To poke or not to poke?

Does the equivocal Facebook feature mean anything, really? And why is it still there?

Imagine sitting in a jail cell, amid a group of hardened criminals, recollecting the brutal crimes that got them there - and when the sea of bloodshot eyes turns to you, expectant for your explanation, you declare: "I poked a man."

True story: in 2009 a US woman was arrested for "poking" another woman on Facebook. Turns out, the person she sent the virtual gesticulation to (for all intents and purposes an innocuous gesture), had a restraining order against her. At the time, the law cited a Facebook poke as a "very deliberate action" that could not be dismissed, due to the "new pitfalls and new threats" the era of social media roused.

I came across this story recently, after I was poked on Facebook (the first time in a considerable while, come to think of it) by someone who is patently not fond of me. This got me thinking about what the seemingly benign, meaningless social media feature really means, and the intentions it could fulfil.

So, to satisfy my curiosity (and partly also to find out if anyone actually still uses the somewhat pass'e feature), I did a bit of an informal survey. Apart from the fact that people still poke other people, what I found out was while most "pokees" see the meaning of a poke as being largely relative - subject to the "poker's" intentions and affiliation with them, on the whole, they also regard it as being kinda creepy.

Ascribe your own meaning

During a live Facebook Webinar, Mark Zuckerberg positioned the poke as being pretty much open-ended. He said, when the Facebook team created the poke, they simply "thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose".

The Facebook creator went on to say people interpret the feature in different ways, and encouraged the social network's users to come up with their own meanings.

To some extent, this is what many users have done. But the majority seem to view a poke as a mediocre substitute for flirting - a means of breaking the ice or a pick-up line, if you will.

Then there is the camp that is of the opinion it is meant as less of a passive-aggressive tool for potential suitors or stalkers - and more of an unassuming, friendly gesture. Facebook's help page leans towards this stance: "The poke feature can be used for a variety of things on Facebook. For instance, you can poke your friends to say hello."

Other meanings attributed to the poke include: "I'm too lazy/busy to string words together in an actual e-mail or message, but I am thinking of you"; "Let's see what this does" (generally the first-time Facebook user); "Hey there - remember me?"; "I like you, but will deny any ulterior motive in this poke if I find out you don't feel the same"; and then the charming, "I don't care much for you, but feel obliged to make you feel I do".

Some are even resigned to the belief that it's a double-entendre, the true meaning and intention of which will never really be known.

Poke wars

Then I was reminded of Facebook's earlier days when the primordial "poke war" was all the rage. A gruelling battle of stamina and cutting wit, this was basically a back-and-forth game of poking.

It goes like this: the antagonist starts the ball rolling with a poke, and once informed he/she has been poked via a notification on his/her home page, the recipient pokes back. The original poker reciprocates with a poke. The pokee pokes back. And so it goes, until one of the parties gets the last poke in.

This could go on for years, depending on the tenacity - or lack of an actual life - the respective parties happen to possess. In this case, I guess the poke just boils down to a bit of fun (for lack of a better word).

Poke history

Speaking of the "old days", here's an interesting notion: according to blogger, Andrew Girdwood, the poke was in fact born as far back as 1963, with the BASIC (Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language.

The "poke" of that era, says Girdwood, became a type of "social currency for gamer geeks" by allowing them to get game cheats. Apparently, it was possible to load eight-bit games into the computer and then use the "poke" command to insert the right codes into the right memory slots to cheat the game. "The right poke could get you super-stamina, immunity and a limitless supply of ammo."

He also refers to free operating system Linux's "finger" command as a precursor, which may well have been one of the first social networking instructions. The "finger" command essentially used a Linux user name to return information about that user to the party sending the command.

Girdwood seems to think these earlier versions of the modern-day poke were simpler and more elegant.

On its way out?

There have long been murmurs that the poke function is slowly being phased out to make way for new functions - or just because it has run its course as a device for harassment and amiable intimations.

While it was initially a prominent and ubiquitous feature on Facebook, the poke function was surreptitiously minimised in September last year.

Nowadays, the poke command is tucked away in a drop-down menu in the right-hand corner of your friends' profiles by the gear icon. It is also now only possible to poke a confirmed friend, someone who is in a shared network, or a friend of a friend - while anyone with a profile on the social network used to be fair game.

Somehow, if the rumours ever turn out to be true and the poke does fade into being but social media history, I sense it won't be a development that will ruffle many feathers.

There have long been murmurs that the poke function is slowly being phased out.

One of the posts I came across on Yahoo Answers sums up the meaning of the poke quite well, in my opinion: "It means that she wants to cut you open, cut out your left kidney and feed it to a wolf. After the wolf eats your kidney she then wants to kill the wolf, cut out its right kidney and transplant it where your left kidney used to be. Or it might just be a friendly, fun thing - but who really knows?"

One thing is virtually sure-fire when it comes to the poke: the recipient is almost certainly left baffled, never to know for certain if their inkling (whichever way it may lean) is a true reflection of the intention behind it or not.

Bonnie Tubbs
ITWeb telecoms editor.

Bonnie Tubbs is ITWeb's telecoms editor.

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