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Are Institutional Portals and VLEs Really “Creepy Treehouses”?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 September 2008

I first came across the term “creepy treehouse” during Ewan McIntosh’s plenary talk on “Unleashing the Tribe” at the IWMW 2008 event. Alan Cann mentioned it again in a recent comment on one of my blog posts, suggesting, I think, that the University of Bristol’s MyBristol portal is an example of a ‘creep treehouse” which we should avoid building.

The term, according to a post on the Technagogy blog, was coined by Chris Lott. The Flexknowlogy blog has sought to provide a definition. It seems that ‘creepy treehouse’ can have the following meanings:

n. A place, physical or virtual (e.g. online), built by adults with the intention of luring in kids.

n. Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

n. Any system or environment that repulses a target user due to it’s closeness to or representation of an oppressive or overbearing institution.

n. A situation in which an authority figure or an institutional power forces those below him/her into social or quasi-social situations.

Alan Cann commented that he felt that the University of Bristol’s MyBristol portal “Feels more like a creepy treehouse to me. Why not just facilitate users using public tools so that they’re not tied to UBris?” Following the doubts I expressed Alan responded:

http://flexknowlogy.learningfield.org/2008/04/09/defining-creepy-tree-house/
n. Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

I rest my case.

It would seem, from this definition, that institutions which are developing services to support their students are building creepy treehouses. After all whether it’s a locally developed portal, an open source VLE or a licensed product, these institutional services are created or operating in a managed (controlled, if you will) environment in which participants (the students) are encouraged to use through the incentives of having a quality service to use, with the support of staff and one’s peers in order to enrich the student’s learning and maximise their potential (otr help them get a good degree, if you’d prefer the reward to be described more bluntly).

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong in institutions doing this.

I do object to use of the term ‘lured’ in this metaphor, though.

And I do think that it is ironic that the  institution’s are regarded as creating the creepy environment by “mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments”. And those pre-existing open or naturally formed environments would appear to be those social network and social sharing services owned by those bastions of open and democratic educational values – Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, …

Now as readers of this blog will know I’m a regular user myself of many of these Social Web services. And I have found that such services can provide better services than those hosted by my institution. But if my institution does start to provide services which can compete with the externally-hosted services then I would have no problem in using them – especially if this means I no longer have to concern myself over changes in conditions or the sustainability of the service provider, which is something I need to be aware of in my use of the externally hosted services, as I recently commented on in my experiences of the Sqirl service.

And I’m also aware of the complex issues relating to use of social services to support learning. But these complexities aren’t restricted to engagement with students  – they are also relevant in other business and professional contexts.

It seems to me that the creepy treehouse metaphor related to the ownership and provision of the services is flawed for a variety of reasons.  And it’s also a metaphor which doesn’t really work in a UK context, I feel – I never had a treehouse when I was young and nobody I knew did either.  And thinking about it, the only treehouse which means anything to me is Bart’s in The Simpsons. Let’s chop down the creepy treehouse metaphor and address the real issues.

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6 Responses to “Are Institutional Portals and VLEs Really “Creepy Treehouses”?”

  1. AJ Cann said

    I’m not suggesting that there is necessarily anything sinister in institutions intentions in building these walled gardens, although in most instances, the rationale is for reasons of “control”. My major objection is that these “services” do a disservice to students when they are subsequently shut out of them when the University no longer wants to know about them (or continue providing the service). Much better to put students in control of their online identites/profiles by using openly-available services, a process which is sustainable and leads to lifelong learning.

  2. Thanks for the response. I would agree that the ‘walled garden’ phrase is a better way of summarising these (legitimate) concerns.

    I would also agree with you that the management and migration of resources when students (in particular) leave an institution is important – and is also something new for IT service departments to deal with.

    But we must also remember that third pasrty services can also be walled gardens (with the Seesmic video blogging service, for example, you don’t sem to be able to export video blogs). And if a service goes out-of-business you may find that you can’t access your data.

  3. Joy said

    I’d agree that the term ‘creepy treehouse’ is a loaded one — hard to get by the connotations of innocents being ‘lured’ and interfered with. I think it’s a useful point, though — that whenever these open spaces are ‘violated’ or infiltrated by authority figures (i.e. as profs/lecturers ‘friend’ their students when they are taking a certain course) the power dynamic shifts along with the context.

    From an educational perspective, the best we can do is educate students about the contextual meaning of these spaces, and how their ‘profiles’ are actually situationally-specific rhetorical acts, no matter how unmediated and ‘real’ they seem. I’d even go so far as to say that the notion of a ‘naturally formed’ environment, where students (or any individuals) are just ‘themselves’ is a problematic assumption for any context.

  4. You’ve missed the point.

    The creepy treehouse (which has been around for years and years, and started with video games I think) is, classically, about an inauthentic experience of some kind created by adults, designed for children and which normally singularly fails to achieve what it set out to – that is to provide an experience the children are already used to and enjoy (and to therefore become popular). It’s the uncanny valley of using software – you know *something* is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it.

    Of course, this makes your point about Google, MS et al. moot, because the phrase has nothing to do with education, as you then go on to say yourself.

    It really depends on who your audience is. I am wildly speculating that the MyBristol portal, as with most institution-wide services, will be more heavily used *as intended* by staff than students *because* it’s in institutional service. In fact, since it’s aimed at both camps, it probably never falls under the “creepy treehouse” moniker in the first place, thus rendering your post, and my reply, redundant :)

  5. Chris L said

    I have no idea about a pre-history of the term “Creepy Treehouse”– I said it spontaneously in a public conference debate during a line of questions that involved institutional presence in popular social spaces and then branched to the idea of creating similar spaces but ones that were more “controllable.” I hadn’t– as far as I could recall– heard it before, but it’s quite possible I had and forgot. It also appears in a Simpsons episode, but in a completely different context :)

    At any rate, it gives me no claim to be an expert. However, since I was referred to I will note that I partially agree with Phil Wilson. The term as I used (and use) it was meant to refer to creating a space with social software for education that mimics a space that students already participate in without institutional direction. The question of “natural” is interesting philosophically but not particularly useful– whether MySpace (as an example) is “natural” or not doesn’t matter when it comes to institutions worming their way into or replicating it. Whether a created space is intended for multiple users or not is also immaterial– something that works perfectly well for faculty to talk to one another may indeed be a creepy place for students who are expected to communicate there because “it’s like MySpace and you looove MySpace!”

    And the phrase does have something do with education *now* whether it historically did or not… there’s a lot of misguided effort out there attempting to replicate or coopt popular social spaces and/or their functions, and the results are disappointing to the creators and creepy and distasteful for the students. It’s not dissimilar to the vast expanse of misguided educational gaming, which might be less creepy since many of them lack the social presence, but which are decidedly uninteresting and– frankly– pretty pathetic and stupid looking to most game lovers– because they are products of mimicry rather than products taking advantage of the aspects of game mechanics that make games interesting.

    Incidentally, the concept of “walled gardens” don’t have a lot of salient connections to the idea of the creepy treehouse as far as I can tell, except that examples of the former can be mimicked to create the latter.

    I, of course, have no comment about your portal. It might be fantastic and I hope it is!

  6. Matt Cownie said

    Creepy Treehouse! inspired, that’s the last time I call it the flipping portal.

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