In the real world, you can wave, hug, or high-five your friends hello, and soon you may have a similar range of nonverbal options on Facebook. The social network is testing a new “Greetings” feature that will let users send digital salutations in the form of a wave, high five, wink, hug, or—this will sound familiar—poke.
The feature, which the Next Web spotted and appears to be rolling out to some users in the U.K. and South America as part of a test, works a lot like the “Reaction” options that supplement the Like button—if you hold down the wave greeting, the rest of the salutations will materialize.
The purpose of all these groovy new ways to say hi? Facebook is, as ever, on a quest to increase engagement, as evidenced by another move it made earlier this week, launching a feature called “Did You Know.” As TechCrunch’s piece on Did You Know acknowledges, “[a] healthy amount of these features eventually seem to find themselves as dead-ends,” but it’s interesting to watch Facebook try to reshape the world it’s wrought, in ways both central and peripheral. It introduced all these bells and whistles and great ways to share, and then whoops, it may have accidentally swayed an election, time to pedal it back!
In the case of these greetings, they actually seem like a decent bet. Yes, there are already tons of digital tools to reach out to friends and family and people you know, but there’s something comfortably simple to the idea of doing so wordlessly through a digital gesture. It’s sort of like the Like button, actually—people, me included, like liking the statuses and links and pictures of people, even ones they haven’t talked to in a while. Some users may find it awkward, but I think it’s an easy way to transmit a tiny bit of positivity. On second thought, I also think this is exactly what Facebook wants me to think, and that bothers me a little, but it’s true: I love to like, and I expect I will enjoy sending little waves and high fives too.
I don’t expect to use the poke function much, but of the five greetings options, poke might be the most interesting one. This is because poking, of course, predates all of these other greeting options. Poking has been part of Facebook since its founding, a cornerstone of Facebook lore, but its actual purpose was never explained. Was it a way of flirting? Were you supposed to poke back? Facebook never got rid of poking, but it certainly receded in prominence as the site grew. Back in the first few years of Facebook’s existence, before it was the tech behemoth we know today, poking was just one of those whimsical things about using the site. It never made business sense, but it gave Facebook personality. Now poking, within the broader suite of greeting choices, will serve a logical purpose. (Sort of, anyway—will anyone poke when they can wave? Maybe if only to be different.) It suggests an attempt to get back to basics, to once again make Facebook a playful arena to connect with friends. It’s only when you think about how the company is tracking your every movement in a ruthlessly data-driven attempt to monetize your attention span that you might get nostalgic for the old kind of poking, the one that launched thousands of poke wars that no one could quite explain.