet is being offered to students at UCSB, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Pennsylvania, with the platform being launched soon as a weekly service before eventually running 24/7.
Cheng and Palatnick envision SixFeet as a platform which is always present and always running — but only sometimes the object of a user’s complete and undivided attention.
“Say there’s only a few people there and you don’t have overlapping interests. You could also leave SixFeet as a tab in the background. Then, you’ll get notified when others with similar interests hop online,” Palatnick said.
“That sort of lets you hang out on SixFeet without having to be completely on it.”
While Cheng and Palatnick conceived of SixFeet because of the pandemic, they also see a post-pandemic purpose for the platform as video conferencing becomes more prominent as a form of communication.
“After COVID we feel like the social norms will be different. Let’s say you guys meet on a dating site. Before it was kind of weird to do a video call, but now maybe that’s something you do; you have a video conference before you meet or when you can’t meet in person because it’s become so established,” Cheng said.
“We think this is a great use case for facilitating spontaneous conversations,” Cheng said.