I need to debunk the Creepy Treehouse, as it seems to have become some sort of rallying cry and is pulling people in the wrong direction. I’m going to debunk it with contrarian metaphor: the Functioning Mall. (If you come up with something more catchy, let me know.)
First off, let me tell you that the metaphor of the Creepy Treehouse is powerful. There are many different ways you can build a Creepy Treehouse. Instructors crossing lines by getting into personal or social settings where they are not particularly invited is totally creepy treehouse.
However, this in no way suggests that instructors should not be using innovative, even social technologies to engage students. Adults and Teachers and Parents are allowed to and should get on the Social Web, but they must do it carefully and obey the general laws of coexisting with teenagers. There are, in natural settings, places where the two have been known to coexist. This has been happening since at least, as far as I can calculate, 1992 ;) We can look there for another metaphor: the Functional Mall.
Now, youngsters hang out at the mall. They consider it a highly social space, and their scene is operated more or less on their terms. Grown ups, while not prone to hang out at the mall, go to the mall. There are stores targeted for teenagers that no adult should go to (e.g. Urban Outfitters), stores targeted to adults that no kids would be caught dead in (e.g. the Back Store), and places where both species coexist in their native habitat (say, a movie theater or the Cookie Company). Adults and young adults know how to behave around each other, seemingly, in this same ecosystem. There’s a rule, and let me make it transparent: transactional interactions are accepted, social interactions are not. If a teacher sees their student at the mall, wave hi (or better yet nod slightly). A security officer opens doors, stops fights, tells directions. A store owner or employee helps them find things, accepts money, packages items, and send them on their merry way. Yes, there is a clear line, and that line is socializing rather than transacting.
Would youngsters want adults to leave the mall, never to return? Well, not really. They understand that the mall can be there for their dates and shopping sprees largely because adults also shop there. And the mall doesn’t want to limit its customer base to teenagers. I mean, there’s a business in teenagers: you could have rollerskating rink, or a go-kart shop, maybe put them in the same spot with mini-golf. But the real business is open access and open wallets.
Facebook, most decidedly, does not want to be just for teenagers. Most of the country doesn’t realize this but, out in the Silicon Valley, Facebook is hot business. Microsoft invested in Facebook at a 15 billion dollar valuation; that’s more valuable than Ford Motors. Their revenues are probably around 200 million a year and climbing dramatically; they have around 550 employees up from some 50 three years ago. Their engineering and operations team is the magnet for the best talent anywhere. Zuckerberg just recruited Google’s COO and Head Chef to boot! This isn’t happening because people think Facebook is going to be a site for college students and teenagers. Facebook, hands down, is going to get everyone on it and won’t stop until they do. In the past year in a half its grown from around 35 to 90 million users. 60% of the population of Norway is on the site.
College students aren’t going to just up pick and move to another site. Facebook is the only web application that’s figured out how to scale and still keep some sort of cohesion as a product and a community. It’s got privacy settings, and gives users granular control over who can see what. Grown ups can join without any creepy treehouseness.
What Facebook is lacking is a way for those with careful relationships to have transactional interactions. But, that’s a good part of the reason that they’ve opened up to applications. Soon, you’re going to see transactional applications for just about any interaction for any set of careful relationships you can think of. Yep, you heard me, you’re going to be able to interact with your boss without being friends.
We don’t need to give educators an excuse to not be using these technologies, we need to be getting them to understand how best to use these technologies. We need to keep in mind the “creepy treehouse” to guide us, but let us not point to everything on Facebook and Myspace, Twitter and Flickr and start accusing. As long as everyone is using their privacy settings and limits contact with those that might be of a “transcendant” age group or have a “careful” boundary (e.g. teacher/student, parent/child) to transactional interactions.