With its stately lamp and verdant window view, Hillary Clinton’s “Zoom room” is nicer than most. So when Room Rater – a Twitter account which scores the video conference backgrounds of high-profile figures – gave it nine out of 10 last spring, Clinton took her disappointment to social media: “I’ll keep striving for that highest, hardest glass ceiling, the elusive 10/10,” she tweeted at the account.
Judging the backgrounds on video calls has been the armchair sport of the past year. As we doomscrolled through bleak statistics online, it was cheering to see shots of Meryl Streep’s sterile empty shelves or the copies of Fahrenheit 451 and The Twits awkwardly propped up behind Boris Johnson at a school in Leicestershire. Room Rater just happened to screengrab these moments. Scrolling through the posts a year after it launched in April 2020, these images are emblematic of just how quickly coronavirus forced all of us inside and online.
A year on, Room Rater is still going strong and now has almost 400k followers. It has slowed its output from about 40 rooms a day to four or five, but is now writing a guidebook of how to cultivate Zoom backgrounds for this “new reality”, says one of its co-founders, Claude Taylor. Some aspects of life are opening up, but many – particularly video conferencing – are here to stay. “People ask if we are going to shut down the account when everyone is vaccinated and the answer is no, because this is the new normal,” Taylor says.
Taylor created the account with his partner, Jessie Bahrey, in the early days of the pandemic. Taylor lives in Washington DC, Bahrey near Vancouver, and so, separated in lockdown, they would watch the news and judge the rooms of senators, some UK politicians, celebrities and “the punditry class” over the phone.
“The idea was to entertain at a time when we all needed that sort of diversion,” says Taylor. It quickly took off. Today, it’s standard practice for subjects, such as Clinton, to respond or even improve their backdrops at Room Rater’s behest. One very high-profile Republican senator was so miffed at getting a poor rating, their head of communications contacted the account to try to “re-pitch” the room to them.
Room Rater’s grading system is particular and partisan – if you’re an Obama or a liberal pundit, you’ll often score well. If you’re a Cruz or a Trump, you won’t. One Bernie Sanders appearance got a three, but the Vermont senator picked up a 10/10 for his much-memed inauguration look. There are points for good lighting, staircases and depth. Paintings are a big plus, as are books. Plants can bump a six to a nine, but too many can be seen as affectations.
Elsewhere, points are docked for bad lighting, bad angles and minor cord violations – headphones, chargers, anything that gives the game away. “You also need your camera at the right height. It just needs to be eye level. That’s the single most common mistake people make – no one wants the nostril view,” he says. The main issue with Hillary Clinton’s room was “her depth”, says Taylor. “You need to be the right distance from the background wall.” Clinton, it seems, was too close.
If Trump automatically gets zero, other celebrities are fair game. Lady Gaga’s ultra-minimalist backdrop scored her 2/10, while John Legend got 10/10 despite being largely blocked by a piano. Like Clinton, everyone seems to want to be rated. US pundits such as Steve Schmidt and John Heilemann are known for placing pineapple ornaments in shot to show they know they’re being watched by the account. (“I call the pineapples, ‘Room Rater calling cards’,” says Taylor).
Taylor runs the account on a six-year-old iPhone, doesn’t have a laptop and is today speaking via his partner’s tablet, which is propped up on a cat perch. Lined up behind him is a photoseries of the Italian towns of Portofino, Rome and Venice. He’s too close to the wall and the lighting is terrible. “We are not interior decorators,” says Taylor. “We just pretend to be on Twitter.”
The optics are key, but there’s a warm cattiness in the commentary. Occasionally, posts read like haikus. “Love the port wine posters. Sunflowers. Depth. Add pillow to left. 9/10,” says one. Sometimes, they’re more pragmatic: “Cozy room, warm colours, animal art, but could use an updated paint job on the green wall. 6/10”. Spiky entries loaded with expletives are reserved for Jordan Peterson’s clutter-laden den.
My own backdrop is disappointing. Peering into the screen, Taylor points out the earphones behind my head as a major cord violation. Having just moved flats, I have no art on the wall yet, but I remove the earphones and immediately go from a six to a seven. My daffodils get me an eight. With a framed piece, and “something of whimsy such as kid’s art”, I could be a nine. I prop up a postcard from my niece. “What most people are lacking to score well is a piece of art. If you’re on CNN for four minutes, just move the piece from the hallway”.
Bookcases have, of course, become the background of choice for anyone cultivating their self-image. Taylor says he sees a copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker on every fifth backdrop in Washington DC. And if you’re under 35 and a journalist, he says, you almost always own the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
They’re biased towards anything mid-century modern, and tolerate Ikea. “The only thing we avoid is colour-coded bookshelves as an aesthetic choice. We just don’t rate the room, so it’s become a way of avoiding us.”
Taylor’s political leanings bleed into his day-job running Mad Dog, a liberal political-action committee, and he is widely known for his anti-Trump output on social media and billboards. He used to be a “low level” White House staffer. “I did the political merchandising on Bill Clinton’s campaign. I was the chief of stuff,” he says. Bahrey, who is at work when we talk, manages a large-scale commercial greenhouse; big, meandering plants jump in and out of shot on the day we talk.
A self-appointed “luddite”, Taylor still understands the power of social media. A few months into the pandemic, Taylor and Bahrey used the account to raise funds from followers to buy surgical gloves and masks for hospitals in Bronx and Queens. Later, they did the same for Native American communities, who were among the hardest hit. They have produced Room Rater merch, the proceeds of which now go towards getting art supplies for kids not back at school.
“Twitter following allows you to do stuff, it just depends how you use it,” says Taylor. “But it’s also, you know, public and entertaining. What people exclude in their backdrops is as important as what they include. It’s a deliberate choice, what you show the world.” At a time when our homes must function as a place to live but also be presentable to the outside world, it’s heartening to see the rich and famous struggling under their laundry, too.