Saturday, August 15, 2009

Creepy Treehouses

Lately there has been considerable discussion of the metaphor of the "creepy treehouse" to describe online learning initiatives that are doomed to failure because their rhetorical appeal to young people is so profoundly wrong in its address.

Of course, there have been many other metaphors from vernacular architecture to describe the location of Internet practices in relationship to the conventional spheres of home and work. For example, technology researcher Genevieve Bell has argued that ubiquitous computing plans tend to enshrine certain ideas about domesticity that ignore the functions of liminal places more tangentially associated with the home environment, such as the shed, which functions as a site for tinkering and repair. I suppose that in the United States, the garage often serves that function.

The treehouse is creepy and off-putting to children partly because it is so obviously constructed by an adult to attract non-adults to a given site, much as a gingerbread house built by a witch should attract suspicion.

A blog posting on "Defining 'Creepy Treehouse'" suggests some other ways beyond the straightforward definition of a "place, physical or virtual (e.g. online), built by adults with the intention of luring in kids" that the term could be meaningful to experience designers.

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.

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

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

Many of these definitions have to do with the institutional power behind much educational technology and the uncomfortable relationships that many institutions and the Internet maintain.

You can see the reactions on TechRhet to the question "Are You Building a Creepy Treehouse?" to see how it also generates discomfort among e-learning advocates.

(Thanks to David Schwalm for the link.)

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