The Creepy Treehouse Problem

One of my favorite WordPress plug-ins is Search Meter, which tracks what visitors to your site are searching for.  What’s handy about it is that you also get a list of things your readers have searched for but haven’t found, which helps you learn what your readers want to know more about.  (Or, at least, what they can’t spell!)  You also find out things that you didn’t know, which gets me to the point of this morning’s post: the “creepy treehouse” phenomenon.

I’d never heard of the phrase, which seems to be a good two years old, and refers to a nexus of problems: the attempts to duplicate social online spaces in an institutionally constrained format (hi, Blackboard!); the requirement, enforced by someone in authority, that others interact socially with them (“follow me on Twitter / friend me on Facebook); and the affect that these practices give off.

Official ProfHacker undergrad Alex Jarvis and I have been talking about this problem today, and he pointed out that “social apps are going to reek of Creepy Treehouse,” and one in particular: If you’re requiring your students interact with you on Facebook, “you aren’t building a creepy treehouse–you are driving a white van into the school parking lot.”

We both think that there are spaces that have less “creepy treehouse” aspects than others: wikis, for example, or certain uses of blogs.  Twitter, as Alex says, “is a weird space,” since people tend not to dabble in it–they either avoid it wholesale, or go all in. One way I’ve tried to minimize the creepy treehouse aspect in some of my social assignments is to encourage class-related personas, and to have assignments be a kind of game.  That way, there’s never a sense that I’m trying to elicit information about their lives and so forth–which does seem creepy.

Alex came up with four best practices for faculty who want to use social media (and we should!) and who want to avoid this problem:

  • Be transparent.  Explain why it’s required, what students will be graded on, etc.  Explain the tool’s ownership and logistics.  If you’ve set up a class Twitter account, consider sharing it with at least some students.
  • Encourage self-organization.  There’s no need for you to create that Facebook group!  Let them do it.  (In my experience, Facebook groups I’ve created haven’t gotten much participation, but ones students have created about my classes have often gone well.)
  • Deputize worthwhile ad-hoc groups.  This encourages the perception–which hopefully is accurate!–that the class’s social media usage is bottom-up, and not top-down.
  • Be nimble.  Notice how students are interacting with your course material, and put resources where they feel most comfortable.

In general, Alex and I agree with Melanie McBride, that the creepy treehouse problem is largely one of bad pedagogy.  There’s a problem when faculty assume that the contribution of social media to student engagement is produce through hanging out with students online, rather than in using those media to make possible new kinds of learning.

Have you run into creepy treehouses?  How do you avoid this in your own pedagogy?

Image by Flickr user Max Klingensmith / Creative Commons licensed

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