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.