When’s the Last Time You Were Poked?

Lizzie Crocker on the Facebook feature’s long slow death.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Thankfully, the launch of Facebook’s new Graph Search hasn’t been met with the same user outrage as timeline and other site-altering fixes that threw our online social lives into disarray. (“I need two profile pictures now?!”)

Perhaps that’s just because many of us don’t quite understand what it is just yet.

Instead, the brainy new feature, for some, has brought back a certain kind of nostalgia for the good old days, when Facebook still had those utilitarian “walls” and we could simply stalk someone without being constantly distracted by that news-ticker thing.

And the poke! Remember the poke?

One of the site’s original attractions, the “poke” was polarizing and ill-defined from the start. It “can be used for a variety of things,” Mark Zuckerberg tells us. For example, “you can poke your friends to say hello.” That surely happened, and still does once in a while. But for most, the reality of the poke quickly became much dirtier. Even high-schoolers know that poking is slang for “doing it,” and many Facebook users embraced the euphemism as a flirty virtual gesture, particularly when it was still a novelty. Think of how many old flames have been rekindled thanks to poking!

But the thrill of the poke, it seems, has all but vanished, especially as fancy new things like timelines and video sharing overtook the social network. Now, poking is reduced to a sort of cyber–pillow fight or –tickling match, most of the time between friends. You probably have a long-running “poke war” with someone you hardly know.

“I have only been poked twice in the last few years,” Charls Hurlock, a 20-year-old college student and friend of mine, wrote on Facebook. “One was my buddy messing around and the other was a girl who I was flirting with and we’re still in a ‘poke war.’”

While harmless, Hurlock’s “poke war” exemplifies the feature’s main problem: puerile (or infantile) thrills aside, there’s no real protocol to poking. If a friend of a friend pokes you, should you poke back? Even if you have no intention of poking this person the old-fashioned way, isn’t it just rude if you don’t return the poke? So you poke the poker, thinking you’re even until you realize that, 30 seconds later, the poker has poked back! An absurd cycle of poking and repoking that effectively serves no purpose inevitably ensues.

That gets old quickly. Nowadays, anecdotal evidence suggests, the poke is thought of with derision when it’s thought of all. In fact, the function has all but disappeared from Facebook’s homepage; it’s now tucked behind a settings menu. A Facebook representative, asked by The Daily Beast for some statistics on poke usage, was hard-pressed to come up with anything.

All of which prompts the question: will poking soon become obsolete? I posed the question to all 1,023 of my Facebook friends.

“It’s obsolete these days but still used for nostalgic effect, harkening back to the old days when your photos were on webshots and poke was Facebook’s best feature,” wrote Andrew Sprouse, 27, in response.

Several others inquired about the currents whereabouts of the poke button. One 50-something male acquaintance, who has previously poked me, claimed he “never” pokes.

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“Sometimes I poke four people a day, or the same person four times a day. But it is easy to forget about,” said Tiah Emily Rubin, another Facebook friend, proving my point.

But perhaps the most telling remarks about the future of poking come from the younger generation of Facebook users who grew up on the site (as if the 13-year-old age limit is going to keep some 8-year-old whiz kid from sneaking around the social webs).

“People in high school rarely poke each other anymore,” said Livy Shutkin, 14. “I’ll get a poke from a random person but it’s never a way of virtual flirting, more like an annoying gesture. Sometimes people get into ‘poke wars’ but they were much more popular last year and the years before. Now poking is basically never used and not popular whatsoever!”

There you have it.