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?