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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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What is ODE?

ODE will be a webstore where educators can buy little bits of digital educational content and put them back together any way they like. Simple.