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5.25.21   5:43 PM

Pre-pandemic, it was rare to see inside the homes of newsworthy people. But when COVID forced everyone out of television studios and onto Zoom, a new genre of voyeurism was born.

It became commonplace, and a little jarring, to see the living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, home offices, children and pets of government officials, executives, professors, and journalists. And it became an armchair sport to critique their decor choices, taste in books, how good their amateur camera rig appeared to be (or not be). 

Former Clinton White House staffer Claude Taylor took things a step further, starting Room Rater, a Twitter account focused purely on that activity. As @ratemyskyperoom, Taylor grades backgrounds of video interviews, rating them on a scale of 1-10. Although, sometimes, as for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the rating veers into negative territory. 

Room Rater, launched last April, now has nearly 400,000 followers. It has rated the likes of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (9/10), tech journalist Kara Swisher (3/10, “has focus completely of of whack”), Center for Reproductive Rights President and CEO Nancy Northup (8/10), and former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10/10). 

Unabashedly political, Room Rater gave Donald Trump Jr. a 0/10, adding “excited to kill animals for trophies,” in reference to mounted deer heads behind Trump. 

Taylor also used the account to raise money for PPE through donations, and now provides art supplies to various American Indian communities. To date, he says he’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for these causes.

Lately, New York’s mayoral candidates have been rated as well. Andrew Yang got 10/10 — “Strong plant work. Art. Lamp. Well balanced. @AndrewYang wins #NYCMayoralDebate Room Rating.” Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia both scored 6/10, owing to sparse backgrounds. “Has pretty flowers and got the @nytimes endorsement,” Room Rater said, about Garcia. “Otherwise near hostage-like.” 

Taylor explained more to us about what it’s been like to judge people’s rooms, and what the post-COVID future looks like for Room Rater.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

  • Room Rater’s beginnings and what makes a good room


    The Business of Business: First off, I'd love to hear about what made you start this account and what inspired you in the first place.

    Clyde Taylor: Well, you have to go back to the first weeks of the pandemic, March, April of 2020. I was on the phone a lot with my girlfriend, now fiance, who's in Vancouver, Canada. So we are separated by a border and a pandemic, we had just been together in early March, and things were shutting down, and we both had to get back home, and when we got back home, they closed the border. And it took us a while to even figure out what was going on. But we're on the phone a lot. 

    We're both news junkies, we're watching way too much cable television. And we're just sort of making comments to each other about people's decor, about their backgrounds. And, you know, “what do you think of that one? How do you like that one? Did you see Michael Beschloss?” “Yeah, so he's the best so far, I give him a 10.” 

    It just started out, like, “Let's just create a website. Let's just start rating people's rooms on a one to 10 scale,” and it took off pretty quickly. It's gotten to the point where we're working on the official Room Rater handbook, we have a literary agent. And we have a pretty good belief that we will have a book deal to announce in the next month or two.

    Excellent. Okay. Well, congratulations. 

    So that will literally be the next chapter.

    You said it took off quickly. Did you expect it to garner so much attention?

    I thought it was a good idea. And I've done other Twitter accounts. So I had some level of frame of reference. It took off more quickly than I had anticipated. I thought the idea for it was really solid. And it worked pretty well. 

    My fiance's name is Jessie. And she and I — she's the Canadian half. And if people know the account, you'll notice that there's a lot of Canadian content on the account. So we’re still doing the account together.

    So it’s most of North America represented there.

    Yeah. And we were starting to bring in — we have a contributor who sends us material from Brazil. We've always tried to do a bit from the UK. We've tried to have a little bit of an international appeal to it. But our go to is still US cable television.

    So why @ratemySkyperoom? Why not @ratemyZoomroom? That seems like the more obvious choice.

    I have to take responsibility for that. I am, like, the least technical person you're going to talk to today, you know, I'm 57. I'm a Luddite. I'm a late adopter. When we were coming up with a name, we just called it Room Rater. But why it became @ratemySkyperoom for whatever reason, I was personally more familiar with Skype than Zoom. I wasn't technically savvy enough or market savvy enough, perhaps, to know that Zoom was more of a thing than Skype was. So that I would call it an early pilot error, and that's how most people think of it as, as Room Rater. If I had to do it over again, I don't think I would do Skype or Zoom in the handle. I would do something just about room rating.

    “That's what made it appealing, is that we were showing what everybody else looked like in their real lives, and it made people relatable.”

    Right? It would be more universal. So what are some of the weirdest things that you've seen in these rooms? Anything stick out, anything memorable?

    I've always been a Star Wars fan, but I personally was not familiar with these great big Lego Star Wars kits, you know, everyone from Justin Trudeau to you know, I can't think of some of the others, but I've been introduced to some really great LEGO sets. I remember with my kids having Legos and stepping on them and, but they were always little, very childlike constructions. I never saw these. Those have always been fun. 

    We've seen suits of armor. We always like seeing the kids and the grandkids pop in. We like seeing the photobombs with dogs. Those are just things that have an appeal, that makes the person instantly relatable.

    It's good to represent who you are, your room, you don't want like three pieces of generic hotel art and a beige couch. The room you present to the world is your chance to tell your story to your to your audience, you know, whether that be on CNN or whether that's on YouTube? You want your room to reflect who you are.

    You mentioned hotel art and things like that — Are there any other bad trends you see like that? Is that common?

    People have their own tastes, and we don't really talk about the art, in terms of its relative quality, per se. Most of the art that we see is really quite good. There's not much that I would see that I would say is like, you know, bad art, but that's not really what we like, just that people are trying to express themselves with art. We'll leave it for others, or maybe another Twitter account to actually judge the art.

    It seems like it's more about the effort that they put in rather than taste.

    Very much. So I mean, we have one guy that we see all the time on Morning Joe. He's like a hedge fund guy, he's a wealthy individual. And, you have some lovely prints. You could have told me they were so and so's and you got them on eBay, I mean, they're very nice. They present well, they're great colors, they're good shapes. I can't really see them clearly enough, but they're very effective. Well, he has some Matisses in his background, but they're actually Matisses.

    Well, to me, that would be a 10 out of 10 immediately.

    He has the Matisse, and it's quite nice, but you don't have to have the original Matisse right now. I bought some prints on canvas on Wayfair for $60. There's a Paris scene and a New Orleans scene that I like very much. And I think I paid about $60 or $70 apiece for them.

  • How to rate a room


    So speaking of the prints that I've got here, how would you rate my room?

    Well, I mean, this is a really nice room. I like the guitars, you've got another guitar on our left, so you've got some balance there. I like the red piece and the simple red shelving in the corners. I like the color. It's your big pop of color, the prints back there are really presented well. I like the way that they're arranged on the wall. 

    The only thing I can really fault here is that you need to raise your camera just slightly, I would put like one book under the laptop or whatever you're using. You basically want to be at eye level. So you're gonna raise the camera just an inch or two, I'm guessing, and then tilt it down an inch or two. So just reframe a little bit. That's the most common mistake or shortcoming that people make, is they have the whole height of the camera wrong. And it's usually too low. Sometimes it's too high. But you basically want it at eye level.

    “One of the things that keeps me going is that we've been able to raise several hundred thousand dollars in PPE and art supplies that we send directly to Native American communities.”

    Not that I have framed my shot particularly well, by the way, so this is one of those — I mean, I just had my second Moderna shot an hour ago. So my morning’s mainly been about becoming fully vaccinated. So, I haven't really thought too much about my presentation here. This is trying to remember also that Jesse and I are not interior decorators. We just pretend to be on Twitter.

    And the critic is not the artist. It's too different.

    Not at all. And also, I mean, we just make this shit up. I mean, this is just fun. It's not meant to be serious. This is satire. I mean, largely speaking.

    It's obviously light hearted, fun, and you're not certified or anything in room rating, or have a degree in interior design or anything.

    Maybe there should be certificates and room rating, we could do that. We could actually do that, we could actually create a certificate, a room rating certificate. We can present some tests from a real interior decorator and earn your room rating certificate.

  • Politics and room rating controversy


    What do you think this sort of activity gives people and why is it so popular in the first place?

    Once we started seeing what everyone else lives like, and how their rooms look, and various aspects of our lives were shifted to online, from our kids’ schooling to our business meetings, to our personal relationships. Everything suddenly went into this world. That's what made it appealing, is that we were showing what everybody else looked like in their real lives, and it made people relatable. It made some people more interesting. It's just something I think that everyone could latch onto, especially at that time.

    The account is known not only for being very Canadian, but also for being very political and left-leaning specifically. And I've noticed that you've given some harsh reviews for people like Mike Huckabee. I saw that he got a zero out of 10. Ted Cruz, he’s got a negative two. So why is that? Some people have criticized the account for not being straight down the middle.

    Jeb Bush in particular. Yes, he took issue with us. Well, you know, I'm a Democrat. I've come out a long time ago. In another universe, I was a staffer in the Clinton White House. I've worked off and on in politics. I'm chair of a left-leaning political action committee. And that's my day job. We principally are known for putting up billboards right now we're doing billboards up against Matt Gaetz, and Ron DeSantis. 

    “We just make this shit up. I mean, this is just fun. It's not meant to be serious. This is satire.”

    This morning, got one up against Kevin McCarthy, up in Bakersfield. That's who I am. My fiance, she jokingly refers to herself as a socialist, but that's more of a Canadian thing. That means she's a strong believer in a Western democratic form of socialism, where the state actually does a lot of good and provides healthcare as a basic right, you know, so there's some parts of that agenda that I'm willing to go along with. For sure. So we're definitely both left wing, we're not all the way left wing, if you know what I mean. But we're moderate. I would describe myself as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama Democrat. I'm comfortable with either one of those guys.

    How do you handle that controversy when someone like Jeb Bush complains?

    Well, Jeb Bush was in the Washington Post. I don't know exactly why he chose to make that, you know, the room rater account an issue — I can send you a link to the article — it was fairly early on, I think it was last fall. So it's been quite a while. For the most part, we just have fun with it. I mean, we have a lot of fun with the Jeb Bush thing. But we are political. We're Democrats. If somebody else wants to start a right-wing room rating account, go for it. We try to take it not too seriously, and other people should maybe try taking it not too seriously. 

  • Room Rater’s charity work and future


    What we really do is we've been able to raise quite a bit of money for Native American communities in particular. We get a series of t-shirts for some of our rooms, but some of our most famous 10 out of 10s people, like Senator Claire McCaskill, former senator Michael Beschloss, Jonathan Capehart, Steve Schmidt, John Heilemann, Andrew Weissmann, from the Mueller investigation. They each had a team t-shirt. 

    Well, we sold these t-shirts last summer, really at the height of the pandemic. We had started supplying Native American communities with PPE that we did through fundraising. And the Navajo Nation reached out to us and they asked us if we could provide reusable washable face masks for each member of the Navajo Nation. And so I asked, “How many people is that? And it was 175,000 people. So we found the vendor and we purchased five pallets of face masks for $140,000. And that was paid for by the sale of Room Rater swag. 

    Like the t-shirts, now we're sending art kits to Native American communities. We just sent 1,000 art kits to eight villages within the Navajo Nation. We've also sent art kits to one of the one of the Sioux tribes in South Dakota. So it's a backpack filled with pencils, pens, and colored paper markers, you know, the basic art kit. So, kids were at home and in the pandemic, and art’s a good thing. We just were asked at one point, when we were talking about PPE. One of the people in one of the tribes said, “I'm a teacher, we have enough PPE, but what we really need is something for these kids. They're stuck at home, and they're bored.” 

    “We're Democrats. If somebody else wants to start a right-wing room rating account, go for it.”

    So that's how the art kits came about. So one of the things that Room Rater does, and one of the things that keeps me going is that we've been able to raise several hundred thousand dollars in PPE and art supplies that we send directly to Native American communities. I'm into that, and I get off on it. I like doing it. It's fun. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.

    If you go to the Room Rater account @ratemySkyperoom, right there in our Twitter bio, there's a link for the Room Rater shop. And, if you click on the Room Rater shop, that explains a little bit about some of the communities we've sent to.

    What does the future hold for this account, as we return to offices, and as there are fewer people at home?

    I'm not sure that things will ever go back to exactly the way they were. I think networks and pundits themselves have discovered it's a lot easier. You're a pundit, you live in suburban DC somewhere, it actually takes you an hour to get to the MSNBC studio or the CNN studio. And you get there, and you might get bumped anyway, if something breaks, but you're in the studio for 12 minutes, it took up half your day, it's a lot easier just to turn on your home studio. 

    I think we're going to go much more to a hybrid where we have a lot more in studio and a lot more people at home. But we've also expanded the scope. So we've gone beyond just journalists, or just pundits on MSNBC and CNN, they remain important. We do a lot of writers, we'd like authors, we do go out of our way to find author events and authors presenting their first books, or their newest book. We do some sports people, you know, who are still going to be in the home studio.

    Do you have any favorite rooms that you've that you've rated? Are there any 11 out of 10s?

    We've got to be very careful to keep it at 10.

    No Spinal Tap 11s.

    You know, in our early days, there was a couple where we might have dropped below zero. But we really tried to make it a pretty firm rule that it's zero to 10. We did a series of rooms at the close of last year. Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, was our room of the year. And that's still a room that I hold up as a personal favorite. But we have one thing we've noticed is, the rooms have really gotten better, just as a whole, because now we know that they're gonna be rated, they feel the pressure.

    We do take some credit for it, but just in general, if you look at people back in April and May and June, they would just stand up against a bare wall with a camera, like three feet too low, what we call the hostage video. You just don't see it as much anymore. A couple cases, people are doing it deliberately, which we have fun with. But, for the most part, the average room has just gotten a lot better. And now, there's a lot of really exceptional rooms, whereas before, there weren't that many that were truly exceptional. There's a lot of really good rooms now.

    Yeah, it seems like they've evolved, people realized that they had to invest in their rooms.

    Whether it's because of Room Rater or not, people have realized, after a year, “This is how I'm showing myself to the world, this is how I'm presenting myself,” right? “I look like a schmuck with an unmade bed and a trash can. Do I want to present the most ideal possible me to the world?”

    It is fascinating to check these out every day. I feel like I'm a critic as well, looking at all those screenshots. It's been really interesting getting to know your process, so to speak, with this. So, thank you again for taking the time to talk.

    This piece was cowritten by Christie Smythe.

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