Creepy Treehouse

When pursuing my normal, chaotic trampolining from blog to blog, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the following phrase: “creepy treehouse”. I absolutely love the terminology. After some further investigation, I was fascinated to learn that the phrase has gotten significant play, and has sparked intense discussion across the ed-tech blogosphere. The basic definition covers a range of characteristics, but the one I think is most fitting as it applies to digital scholarship is “adj. Repulsiveness arising from institutional mimicry or emulation of pre-existing community-driven environments or systems.” (For more see History Hacks, Technagogy, and Munkering)

The now-classic example is Blackboard’s attempt to embed an application within Facebook that would connect students to their courses. Great perhaps in theory, but from a student’s perspective, it’s absolutely an example of “creepy treehouse.” There are certain times I will run across well-meaning attempts to utilize digital tools or elements of Web 2.0, but often there is just something “off” about them that smacks of inauthenticity. Some examples that come to mind are the “Chat with a librarian on AIM” feature at my school’s library, or an older example of a well-meaning teacher constructing a webpage for their students to learn from, complete with garish WordArt and animated GIFs, and often hosted by Geocities. I am the first to admit that there is a fine line between the successful incorporation of these tools and the unsuccessful construction of a creepy treehouse. And that line is also blurry, jagged, and constantly shifting. What exactly determines that Blackboard’s Facebook initiative is creepy treehouse, while the both popular and respected iTunes U is a fun, enjoyable treehouse?

One of the major flaws of creepy treehouses is often a heavy-handed, rigid, top-down approach to utilizing technology that is itself inherently fluid, flexible, and often geared towards a bottom-up or horizontal structure. It reminds me of the field of advertising. As recently as a decade ago, the status-quo was for a major advertising firm to come up with a centralized, coherent ad campaign for a product. Now, the industry works within an age of viral marketing, where consumers are invested participants in the entire advertising process. While effective, top-down advertising campaigns are still successful, they are much more vulnerable to the criticisms, critiques, and resistance of a digitized consumer populace. Similarly, digital academic treehouses for students can still be effectively constructed, but they run the increasing risk of being considered, well, creepy.