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We’re currently building some of the really fun stuff – the whole social networking side of ode.

The first building block of any network is it’s smallest unit. In our case, and in most others, it’s the user. And every user needs a profile.

Alongside lots of debate around privacy settings, newsfeeds, sharable content and nicknames I started thinking about the psychology of the profile picture, or avatar.

Every social site (that I’ve used anyway) allows you to upload a picture against your profile. This is a common web function.

So we accept we can upload a picture – but why and what do we choose to upload? What does it say about us? What are we trying to say to other people about ourselves in our choice of picture?

I guess at it’s most basic we have a need to connect on a visual level. Your profile picture is one of the most powerful ways of immediately providing a signal of who you are. On Facebook people regularly change their picture to show a new side to themselves, or to include their new baby or even in fancy dress.

Famously there’s no ugly people on Myspace, due to the rise of the Myspace Angle.

Ultimately it’s all about establishing an identity in the intrinsically anonymous internet.

But those examples are social sites, for fun and frivolity.

On a professional business network platform such as Linkedin (and ode) anonymity is not necessarily paramount – in fact you want to people to know the “real” you to a certain extent.

So it’s clear your profile picture will be chosen more carefully. It is a network used by your peers and therefore you will want to come across as mildly professional at the very least.

So that picture of you drunk and in costume as a Klingon might make people laugh, but they won’t take you too seriously.

Of course not everyone wants to show what they look like and perhaps cannot bring themselves to use an avatar (a “virtual” representation of themselves). Or they simply can’t figure out how to do it.

So, if a profile demands a picture and you can’t provide one the website has to put something in it’s place. This is where we meet the mystery men and women. What I like to call “blankies” (in place of anything better to call them, as they provide a little bit of comfort. And they’re blank. Well, you get the idea).

Universally a pale grey seems to be the colour of choice, not black as silhouettes traditionally are. Their purpose is to encourage you to upload a photo, to personalise your profile to decrease your anonymity and increase personal ownership of your profile.

So to celebrate the blankie, one of the most powerful calls to action on the internet, I present a small gallery and critique of some of the most famous…

Youtube blankie

The Youtube blankie: Dynamic, bold and immediately connects you to the purpose of Youtube using the common language of the video camera icon. Of course as it’s audience gets more and more used to filming on mobile devices perhaps that will have to be changed?

Wordpress blankie

WordPress blankie: (the platform this blog is written on and a wonderful service it is too) have gone for a simple, classic, almost nihilist “fat blankie”, or “Cluedo piece”. Interestingly they have recently employed a much greater range of potions for your profile picture, including the wonderful identicons.

Ning blankie

Ning blankie: “Make your own social network” site Ning have tried to humanise their blankie by giving it a realistic outline. Unless you’ve got Marge Simpson’s haircut it’s clear what needs to go here.

Myspace blankie

Myspace blankie: This feels more authoritarian, more demanding, even a little scary. You have “NO PHOTO”. Interesting fact: that person graphic is often also employed on Gents lavatory doors.

Linkedin blankie

Linkedin blankie: Like the Myspace blankie but with a softer, more natural look, on a white background. It’s even wearing a smart/casual jumper.

LastFM blankie

LastFM blankie: LastFM is a social music platform. It has a built in coolness and it’s where all the hip and groovy cats hang out. Hence the mysterious, Third Man type blankie. One of my favourites.

Flickr blankie

Flickr blankie: Flickr, one of the most popular image sites on the net, has perhaps the most strict and simplistic blankie of all. If you stare at it long enough the straight line mouth appears to morph into a cheeky smile. Apparently you can pick from 3: this is the “ambivalent” one.

Facebook blankie

Facebook blankie: In a break from tradition Facebook has cast aside all human elements and simply gone for the classic question mark. Lazy.

Digg blankie

Digg blankie: Is anyone else picturing Spiderman? Look at those broad shoulders. This is a man’s site, be in no doubt.

Upcoming blankie

Upcoming blankie: Happy, happy, joy, joy. A smiley emoticon for this community for discovering and sharing events. Although does it look a little overweight to you?

So what will ode choose for it’s blankie? Perhaps we’ll design a few and let ya’ll vote. Has anyone spotted any other cool blankies on their travels through cyberspace?

++update 8.5.2008 (hat tip to Peter for most of these, first post below)++

Bebo blankie

Bebo blankie: Social networking, popular with teenagers. In fact if I had to guess the age of this blankie character I would probably say a moody 17. Looks a bit like Morrissey circa 1982. So, good work.

Basecamp blankie

Basecamp blankie: Basecamp is a project management tool that we use, religiously. Now we have 100’s of users across multiple projects so the blankie has to be very small as it’s attached to messages etc. Interestingly, even though this is a professional office tool, of those people who have uploaded a profile picture hardly anyone has used an actual photo of themselves.

Mydeco blankie

Mydeco blankie: Mydeco (“It’s a furniture fix for the decorati!”) has plumped for a large detailed male outline. Rebelliously they have gone for white figure on a grey background and included a question mark. Word. I’ve also been inspired for a new tagline for ode: “It’s a content fix for the teacherati!”. No? OK.

Entertainment Live UK blankie

Entertainment Live UK blankie: I am not wholly confident what this site is, but it appears to be something to do with promotion of live music in the UK. Their blankie is as alarming in it’s complexity as their website, which has to be browsed to be believed. Hardly any of their members have added a photo, perhaps because the default blankie is more interesting than any real person could possibly be.

Indeptharts blankie

In Depth Arts blankie: A digital art forum that again uses the “question mark in face” motif. It’s becoming clear that if you actually have a question mark instead of a face you’ve saved yourself a click, eh?

Reggae Party blankie

Reggae Party blankie: Only a Dutch site called “Reggae Party” could employ a blankie like this. Personally I love it. Irie.

Sailing networks

Sailing networks blankie: Wow. This is almost our first “non-blankie”. So minimalist it’s almost not there at all.

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A recent change to a car park I use regularly has really bothered my user-centric radar (bear with me on this one!).

Our nearest local amenities from work are in Summertown, just outside North Oxford. It’s a busy main street where you can run quick errands like pop to the bank, grab a sandwich or a birthday card and so on.

Parking is a nightmare, especially at lunchtime, as you’d expect. There’s only one public car park and it’s continuously near capacity.

Until recently something used to spontaneously happen in that car park that was really interesting and I guess happens all over the country.

The entrance is right next to the exit so a car coming in would pass within a foot or so of a car going out.

You would often find people, when leaving and passing someone coming in, reaching out through their open window and offering their ticket, which usually had a good bit of time left on it, to the incoming car.

This is unexpected generosity, a little bit of sunshine, a free ticket!

It wasn’t an agreed behavior. There is likely an element of kitchen sink rebellion, but it felt good giving someone else your ticket and that recipient felt good that someone was kind enough to do so.

So what’s happened?

The local authority has introduced complex and stunningly awful new ticketing booths that force you to input your car registration number before it will issue you with a ticket, so that traffic wardens can link your car to the ticket.

This means people can’t pass tickets with a bit of time left on them to one another any more. No more sunshine.

So now you see people walking to the ticket machines, realising they have to input their registration number, sigh and go back to their car to remind themselves what it is, then walk back to the machine and wrangle with the appaling user interface (I mean, look at all the arrows, buttons and instructions) and then go back to their car to display it.

Courtesy of (the equally annoyed) louisiana

All this effort so the council can claw back the few pence it “felt” it was losing (quantifying the amount of tickets passed altruistically must be almost impossible).

And of course a ticket always guaranteed a space for 1hour – it would just be filled by a different car. The ticket still runs out as normal.

What’s more important: gaining a few quid or keeping the world .001% happier?

(An addendum tale: the council also changed the machines in a car park in the center of Oxford to number plate recognition ticket machines in direct response to complaints about a few homeless folk who used to ask (politely in my experience) for your old ticket so they could sell it on to the next person and make a few quid.

You can’t buy a ticket that hasn’t got your number plate on, right?

But what soon developed, and this always makes me smile at the ingenuity of it, is the homeless guys didn’t go away, they now help car park visitors to understand how to use the awful new machines and people tip them. Brilliant!)

So what does this tell us?

  1. Humans will always find a way to break or workaround a system to help each other if such a way can be found.
  2. How you think a system should work is not always the same as how users work your system.
  3. Changing a system to block natural, spontaneous behavior will only alienate and drive people to work around your block.
  4. Sometimes it shouldn’t just be about the money.

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

The ode library

We’ve found a new device which we think will transform the way information is delivered.

  1. It never crashes.
  2. It has the simplest cross cultural interface that works.
  3. It doesn’t need a help manual or instructions.
  4. It requires no power supply.
  5. It’s cheap to make.
  6. It’s highly portable.
  7. You can use it pretty much anywhere without any sort of connection.
  8. If treated well it will last for generations; no matter what other technology arises it will always be usable.

We love virtual content as you know but we also love books. We encourage people in the team to contribute to our office library – if you want to borrow a book, then you have to add a book. Share and share alike.

Blogs, wikis and websites are all very well but a book gives a subject time and space to breathe. I will rapaciously tear through a 400 page book but would balk at the idea of having to read the same 400 pages online or on a mobile device. For now.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977)

Rockstar, the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, have made a rather significant jump up the evolutionary digital distribution ladder by partnering with Amazon to add music downloads to their game world.

Their new title, GTA IV, will likely be the best selling game of all time. Amazon are the most successful online retailer in the world. Obviously some bright spark noticed their might be an opportunity…

A major slice of awesomeness found throughout all the GTA titles has been the music. When you drive any vehicle in the game you have a selection of radio stations you can “tune” into.

Music in games is nothing new but the GTA coup was that their music was proper chart music, music you recognise, music you could have an emotional connection to. And not just pop and rock hits but also opera, classical, jazz and much more. It really did add an edge of realism to the whole thing.

One of my favourite gaming memories of all time is from GTA: San Andreas. I was running from a car park roof top ambush and firefight. I stole a motorbike and gunned for the exit. Just as I thought I had got away the camera swung round to show an articulated lorry driven by one of my adversaries smashing (in slow motion!) it’s way off a flyover I had just passed under and barreling towards you.

But what made it really sweet was that all this happened as “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and and Roses was blasting out. I seriously cannot tell you how cool this was.

So now Rockstar have teamed up with Amazon to sell you extra music via the medium of your characters mobile phone. From within the gaming experience you will be able to browse a music store and download digital music to compliment your game. Also the tracks will be portable, meaning you can then transfer them to your MP3 player.

This type of approach will help revolutionise the distribution of digital content. Rockstar provide the traffic (customers) and Amazon provide the content. This is a “mash up” to all intents and purposes, on an unheard of scale.

What this does is further widen the gap between those who want to exercise a “command and control” approach to content delivery and those who want their content to touch as many points as the consumer requires.

Everything is pointing towards content liberation and greater user choice.

  • Virgin and Sky allowing you to choose your own TV.
  • iTunes abandoning restrictive DRM so you aren’t forced to own an ipod.
  • BBC iplayer giving free and easy access to the last 7 days of all BBC programming.
  • Youtube encouraging you to embed their video streams into your website.
  • Ringtones being available to buy directly from your mobile phone.
  • RSS feeds bringing website content updates to you rather than you having to go and find the content.
  • Guitar Hero 3 releasing extra tracks through the next generation of consoles shop fronts.

All these methods are commerically viable or bring added value.

If a community is available any switched on company should be able to provide them with a channel to their content in a form (or forms!) that enhance or complement that experience.

We’re all in this technology game for pretty much two reasons.

  1. We are not satisfied with how things are or used to be. We tend to be consistently hungry for the next step in technology, whatever form this may take.
  2. We secretly wish we were in Star Wars/Star Trek (delete as appropriate).

Well not much tends to make me sit up and spit my coffee from my nose these days but the following video, and I suggest you watch it all the way through, brings both together rather successfully. There’s nothing educational about this but LOOK AT THE BIG ROBOT DOG!

Thanks to 37 Signals for the spot.

Hi all, I’m a new poster to the odeworld blog. My name is Peter Marshall and I’ve recently joined the ode team as a software engineer and was prompted by Mr B to blog a couple of observations that peaked his interest. So here goes!

I saw an announcement today for another £100 laptop for school kids, the “Elonex One” http://www.elonexone.co.uk that will be running the Linux OS. This also comes hot on the heels of the Eeepc from Asus http://eeepc.asus.com/uk/guide.htm and they’re both very impressive.

I can also say, from first hand experience, that there is a lot of interest in these small PCs from my children and their friends. The interest to own one is being driven by the children; it doesn’t appear to be a parent led thing as in “lets buy a PC because its educational”.

I am also seeing a significant change in the way my children use and collaborate on work at school.

I think its beginning to turn into a movement driven by and for the student.

The government and schools always thought that they had to provide email for pupils. I distinctly remember there were government led initiatives to provide an email address for every school child (they failed). It became apparent it was unnecessary. No school child uses their school email address (even if they have one). They have always sourced their own.

The same has happened to documents and files. Schools thought they had to provide networks and file space and protection and all kinds of administration and support for children to upload homework files etc. Well, they don’t. Not anymore. My children use Google docs to collaborate (IN REAL TIME) with their mates to create work.

They also don’t bother to use the school network anymore. The school network naturally restricts how much space they can use to store work and students moving from the mindset outside school of web hosting services that freely grant upwards of 100GB of space to a school model that perhaps gives them 50MB and you can see why.

I can see that moving forward the only service the school has to provide is high speed access to the internet. Both the Asus Eeepc and the Elonexone devices come with full wireless internet access. Aside from any mindless controversy I think schools will very soon start to provide blanket wireless access points for pupils. In fact, it’s inevitable.

My children have made videos of their friends explaining all about pathogens for their biology homework. They upload the videos on to Youtube or Vimeo and present them in school (the school has not blocked Youtube…yet!).

Before the lesson most of the class has seen the video and rated or commented on it (because the link was shared using social networking sites in a peer to peer fashion). All this happens long before the teacher saw it in class.

What does this imply? That the teacher in this instance has become the slow link in the learning chain. And it will take a fundamental shift in thinking to make them once again an intrinsic part of the learning loop going forward.

From the students perspective a lot is changing very fast and the technology is naturally appearing to facilitate it. Demand and supply. I can see children progressing and branching in their own direction at such a pace I fear schools and the education sector are just getting left behind.

These small incredibly cheap PCs come with Linux, access to open source collaboration tools and wireless access and I think they are going to cause some big changes.

Go and see the video here: Biology video about Pathogens from Pierre Marshall on Vimeo.

What ode is attempting to do is pretty new, in the education sector at any rate. When you are trying to do something never attempted before you are keenly aware that you are unlikely to be the only person thinking in that manner.

There are almost certainly business people out there cleverer, better funded, more smartly dressed and considerably more successful with women than you’ll ever be. At least that’s how it feels when one company after another announces it’s involvement in this space.

But the reality is you shouldn’t fear the competition. You need to flip that thinking on it’s head and approach it from a completely different angle. And here’s why.

Like any business we keep an eye on what our “competitors” are doing – what new features have they added? What content have they got? What markets are they trying to break into? What are people saying about them? Do our customers use them? And so on.

Feeling a bit sick of riding this paranoia roller coaster I emailed one of my personal heroes, Seth Godin, internet marketing guru extraordinare, and asked for his advice on dealing with this issue. This is what he said:

  1. the enemy isn’t the competition
  2. it’s obscurity
  3. they help you
  4. they legitimize the space
  5. just do a great job

I never really expected a reply (I mean, this is a man that advises Google and been described as “the Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age” by Business Week) so once I’d got over the shock at his quick and valuable response I realised that what he said made enormous sense. I reprint them here with his kind permission.

The enemy isn’t the competition, it’s obscurity

In this new information age customers can move between products and brands faster than at any other time in history. We are digital magpies, flitting around looking for the shiny stuff.

The ability to make quick choices, to gather commentary on services and products and bask in the glow of a million and one paths has never been easier. As consumers we are empowered. As businesses we have to integrate widely and cheaply to earn people’s interest.

It’s not enough anymore to rely on catalogues and pull outs in magazines to sell our message. We have to focus our attention on taking our products to where the people are, and they are splintered across multiple niches now, not just a homogeneous mass silently consuming in front of the TV.

So the message here is that if you are going to focus anywhere, forget what others are doing and concentrate on making people aware of your product. When there are 1000’s of companies all using megaphones to shout at potential customers they understandably tune out and become ultra selective.

Understand where YOUR people hang out, LISTEN to what they have to say, make your product FLEXIBLE enough that you can tailor it to multiple needs. People want to talk about good products more than ever these days. There’s kudos and respect being gathered by consumers out there – make your product worth talking about and the real enemy, obscurity, will fade away.

They help you, they legitimize the space

You may be the only chocolate umbrella company in the world but on a global platform you will likely be a lone voice. This doesn’t make your product awful but it makes it harder to acquire customers. When customers are actively blocking out marketing noise you may remain forever niche without the funds or reach required to take your Chocobrella™ to the next level.

But then you hear that Mars is making a range of confectionery based outdoor apparel – liquorice scarfs, toffee wellington boots and nougat gloves. Initially you will panic, because they are a global corporation with huge marketing budgets, R&D departments and national distribution networks.

But instead what they are doing is raising the awareness of sugar laden weather wear, a wave which you can capitalise on.

Suddenly you have options – people will start searching for similar items on Google, you can work your niche appeal and create bespoke Chocobrellas™ for the more discerning client, lifestyle magazines will start to run comparison articles on this new trend for edible clothing and so on. They have justified your idea and will expand your market for you.

They are not the competition, they are simply a different angle on the same market. Soon others will join in and before you know it you are playing in a million dollar marketplace that previously didn’t exist. This isn’t to say the hard work has finished (see point 1) but your choices suddenly become infinitely more appealing.

Just do a great job

This is the killer point though. Forget what the competition is doing, it’s out of your hands after all, and expend your energies on being the best you can be.

It’s not enough to say your product is good (“Product X will save you time!”), it has to be truly good (customers are spontaneously telling each other Product X saves them time without prompting from you).

People will have passion for it, they will champion it, they will spread the word – the tools are all out there for consumers to do that on massive scale.

I’d add one more point: A competitor might be a collaborator

We are building ode in such a way that it can be broken up into elements, re-packaged or white labeled and inserted into almost any web based technology for any number of reasons.

We can open up ode’s functions and data bit by bit, exclusively and/or publicly to whoever we like. We are in favour of collaborations that are mutually beneficial. In this day and age products that offer openness and willingness to participate will win. So before you label someone a competitor – could they really be a collaborator if a middle ground can be found?

So, Seth did a great job of when answering my email and now I’m telling you about it thus making him look cool which I’m happy to do. Simply by taking a minute to answer my email he has likely won some new fans. Now go and buy Purple Cow, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers and his new book, Meatball Sundae.

A very quick post to say we hope you all had a great Xmas and of course wishing you all a happy and prosperous new year.

Over the next week or so we’ll be working towards getting ready for BETT. If you come and see us (and I hope you will) you will be able to pick up one of our limited edition “invite” minicards.

There’s a special email address on them which you can use to join our trial. But I’ve cleverly smudged the email address out so you’ll just have to come and see us to get one and find out what it is, won’t you? 😉

BETT invite card

This is an excellent idea. Simple, intriguing, addictive, educational and worthwhile. Click the logo below to join in.

Freerice banner

No explanation needed – go along, increase your vocabulary and help end poverty too.

Steiff Bear

“(Our) reason for starting ode (was) to make a difference, to create something awesome, to celebrate what technology can do in the modern classroom for the modern student and, of course, for the modern teacher.”

I spoke to a very happy Mr B the other day and hence I’m not surprised by the heartfelt entry that he posted last week (even though he’s supposed to be on paternity leave). Not being a daddy myself, I guess I don’t really have quite the same perspective on why we’re doing ode but I definitely agree with the quote above from his previous post.

Why the teddy bear picture? Well, I was recently in Munich where I purchased a little Steiff (creators of some of the first teddy bears) teddy for the newly arrived Little Miss B. It occurred to be that when she gets it, this bear will be not just a new little friend to chew on…it will be one of the first teaching aids in her young life.

The swing tag on the teddy says:

“Babies discover the world every day anew and the Steiff baby articles help them to do this….By touching, feeling, probing everything in reach…babies are also learning to “grasp” the world…The toys are made of easily cleaned, robust materials…allowing each growing child to make some of its early discoveries in safety.”

That got me to thinking…Knowing her dad and also the age we’re living in, she’ll have her first Internet connected device before too long. I’ll be interested to see in the years (or weeks!) to come how soon technology starts to influence Izzy’s education.

At the moment, the humble teddy bear provides the type of development that a digital resource cannot provide. Will educational technology ever provide a replacement for the teddy bear? My natural reaction was, “No way” but then I recalled the “Shift Happens” video that was going around a while back and that you can see below…

Here’s the link to the US version

Figures such as, an estimated 40 exabytes (4.0 x 1019) worth of information was produced in 2006, which is more than in the preceding 5000 years combined and that we currently have the technology to transmit “10 trillion bits per second”…That’s 10,000,000,000,000 bites per second or 1,164 gigabytes per second, down a single optical fibre strand, taken at face value are amazing.

Meanwhile back in 2007, whenever I come across anyone who doesn’t “get” ode…and that is less and less frequent these days…I tend not to worry too much. Safe in the knowledge that what we’re doing now is only the tip of the iceberg as far as educational technology is concerned. While we’re not quite up to 10 trillion bits per second bandwidth for each user, it is getting better all the time. Wireless and handheld technologies are becoming more widespread and educationally relevant too.

Hopefully, in a flattened world ode will develop alongside the convergence of fast data transmission, cheap storage and other effects of the commoditisation of IT. Further to the premise of the Shift Happens presentation, the service that we launch in 2008 will be barely recognisable in 2013. Maybe, when Izzy has children of her own, maybe they will have their own digital, teddy replacements…perhaps some type of electronic environment that stimulates their developing senses that she downloads from ode??? Or maybe they’ll use their mother’s handed down Steiff teddy!?

Hey, that’s the end of my first odeworld blog post in quite some time! Did I make sense?