Written by Jared Stein at Flexknowlogy, Defining "Creepy Treehouse" explores the pitfalls when an organisation creates an online social environment.
The article defines the term "Creepy Treehouse" in several ways, including as the following:
n. 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 rewardsIn other words, an artificial community may not be real enough to attract and maintain a community - it may have too many or arbitrary rules, expect and reward unrealistic behaviours or simply be designed to advertise (shout) at people rather than foster community engagement.
Such institutional environments are often seen as more artificial in their construction and usage, and typically compete with pre-existing systems, environments, or applications. creepy treehouses also have an aspect of closed-ness, where activity within is hidden from the outside world, and may not be easily transferred from the environment by the participants.
How can these types of issues be avoided - particularly given the governance required by the public sector?
One solution is to partner with robust existing online communities. This approach allows a government agency to participate without having to take on responsibilities such as developing the systems and the community, attracting and empowering participants or moderating and guiding behaviours. Certainly an agency needs to be careful about which existing communities it partners with, however there are many long-standing well managed communities that could be viable options.
A second approach is to partner on the creation of a community, funding an external organisation to develop a community that the agency can participate in. This also outsources much of the governance and control issues, reducing the agency's overheads in these areas. It is important to be very careful about the selection of the organisation that will create and manage the community as while many will claim they can achieve this, there are in reality very few organisations with the skills, experience, networks and capabilities to do so.
If, however, the agency has no choice but to create the community, it is important to be as transparency about governance and as even-handed, consistent and as hands-off as possible in its operation. While an agency can seed a community with content it needs to ensure that there are tools and incentives that encourage the community to generate the bulk of the content and interactions themselves. President Obama's MyBarackObama website is an excellent example of this, as the site allowed participants to form communities, create, share and distribute information and largely run their virtual lives within the community without seeing virtual police on every corner.
Perhaps that is the best analogy for an agency-run community - it needs to run like a western democracy without the elections. People are free to go about their business as they please, within the laws of their community. There are no bureaucrats and officials scrutinising their every move.
Surely a government agency can justify managing an online community in the same way our government manages our nation - treating the members as citizens, not serfs.