Creepy Treehouse

I’ve just learned a new technology term – “creepy treehouse.” I first heard the term via an article in Inside Higher Ed on Blackboard building an application so it can be accessed from Facebook.

In doing so, the company is implicitly conceding that students are less inclined to flip through Blackboard pages to kill a few spare minutes. “This is specifically to take advantage of the fact that college students spend a tremendous amount of time on Facebook,” said Karen Gage, Blackboard’s vice president of product strategy. “I think that what we know is that socializing with your friends is more fun than studying.”

Well, duh.

“Let’s face it,” the app’s introduction page says. “You would live on Facebook if you could. Imagine a world where you could manage your entire life from Facebook — it’s not that far off!”

Oh, I can’t wait. Why would I ever want to leave Facebook for even one minute?

“You have to access a different system to get your course information and you don’t always know when something new has been posted or assigned, so it’s difficult for you to stay on top of your studies.” (Only if your face is so constantly stuck in Facebook that you don’t have a life.) “We get it. That’s why Blackboard is offering Blackboard Syncâ„¢, an application that delivers course information and updates from Blackboard to you inside Facebook.”

Okay, maybe that actually sounds kind of helpful, being able to push readings and assignments to a place where students can be reminded of them. But I was mostly struck by one of the comments on the article: “This is creepy treehouse.”

A creepy treehouse is a place built by scheming adults to lure in kids. Kids tend to sense there’s something creepy about that treehouse and avoid it. Hence, a new definition: “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.”

It’s an interesting take on that vaguely unsettled response we sometimes get from students when we try to be too cool, try too hard to seem fun and playful, when we make familiar toys unpalatably “educational.” Setting up an outpost in an attractive playspace with an ulterior motive is just . . . creepy.

And maybe students want a different space when they’re working. On our campus students come to the library to study. They like being surrounded by books, they like the sense that this place is different than their dorm room. Sure, they goof off and check their Facebook profile and sometimes catch a few z’s. But when they’re working, they enjoy being in a place that dignifies their work, and they like the ambiance of seriousness, one that connects their work with a larger purpose. They’re writing about ideas in space filled with words and ideas, and they become connected. It’s a very different kind of social network, one where they become part of an age-old conversation.

This is not to say this academic conversation is not playful – we learn by playing, and at its best, our learning is play. Philosopher Michael Oakeshott said it well in his essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”

In its participation in the conversation each voice learns to be playful, learns to understand itself as a voice among voices. As with children, who are great conversationalists, the playfulness is serious and the seriousness in the end is only play.

Maybe the library itself is a place for that form of play, once students get clued into the fact they can join the conversation. Then we won’t have to build a creepy treehouse to entice them in.

photo courtesy of noricum

Some of this post was previously published at infofluency.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

17 thoughts on “Creepy Treehouse

  1. This is an interesting critique – especially in light of the assertion we heard a few years ago that all of our students/customers would now be digital natives. Yet, as your post points out, the way they use technology is different than those of us a *bit* older use it. Where do we draw the lines between work and social networking? or do we?

  2. I was thinking about writing something about the Bb Sync app for Facebook, but wanted to first give it a try to learn more about what exactly it allows students to do in their coursesite from FB. But despite trying two different installations (both my home institution and where I teach), I can’t even get the thing to work. That is the app installed, but it won’t access my coursesites. A Bb guru told me that a lot of institutions are experiencing these problems and I’m waiting to hear of a fix.

    While I can understand that students might not want to merge social and academic activities – and we continue to see that sort of backlash from students when they are asked if they want to see librarian and faculty profiles in FB – or otherwise interact with us in that space – I do think there are some students who might like the convenience of being able to access some course content from a social space. So Jack and Jill, two classmates, are posting messages on each other’s walls and then one asks the other when an assignment is due or what’s the discussion forum for that week – well hey – they can just bring it right up in FB – no need to go log in to the coursesite. So, as with many other technologies, why not offer it and let the end user decide if it the application is a good match with their needs.

    Of course, the darn thing has to work.

  3. Great post, and I agree completely. I think we do ourselves a disservice by trying to be hip or cool or whatever the currently hip, cool slang is for “hip” and “cool.” The library is what it is and scholarship is what it is, and we’re better off trying to bring students into the scholarly conversation that surrounds them, which means acculturation into academia rather than academic pandering. Sure, a Blackboard app might be nice, and I might try to get it working for my students, but I also want to leave the students a place to be young adults socializing with other young adults and avoid having the library seem like a creepy treehouse.

    Oh, and I love that Oakeshott essay.

  4. I think we often lose site of how a web service works when we discover newfangled catch phrases like “Library 2.0″ and “creepy treehouse.”

    Like the delete key on our email inbox, there is alot on facebook that people can choose to accept or ignore. Of course, Blackboard and librarians would be advised not to spam Facebookers ala “funwall,” but what harm is there in an “opt-in” approach to access libraries, learning etc.?

    Maybe most young students don’t want to have their local librarian on their friends list. But some may see the value of it. Not every student is a “put every bad alcohol experience on your profile” kind of person. Some (alot) may like to handle their learning through facebook. On a cost per benefit of such a service, the former is still much, much lower than the latter.

    So I agree with the principle, I am not sure it absolutely applies to the reality or intention of these projects. The “they just want to be hip” or “cool” line can be just an easy way to ignore tech-interested librarians trying to provide good service.

  5. Let’s be clear here, to label Facebook as an “attractive playspace” is really rather inaccurate. Sure, there is a high ‘leisure content’ there, but equally there’s a lot of serious professional stuff going on as well. Universities are putting up information, it’s used for politics, there are several library related groups on Facebook and it’s a useful networking tool. I use Facebook a lot, and the amount that I use it for ‘play’ is minimal. I’m not sure that I’m with you regarding your use of the term ‘ulterior motive’ either. It’s an application that is perfectly clear in what it’s there for – it’s not hiding anything at all from what I can see, so far from ulterior it’s completely transparent.

    I’m wondering when we’re going to be able to get away from the idea that Facebook is a place that students don’t want libraries or education facilities either. It’s not as though they’re being forced to use them, it’s not as though library/university groups are in their face either. I really think that this is a smokescreen that some librarians/educators are desperately grabbing at as an excuse for inactivity.

    Sure, students come into a library to learn. That doesn’t mean that they don’t learn in other places either. I’m pretty sure that librarians wouldn’t turn up in student places and demand to be heard – that’s what is being suggested, but that’s not what happens. Having a presence on Facebook is more akin to a pointer towards the library – you have signing on campus; this is just the same thing on Facebook.

    Libraries need to go to where the conversations are taking place. They need to make sure that people know they are there and what they can do. If you’re not doing that, then IMO you’re not doing your job very well.

  6. Except in instances where the technology is created specifically to mimic a pre-existing, authentic tool already in use by students, I don’t think “creepy treehouse” or any of it’s negative implications apply to any technology de facto.

    Instead, the creepiness comes in through usage. Re. learning vs play vs horrible ineffectiveness, Facebook may be the platform for any of these. But if used properly–as a tool used to achieve valid learning objectives in ways that are either more efficient or innately valuable–Facebook can be a lever by which students engage with their peers, instructors, and information for optimal results in this information age.

  7. Facebook is more than entertainment for so many undergrads these days. It’s become their life management software – their calendar, their communication, their address book. Especially with more and more corporations, bands, non-profits, and politicians on Facebook, some students expect to be able to find everything there. It’s their mini-web.

    I have a new blog focused on public services in academic libraries, and just wrote an entry on my evolving views of Facebook. It’s here: http://chattylibrarian.wordpress.com/2008/05/31/on-facebook/

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