Facebook hit my college campus in 2005, when the social network decided to expand from its Ivy League roots and deign to serve my second-tier university. My friends and I quickly pushed the new technology to its absurd limits—we staged sham Facebook marriages, posted obscene photo albums, and flooded our walls with penis jokes. One day, a boy I had met at school “poked” me. My roommates and I giddily deconstructed the implications of this new digital flirting strategy. I poked back.
This month, Facebook unveiled the next stage of its flirtatious poking function: Facebook Poke is a mobile app that allows users to send in-the-moment videos, photos, and messages, each of which are automatically deleted a few seconds after they hit the recipient’s phone. Facebook Poke is a blatant rip-off of Snapchat, an app that debuted in 2011 and has quickly grown into a mobile giant thanks to its largely teenage audience: Snapchat is currently trafficking in 30 million photographs a day, with up to 1,000 messages firing every second. Snapchat’s self-destruct feature has earned it a reputation as the “sexting” app—a place where teens can trade naked photos with no digital footprint.
Facebook Poke has so far failed to capture Snapchat’s mojo. Interest in the Facebook app is already waning. Meanwhile, Snapchat downloads are stronger than ever. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo has argued that Facebook’s failure stems from the fact that it “didn’t think of building something like Snapchat long ago, all by itself.” But Facebook’s problems aren’t technological—they’re cultural.
Mark Zuckerberg initially developed his social network as a way to check out hot girls at Harvard; last year, he updated his status to announce his marriage to longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan. The site’s sexual values have aged with him. In the seven years since my college crush sent me that poke, Facebook has emerged as a sexless online community. Facebook’s terms of service prohibit posting content that is “pornographic” or “contains nudity.” Instagram, the more-permanent photo sharing community Facebook recently acquired, also bans “nude, partially nude, or sexually suggestive photos.” Facebook’s terms of service have led to the suspension of 17-year-old bride Courtney Stodden for wearing a bikini, a new mom for breast-feeding her baby, and The New Yorker for posting a cartoon of a topless Adam and Eve.
In the place of these sexy displays, Facebook offers a more traditional romantic landscape. Users are invited to select their relationship status by navigating a drop-down menu. Relationship terms escalate predictably: Single. In a relationship. Engaged. Married. (In this set-up, the “It’s Complicated” option plays like a sad joke.) Every status change is instantly telegraphed to the wider community. Then, it’s archived for months and years, only to reappear again in one of Facebook’s nostalgic displays, like its Timeline profile or Year in Review feature, which cast users’ minute-by-minute Facebook activities as key events in the public scrapbooks of their lives. Until Zuckerberg released Facebook Poke this month, Facebook’s flirty poking feature had all been forgotten in the shadow of these grandiose public gestures.
Snapchat places no similar restrictions on its sexual content. It doesn’t want to know if you’re married. Photos of old flames don’t come back to haunt you at year’s end. And yet, the app isn’t just facilitating the delivery of millions of porny photos per day. Young users also find Snapchat useful for trading chaste self-shots, personal cat videos, and everyday sights annotated with scribbled inside jokes. This is Snapchat’s cultural triumph over Facebook: It is a social network where sex is comfortably integrated into a user’s wider digital life. On Snapchat, sexual identity isn’t cemented through a series of boxes and menus. User profiles are nearly nonexistent, and even private messages are fleeting (though the app has some loopholes yet to close). That’s a winning formula for teenagers, who are highly invested in exploring their sexualities, but face strong cultural shaming from both peers and adults for doing so. Snapchat allows users to behave sexually without that behavior defining them—not for more than a few seconds, anyway.
Snapchat is unlikely to move teens to abandon Facebook en masse—Facebook currently hosts 20 million minors, many of whom have proven adept at navigating several online identities at a time. But Zuckerberg’s site is gaining a reputation as your grandfather’s social network (perhaps gramps has friended you?), and that can only limit true, spontaneous, and incessant engagement among teens. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg—who boasted about his developers copying Snapchat in just 12 days— technological innovations like Facebook Poke aren’t enough to turn the cultural tide. Last week, Internet-famous tween Lohanthony tweeted a link to a Facebook chat, with this annotation: “i’m so bored i went on facebook.”