the creepy treehouse problem

In their enthusiasm for the pedagogical uses to which social media can be put, academics sometimes don’t stop to question whether students actually want to interact with them on social media. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the creepy treehouse problem’: requiring students to interact with you on what they perceive as a private platform, or at least one divorced from their involvement in the university. It’s this perception which also creates problems for institutional social media policies that incorporate all student social media use within their remit. This is a good overview of the temptations of pedagogical social media and the risks inherent in it:

The problem with just jumping into Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace, and forcing your students to be your friend/follower/contact/etc is a perceived invasion of their online privacy.  Now it may seem like a good idea at the time, especially since these tools are already populated by the majority of your students, have a low impact learning curve, and have built-in communication tools, and contact management that may rival most commercial Course Management Systems.  However, these tools started out and are perceived by students as their personal social playground and bending the tool to make it fit into an educational framework may cause panic, and discomfort from the student perspective.

The problem is that building a propriety platform is unlikely to succeed, at least if success requires sustained engagement by students who log in regularly. This to me is why social media platforms are so pedagogically attractive. The author of the above post suggests a couple of alternatives and offers interesting examples of how this can work: – Ning is a social networking site that allows users to create their own communities based upon their interests and needs.  These communities are user created, and managed with permission control options allowing read/write access by the whole world, or just a select group determined by the creator.  Ning has seen a jump in adoption in education circles due to ease of use, and potential.  Best examples – & – Elgg is a similar platform to Ning, in that it allows users to create their own social network, monitored, maintained, and updated by individual users.  However, Elgg is completely community driven in development, and offers the ability for users to personally host their network.  Best examples – &

I’m still sceptical but actively reflecting upon it at present. It seems self-evident to me that the creepy treehouse effect is more likely to be operative with Facebook than Twitter. But unfortunately more students will be regular users of the former than the latter. Furthermore, as Emma Head recently told me, her recent (not yet published) research with Keele students found some students with an explicit preference for engagement on Facebook. It’s a complicated picture. Jason Jones at ProfHacker offers some helpful suggestions for good practice:

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