A Plea to Facebook: Never Get Rid of the Poke

This post originally appeared at BostInno

You log on, and the first thing you notice is that the little globe next to the Facebook logo is red. Oh joy! Per usual, your heart lifts in anticipation, but you’re careful not to get too excited. It’s probably just a Goodreads request from your cousin who actually hasn’t picked up a book in 13 years, or an invitation to an event you have no interest in attending.

Still, you don’t hesitate run your cursor over Mini-Earth and click.

“You have been poked by…”

For a split second your mind races.

Whoa. What is this? Has your high school crush finally figured out what she’s been missing, and decided to return your previously unrequited love in the most charmingly passive way possible? Typical her. That sweetheart. Or is it that new chick in the office? The one you knew was eyeing you in the kitchen yesterday while you were making your ham and cheese sandwich. You swear to yourself that you have got to stop being so damn sexy while making ham and cheeses. Maybe it’s the spicy mustard.

“You have been poked by…Your Fat College Roommate from Sophomore Year. Poke Back?”

Self-inflicted mental dopeslap time. Of course it was him, the current accountant and former champion keg-stander who used to be known in your dorm as Tub. Tub pokes you every year, and you assume that, in his cubicle in an office in Chicago, Tub was chuckling to himself once again while clicking on the creepily outstretched index finger in Facebook’s left-hand column. Per the now-annual tradition, you poke him back, do a quick sweep of his profile, and let him be, waiting for Tub to best you again in another 12 months.

The poke needs to be honored. Despite the plethora of changes Facebook has gone through since its launch, adding hundreds of millions of users along the way, poking was there at the beginning and is one of the few facets that have remained largely unchanged. (Other than the recent update where Facebook actually suggests people for you to poke; what type of sketchy algorithm do they use to determine that?)

Yet it has also never been properly defined. Wikipedia references an old Facebook FAQ which states that, “When we created the poke, we thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose. People interpret the poke in many different ways, and we encourage you to come up with your own meanings.” If you think of Facebook as your social life translated digitally, where everything is the online version of a “real” event, where does the poke fit in? What is the real-life equivalent of a poke? There is none. It is a completely new social interaction, invented by, and particular to, Facebook.

What we do know about the poke: it’s more than a little bit nerdy, but also vaguely sexual. I recall a brief time back in 2005 and 2006 where my college friends would actually discuss poking as a legitimate step in the hookup process. You met someone, Facebooked them (remember when people actually requested to get “Facebooked”?), and if you got a poke back, you were in like a dirty shirt.

On the flip side, poking was one of the first dangerous weapons on social networks for pranksters. Before embarrassing tweets, faux check-ins, or however girls make fun of each other on Pinterest (forged 50 Shades of Grey fan fiction?) waiting for a friend to pass out and then poking every member of the opposite sex on his or her account was the inaugural high jinx of the social network era. “Poke wars” were all the rage in 2006. In fact, that’s when Tub and I first got into it, and I imagine the battle will continue when our grandchildren have profiles of their own. Hell, we’ll probably even have dueling outstretched index fingers on our tombstones.

The poke reached its social apex relatively early in Facebook’s life. Prior to the timeline, prior to the Newsfeed, prior to even pictures, there was the poke. Therefore, the poke belongs to us, that first wave of Facebook users, those that were on the platform before it expanded to outside college, and knew it as the only social network (not counting the proto-hipsters in 2005 already rejecting popular trends on Myspace).

It remains a memory of the days where we didn’t worry about what we wrote on Facebook, not only because our employers had not yet joined, but because we didn’t even have employers. As we grow older, and as Facebook increases in both user numbers and functionality, the poke fades into obscurity. But like an old roommate that comes around once a year, the poke, accompanied by a tinge of nostalgia, reminds of us of that younger time.

Therefore, Facebook should be commended for keeping the poke, despite (more appropriately, because of) being relatively unimpressive from a technological perspective, and providing no apparent value as a revenue driver for the now billion-dollar company. It is a throwback to a younger time in its own history, when few worried about privacy, and nobody doubted whether Facebook had lost its cool-factor.

It also lets me keep tabs on Tub. Facebook, always keep the poke.

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