Creepy Tree House

The Chronicle has a new article about how student’s perceive faculty’s use of social network sites. The termcreepy tree house” has been coined to reflect a sense that some faculty are using the sites inappropriately, providing TMI, and expecting participation and social interaction while linking it to grading or other forms of evaluation, ie faking social. It is the equivalent of the hopelessly out of touch adult trying to get the cool kids from middle school to hang with him. Coincidentally, my grad students told me they felt the semi-new (they started while I was gone) department blog is a “creepy tree house” for similar reasons – it is heavily monitored, participation is said to be voluntary but all the tech savvy students have felt pressure to participate, the talk surrounding it has been about how “hip the department is” but no one seems to know how or be interested in using it, the posts are political enough that grad students are afraid to comment yet pressured to participate, and there is a reward system attached.

My grads seemed to be in agreement that they liked gossiping about “hot professors” based on info gleamed from social networking but were creeped out by “older profs” who discussed enjoying racy or violent films (as in the racy and violent parts), put up pics of body types, partying, or commented on others’ pages that had private or explicit information on it.

So, the next time you think you are being human by acting like an undergrad at a social network site, you might want to stop and think about the fact that the undergrads have a name for it, and it is not flattering. Then ask yourself: Would I want this page or photo (whether it is yours or someone else’s) in my tenure file or my review file? If the answer is “no” then you might not want to do whatever you are doing. Myspace and facebook can be searched from google you know, and even if your profile is private, not only are there hacks but your comments on non-private pages are still visible. Even if your students don’t see your behavior as a “creepy tree house” like attempt to seem relevant, your colleagues might just find you “creepy.”

If you are setting up a class discussion site, as opposed to personal/non-work internet networking site, these rules have always worked for me (I’ve tried to center the “creepy tree house” idea as well as just the creepy here) :

  • Think critically about the medium. I don’t use social network sites ever. They are easily hacked, hard to track (specific stats), and designed for certain kinds of communication and behaviors I find prone to group think and hard to adapt to pedagogy. The other problem is that by definition they are “social spaces” not “institutional spaces” which means any encroachment already sets you up to be half way to building a creepy tree house. They are however very popular with publishers, organizations, and yes, some profs. So really think about the milieu and how you will navigate it when deciding where you will set up shop.
  • Determine whether the information you are discussing will be safe outside of a classroom/office. EX: if your comment page is public and you are teaching a queer course, would you want the issues that are often raised in class or in your office public to the world? If not, you might want to make the page private. Remember, private pages can be hacked and anything in print can be cut and pasted out in some other milieu with very little way of enforcing student safety once it is out there. Making pages private in a social network milieu can send the message that you have a closed system in what is defined as open space, encouraging people to hack or to be concerned about one of the other definitions of “creepy tree house” – that you created a controlled an environment that is supposed to be fluid.
  • Be honest about the purpose of the site and have everything related to it reflect that purpose. (I’ll expand on the latter in a different bullet.) No matter how much you dress up your site or your profile, if it does not reflect both your real personality and the actual purpose (ie to teach something or be available to students in a less formal way) it is the equivalent of the creepy old guy outside the 711/Quickie Mart asking the skateboarders if they want to listen to his “eye pod” (spelling intentional) It is inauthentic and everyone knows they are being baited and forced to participate.
  • Adding modern music and popular images can be very alluring/positive or it can be a sign that you are trying too hard. Again, try to pick things that fit the purpose and leave the rest behind. Setting up a playlist that has nothing to do with pedagogy and sounds like a bad Top 40 wanna be station, will only make your tree house creepy. That would be definition three: trying to mimic a social site that is not social.
  • Establish communication guidelines. It is great to be a little more lax in an internet setting but not so lax that you are discussing the naked kegger with your students or they are uploading risky pictures (even if they are of their down time from some service trip related to the class or a fundraising event with a little more kink than you know should be in your classroom). And, based on the Chronicle article, you also don’t want to mistake lax for language or communication styles that are outside of your normal demeanor, or images that are outside of your normal mirada, b/c the vacation pic of you, slightly drunk and leering, for your id photo might come across as creepy. Unfortunately, establishing guidelines on a social network site means you have met the closed system definition of creepy tree house.
  • If you are going to make participation mandatory then it is best not to pretend otherwise. It is not a social site if it is factored into their grade. If what they say to you on a social site will impact your perception of them or theirs of you, best to not encourage it. To mediate anxiety and annoyance, be clear about what is expected in terms of time, length, content, etc. for assigned “chat” and what is acceptable parameters for voluntary queries of you. If you pretend it is social and talk in an overly social manner then you cannot get mad at students who participate like those phone commercials “IDK my BFF said Stalin had short people complex.” Nor can you blame them for asking you invasive questions or getting snarky with you online if you are snarky on your pages (or in class), social network sites already encourage this kind of communication and if you reinforce it trying to be cool and then penalize them for responding in kind . . . “creepy tree house.”
  • Avoid the urge to create a profile page with information or images you would not be just as comfortable introducing in class or having your colleagues see. For example: think about how your classroom interactions would change if you wore blazers, button ups, and slacks to class and avoided any pdas at work, but posted a suggestive photo of yourself and your partner in muscle shirts as your “id photo” on a social network site. Or say you put down porn stars or teen idols as people you’d most like to meet, even as a lark, no student needs to know you like porn, anymore than they need to know you are obsessed with Ann Boleyn’s “French Method” or some 12 year old from reality tv nor are they going to know you are joking, trust me. (And if that is info you share in class, then ask yourself if that is info you would share with a Dean, a parent, a conference organizer, publisher, or future employer b/c when you put it on a public profile that is exactly what you are doing.) It may seem like “funny” info like this will make you seem more approachable but many find it an opportunity to gossip about you, think you are disingenuous, or worse wonder what other developmentally inappropriate activities you engage in. The older you are, the more likely this is. For “younger” profs, you may get all kinds of accolades from your “myspace friends” but keep in mind, turning yourself into an object can also undermine your classroom and your credibility at other levels. And, iff your colleagues see you commenting on some 20 year olds naked photo on myspace . . . CREEPY
  • Suppress the urge to comment on your student’s pages unless invited. You wouldn’t go to their dorm room and plop down on their bed, don’t go to their page and plop down on their virtual one either. And if you are invited, suss out the content first. Remember google? You don’t want your first 20 hits to be comments on myspace pages of people 18-25 years old, most of whom appear semi-nude or nude somewhere on their main page and/or have other explicit content. You especially do not want that happening if you are queer and untenured. (and yes, you can search myspace/facebook exclusively from google by filtering out other hits.) Do I need to explain why that falls under “creepy tree house?” (And if you get validated by students turned fanboys or fangirls, again, remember your colleagues’ perceptions as well as what happens when fanboys/girls attack.)
  • Myspace and Facebook also depend on having friends, and that dependence encourages even the most well-adjusted to up their friend’s list. Keep in mind that soliciting friends half your age can lead to the perception of “creepy tree house” AND if they friend you back, you may find your photo on some page dedicated to any number of inappropriate things. EX: there was a video making the rounds on myspace of stick drawings measuring, now imagine that video playing right next to your smiling mug. Not wanting your face connected is proof that a social network is probably the wrong place for you; having your face connected has different consequences.
  • Remember the point of setting up an internet based space to interact with students is to expand and reflect your pedagogical goals, to give you and your students a less formal space that relates back to those goals, when you cross the line into trying to lure students with the equivalent of candy only to resurrect institutional privilege . . . “creepy tree house.”
  • If you set up a personal site, anywhere, that has your real name attached (recognizable nicknames or first names count) you have also moved into a quasi-space in which you are acting socially but representing an institution and your academic self. It would take a whole other post to cover the quasi-spaces. Keep in mind the basic stuff: what you do on the internet is visible to everyone and judged according to who you represent (including yourself in your professional clothes), it can cost you respect and end up as part of your review. Pulling rank in the middle of an otherwise free flowing discussion (that is not backed by existing boundaries and expectations) is definitely in the creepy tree house range which gets us back to setting boundaries and sticking to them. When you are a public figure, like an academic, you have to own your public face in public space.

(These suggestions are based on a large Uni model. I know of some small liberal arts colleges that encourage serious enmeshment in which case some of these suggestions would have to be modified. It is also based on the idea that you are of a certain age where “hip” is almost always creepy; even if you are not, however, remember these sites last forever in one form or another and there are consequences for being “hot” with both your students and your colleagues. Only you know what is acceptable in the milieu in which you work and ultimately what will enhance your pedagogy. Think about these issues in the long term and across constituencies.)


There are probably more things I could say, but again, my fever made writing this post take way longer than it otherwise would, so I will open it up to you all:

  • General audience: What things do you think would be creepy on a social network site related to academe?
  • If you are a student: what behaviors, requirements, etc. have you seen or experienced that you felt were creepy or shifted the way you see your professors in the classroom?


oddly enough, I got that first image from another blogger discussing the Creepy Tree House phenomena with links! go check out his post here which should lead you to documentation galore.

  • “Tree House” see blog link above
  • “Meredith Dancing with Creepy Guy” photographer: Kerry. Public Album. Summer 2007.
  • “Jahn” Star Trek movie still from “Miri” (the episode with the creepy adults who still had youth behaviors) Gene Roddenberry
  • “white picket fence” photographer Keith Scott Morton. co Country Living Magazine
  • “Ground Rules” Montgomery Co Public Schools Resource Page.
  • “drunk woman.” unattributed
  • Veruca Salt. movie still. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) Dir. Mel Stuart
  • “Gay Couple” Men’s Health Awareness Campaign. unattributed.
  • Sullivan Brown as Young Guy Maddin in Brand Upon the Brain, photgrapher Adam L. Weintraub
  • Stick Figures
  • The Masked Magician cover. Illustrator Pradeep Ingale. Virgin Comics.
  • Greenville Elementary class 2004-2005. unattributed.


3 thoughts on “Creepy Tree House

  1. WOCPhd–I am a forever lurking lurker, but I wanted to delurk to say that as a youth worker/Board Member (with the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, we are by and for young women that trade sex for money) we work with even stricter guidelines than this. It really makes me happy to see people being explicit about what they will and won’t do with young people that they have academic/work relationships with–I think that in the guise of “being cool” or really, being liked, adults end up exploiting and/or creeping out young people all the time. I’ve seen a bunch of different activists and activist groups implode over the issue of boundaries and ethics because they wouldn’t confront or be clear about them (all in the name of adultism)–adults, it’s not adultism to acknowledge that adults have power over young people, and that young people need spaces without adults to build solidarity and support with each other. AND that adults and young people can work intergenerationally together, but the roles and responsibilities need to be clear for it to work out. Ok, I am probably ranting about things you agree with, so I wanted to say thanks.

  2. welcome to the blog Laura Janine. Oddily enough, I spend a considerable time volunteering with youth organizations, so maybe that is why my boundaries are different than some of my peers. While we do not have many rules in academe, b/c our population is largely adult and it is important to have enough freedom to establish successful rapport and pedagogical strategies, we do have rules about flirting with or dating current students. I get the feeling if you checked time-date-stamps on myspace some people might not be following even that . . . In that way, myspace and facebook are probably making something public that we all know about but do not discuss in public.

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