When Facebook first launched 10 years ago—back when it was still called “Thefacebook”—there were no timelines, no videos, no notes, no “likes,” and there was no News Feed. In fact, there really wasn’t much to do except look at other people’s profiles.
And you could poke people. Or, perhaps even more exciting, you could get poked by them. What did it mean if someone poked you? Facebook wouldn’t tell you. All it would say was “Poke Him!” or “Poke Her!” or “You poked [your friend].” If you went to Facebook’s help pages, Facebook was coy: “When we created the poke, we thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose,” Facebook said. “People interpret the poke in many different ways, and we encourage you to come up with your own meanings.”
Even today, they refuse to explain the feature. If you go to Facebook’s help pages now, Mark Zuckerberg and co. will tell you only this: “People poke their friends or friends of friends on Facebook for a lot of reasons (ex: just saying hello).” When I reached out to Facebook to ask if someone could speak to me about poking, I was very politely turned away. Even if you ask Mark Zuckerberg himself, Wikipedia warns, he’ll just repeat the answer from Facebook’s FAQ verbatim.
That answer might seem like a non-answer. Yet even though the poke is ostensibly meaningless, it’s the feature more than any other that embodies Facebook’s optimism about social media. It’s not that the poke doesn’t have any meaning; it’s that the meaning of the poke has always been left up to us.
And since it’s only the people who give the poke its meaning, there was only way to figure out what it meant: I had to ask the people.
Even among Facebook’s earliest users, there was confusion. “From my perspective, as a freshman at Northwestern when people in the dorm started signing up for Facebook, poking was a total joke,” responded one graduate of the class of ’07, who got Facebook in its first few months of activity. “Guys would poke their guy friends to be like, ‘Haha, I have a crush on you.’ … If there was any real sexual utility to it, I had no idea.”
A student from the same year at George Washington University had the opposite experience. “I remember the first time I got ‘poked,’ by this really freshman guy,” she told me. “My friends and I all gathered around the screen to try to decipher what it meant. Was it flirtatious, or meaningless? I poked back.” She and the poker ended up going steady “for like two months,” she explained.
Because the poke’s joke status was ambiguous, it also had the power to be totally creepy. “If it was a friend, it meant, ‘I have no idea what this means but POKE! Hee hee!’ ” one Boston University student from the class of ’08 told me on Facebook. (BU was among the first 12 schools to get the social network.) “If it was a stranger or a creeper (read: male) then it was as bad as a dude coming up to you at a bar and opening with, ‘Hey, where are you ladies from?’ ”
There seems to have been a clear gender divide in the understanding of the poke. Most men were apparently conscious of the innuendo, but most thought that no one would ever actually stoop to using the poke as a romantic overture. One colleague and former classmate, upon hearing that others had used the poke to express real sexual interest, responded, “Wait, are you guys serious? I was under the impression anyone who ever gave or received a poke with interpreted sexual interest was/is insane.” A graduate from the class of 2013 agreed: “I only ever used the poke then as a joke among guys.” A respondent who graduated from Stanford in 2005, and was among the first to get Facebook as an upperclassman, joked, “When I poked someone it meant I accidently pressed the ‘poke’ button.”
But while none of the guys I spoke to would confess to using the poke as a sexual entrée—or at least none of the straight guys (more on that below)—the ladies knew better. “Between freshman and sophomore year I received a ton of pokes (and random messages) from complete strangers, from nearby schools or as far as from the other side of the country,” responded one graduate of Northwestern’s class of 2009. “As far as I can remember, it was all dudes.” A UCLA graduate from the class of 2010 had a similar experience: “There were a few dudes I met at college parties who would later add me on Facebook and then ‘poke’ me before asking me out,” she recalled. “When I would later recount these stories to my friends … they would always point out that he poked me, and thus, wanted to bang.” One old friend, upon hearing about this article, ran an experiment by poking a good friend of his from whom he hadn’t heard in months. He received this response on his Facebook wall: “Did you just poke me? You sick s.o.b. …”
In at least one case, the ambiguity of the poke lent a surprising poignancy. One graduate from Northwestern’s class of 2012 looked back somewhat wistfully on a girl with whom he “poked … back and forth for awhile.”
In high school we spent a lot of one semester hanging out, and I liked her and told her so, but she had a boyfriend, and I had the youthful misconception that high school relationships are legitimate, so I didn’t pursue her. She was a class or two under me, though, so I left for college and basically forgot about it.
After that, we got coffee once or twice, when we were both back in our hometowns, but other than that we never talked, never chatted, just poked once every now and then. I suppose I wouldn’t have continued it if I didn’t still like her a little, so in that sense it was flirtatious. …
However, we never did find ourselves in the same city again, and I don’t think I’ve seen her since I was a college junior. The poking stopped long ago. I can’t recall who it was who finally didn’t poke back.
There wasn’t so much ambiguity in the gay community, it seems. One graduate from the class of 2010 recalled that poking was “the cornerstone of campus gay hookup culture.” For one graduate of Georgetown’s class of 2013, this notion came as a bit of a surprise: “That’s what poking meant?” he wrote. “So many then-baffling undergrad interactions suddenly make sense.” He explained that he was “comically oblivious in college to the advances of guys, and basically flirty with everyone … so I never really realized when guys were hitting on me. Thus, when a flirty encounter with X was followed up with a poke, I thought that X and I were just both amusing ourselves with the ridiculousness of this antiquated feature.” Perhaps there was some school-to-school variation as to the meaning of the poke, but its utility for the gay hookup scene wasn’t confined to any one school. “One of my best friends in college was gay,” the UCLA graduate (quoted earlier) recalled to me separately, “and when someone would poke him on Facebook, it was pretty much a sure thing that the dude wanted to hook up with him. We all knew it was going to happen.”
The poke seems to have taken on different meanings across other cultures. One 2011 graduate from the University of Florida told me, “I had an aunt who would poke me consistently every other week.” Asked over email what her aunt, who has lived in Colombia her whole life and speaks limited English (she uses Facebook in Spanish), meant, she said, “I think she was just saying ‘Hey! :) :) :) What’s up!’ ” The aunt is not alone: Most Spanish-speakers seem to think the poke (called the toque) is innocent, though some concede that it can take on un sentido sexual.
But the poke’s ambiguity wasn’t enough for some. By 2007, Facebook supplemented the poke with abilities like “hug,” “bite,” “sucker punch,” and “tickle” via apps like SuperPoke! By 2011, sites like Mashable were calling for the death of the poke, noting that Facebook had already buried it in their latest design. (“Here’s my problem with the poke,” Mashable wrote, “What the heck does it mean?”) In 2012, Facebook revamped the poke as a Snapchat-like iPhone app (also called Poke), which could be used to send self-erasing photos and videos. Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg brushed that soon-abandoned app aside as “more of a joke.”
By now it’s clear that the Age of the Poke is behind us. In preparation for this article, I dusted off the old poke button to try it out with some old friends. (It took me a while to locate it, but you can find your pokes along the left side of the page, tucked away under “see more …”) After I poked one close male friend from college, we quickly found ourselves in the midst of a full-blown poke war that’s now been raging for over a week. (As of this writing, I poked last.) I was concerned when at first my girlfriend of three years didn’t poke me back, but now that my poke has been requited, I find myself feeling more secure. Though Facebook listed several co-workers under my “suggested pokes,” I resisted trying it out on any of them, in order to avoid complaints from Slate’s HR department.
If there’s any hope of the poke mounting a comeback, it’s likely to be motivated by a different sentiment altogether. While asking around for this article, I was introduced to Poke Friday, an emerging tradition that can perhaps be traced back to author Amy Spalding. According to one participant, each Friday “someone on Facebook reminds everyone, ‘It’s Poke Friday!’” and what follows is “an all-day orgy … of poking, with nothing more meaningful than, ‘I poked you! Your turn!’ ” For now, to the Facebook users of 2014, maybe the poke has finally taken on a simple, stable meaning: Remember this?