In 2009, when I was just starting college, Facebook wasn’t about your aunt’s political views or MLM business but about performing sexual tension. You could be in an exclusive “It’s Complicated” relationship with your best friend. You could post an article from The Onion on your crush’s wall to indicate your interest (and datable sense of humor) to the world. Best of all, you could poke. Oh, how we poked.
Pokes came out along with Facebook in 2004, before mainstream dating apps existed; before you could swipe right, they were a low-stakes way to flirt. Pokes were glorious because they had the capacity to take on so many different meanings, depending on the context. A poke from a friend meant “Hey, respond to my text about tonight!” while one from a crush was more of a “heyyyyyy, respond to my text about tonight?” On the other hand, a poke from your dad meant “Look at me, I got a Facebook!” So embarrassing, Dad.
During the poke’s heyday — approximately 2005 to 2009 — no one was off limits for a poke. Once, at age 17, I accidentally poked my high school English teacher. We weren’t friends on Facebook; I was looking at the public part of his profile because he was hot. He never mentioned the poke to me (or poked back), but I suspected he noticed because he gave me an A, and I did not deserve it.
Getting an unreciprocated poke — from anyone who wasn't your high school English teacher — was devastating. Facebook didn’t delete pokes after a set amount of time. No — if you poked a crush, and they never poked you back, it was the earliest version of getting left on read. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve slept with or how often I’ve been ghosted. But in the Year of Our Lord 2011, I sent out four unreciprocated pokes. One to the guy in my dorm who I was too nervous to make eye contact with. One to my debate partner, whom I had a crush on but whom I also wanted to finish working on our brief. One to my TA because I thought it’d be funny (it was). And one to my ex, in a moment of drunk desperation. And I’ll never forget them.
We want to poke and be poked.
Some pokes led to sex. In my sophomore year of college, a cute boy in my econ class poked me. We’d never spoken. The next day, after poking him back, I sat next to him. The next week, I ran into him at a frat party with my friend Sarah and introduced the two of them. And then, get this — Sarah had sex with him that night. I see how this story is kinda sad for me. But it started with a poke and ended with sex, so I believe I’ve proved my point. We never poked again.
There was something profound about the poke. It was a way to say something without saying anything at all. You could poke a friend having a rough time, just to let them know you were thinking about them. To do that now, you have to text “r u alive?” And let’s be honest — sometimes, we don’t want to text back. We just want to know someone cares. We want to poke and be poked.
I recently tried to see if pokes were still around. But who to poke? I’d gladly poke my ex-boyfriend, just not on Facebook. I spent 20 minutes clicking around on the various widgets on my friend Kate’s profile — marches she attended in 2018, photos from prom, bands she liked in the late 2000s. It was a bloated pigsty of content, and I couldn’t find the “poke” button. Upon Googling, I learned that in 2017, Facebook actually tried to make the “poke” popular again but soon gave up and relegated pokes to a difficult-to-find “Poke Center,” which allows you to poke in bulk (ew). It seems like my last poke is behind me.
Pokes captured a simpler moment in time, back when it was enough to click a button to get someone’s attention. No one — including Facebook — quite knew the purpose of a poke, but in 2008, no one quite knew the purpose of social media at all. So we poked that cute person, when we wanted to say hi. Is that so wrong?