An Ex-Facebook Employee Dishes On The Infamous Poke

I got Poked the other day.

I know, I thought it was gone, too. The stray Poke sent me on an unwelcome trip all the way from memory lane down to recollection boulevard. The first time I Poked a girl was in college (late bloomer here!) and I vividly remember the ensuing Poke-wars I’d have with women, shamelessly displaying my affections with the push of a button. This led to a revelation: I’ve been Poking people for over a decade without any explanation of what the Poke actually means. How did it come about?

Did Facebook intend it as a means of flirting, a simple nudge of appreciation, or a cry for help? 

Facebook themselves don’t betray much on this front. Looking on Facebook’s website and in interviews with executives, I couldn't find anything more than a shrug from Zuckerberg: “People interpret the poke in many different ways.”

Whether this was calculated stonewalling from the Machiavellian genius that Jesse Eisenberg played in the Fincher flick or an uninspired truism from the world's beige-est man I couldn't be sure. But it didn't tell me much. Neither did the emails I got back from Facebook’s faceless press department. I looked to my personal channels for a Facebook contact (yes, I used Facebook to find out about Facebook).

Working in the tech and media fields, it seems like pretty much everyone has some connection to someone who works or worked at Facebook.

But finding someone who would say something—anything—about the Poke proved to be almost impossible, thanks to a big honkin' NDA that, when broken, must have some horrible consequences like releasing your search history to your most-searched people, giving you a bug that likes everything in your Newsfeed, or sending Farmville invites to your friend list until they're all gone.

Whatever the penalty, it proved extremely effective. Most of the email responses I received were brief and vague: “I’m sorry, but I have no information on the subject.” One response described the Facebook inner-workings as “impossible to penetrate.”

After dozens of rejections and dead-ends, I finally managed to scrounge up an ex-Facebooker through a friend of a friend of a friend who shall remain anonymous. You can be sure that right now, somewhere, there's a team of Facebook analysts rifling through my third-degree connections in search of the rat, whose name, we’ll say, is K.

K sent me a flash drive with a single word doc on it, password protected.

The password was “WeDidntTalk.”

“My understanding is that it’s a flirtatious gesture, or at least that’s how it’s perceived. We’ve wondered if it has anything to do with the sort of phallic semantics of the word, but that’s not something you can really study. It most commonly seems to be used to talk to someone you’ve not interacted with for a while, or the total opposite—someone you talk to so frequently that the ‘poke’ is some kind of obvious in-joke, which is weird because it’s the closest thing to its original intention.”

I was immediately shocked to realize that Facebook, kings of data theory, had no idea how their users would poke each other when they released the feature. It felt like an adult giving his car keys to his kid nephew.

“Really, [Facebook] handed users this meaningless thing and it was they who decided it would be used for lame flirting. People at Facebook think it’s as weird as everyone else does. It’s strikes me as something bizarre and socially clumsy, and I just think no one who worked at Facebook at the time really noticed.”

Perhaps that "bizarre and socially clumsy" vibe gave the Poke its original de facto meaning—I "want to poke you...with my d*ck."

This seems to be the unanimous meaning for most Millennials.

"I would say, if I'm being blunt, that it had two uses, in its heyday," says Daniel Roberts, a writer at Fortune Magazine. "The first use was saying to someone, ‘I want to fuck you.’ The other use case was a completely innocent, purely platonic friend or even a family member saying, ‘Hey, I'm thinking of you,’ but I think anyone under forty was using the poke for the first case 80% of the time.”

UrbanDictionary certainly agrees: “When bitches want to have sex, they push the poke button on facebook to say they are dtf.”

But does the Poke still have this sexy connotation? Do most people know that it still exists, albeit buried under several menu layers?

“I think if someone [you know] pokes you now, it's as a nostalgic, sort of unspoken joke,” Daniel continued. “It's like a wink. It's also meta-commentary. Like, ‘Haha, look at this. Remember when we used to do this? Now, we're so much better.’ It would be like me setting up a Myspace page, today, for myself.”

That sentiment was also confirmed by our nameless ex-Facebook employee.

Original intention or not, our man inside does not think the poke is a good idea.

“Usually, after you poke someone you talk to regularly, you just get their attention and you talk about other things. You don’t necessarily fuck. Look, I’ll say this: it’s not a good strategy, unless you could just tap them on the shoulder in real life and then start boning. People think it’s creepy. It is creepy. Eventually they figured out 'liking' worked better.”

Creepy or not, it’s vaguely comforting that the poke began and ended carrying the same message: “Hey, look at this thing!” and “Hey, remember this thing?” This is gonna be a weird one to explain to the kids.

When was the last time you poked somebody, or better yet, when was the last time someone poked you? Let us know in the comments below.

Jeremy Glass writes for Supercompressor all day every day. Follow him on Twitter or don't, he's not a cop: @CandyandPizza

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