What Was “Poking”? A Decade After Facebook’s Launch, a Mystery Persists.

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Feb. 4 2014 11:18 AM

What Was “Poking”?

Maybe even Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know.

140203_TECH_FacebookPoking
In the beginning, there was the "poke."

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

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.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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.

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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. ...”

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