Facebook’s new Poke app seems in many ways like a departure for the company.
While most of Facebook’s products are meant to preserve memories and save interactions, communications in Poke disappear after a few seconds. Facebook emphasizes functionality over flair and tends to put a lot of structure to how and what users share, but Poke lets users doodle over their photos with different colors and send virtual pokes to their friends. Most of all, Poke is playful while the rest of Facebook is very much a utility. If you haven’t tried Poke, you can get a quick sense of this by listening to the app’s silly notification sound — reportedly recorded by Mark Zuckerberg himself.
Although some aspects of Poke might seem out of character for the Facebook most of us know now, it’s actually a fitting addition to the platform with roots in Facebook’s past.
People who work at Facebook often talk about building products to reflect how people behave and communicate in person. Messenger lets users know when the recipient has viewed a message or when a user is typing because in face-to-face conversations, there are cues that let people know they’re being heard or that someone isn’t finished talking. Timeline strives to depict your life story, starting at birth and including milestones along the way. The new Poke app, though seemingly inane at first, actually adds a new layer of reality to Facebook. It represents those moments that only otherwise happen in person. People can make a funny face or put on a goofy voice without worrying that the rest of the world might see it, or even that a friend will see it more than once.
While Facebook pages represent millions of public figures, businesses, products and entities in the world, Places maps the locations around us, and Open Graph defines the actions we take, Poke gets to be the fun we have in the moment. And that element of fun is something that had started to fall by the wayside in recent years.
Facebook has always had a fairly plain aesthetic and practical approach to features, but as it evolved from student social network to global platform, this approach became even more critical to its success. Facebook stripped away its college-specific character and eliminated some of the more juvenile aspects of the site. “Flyers” became “social ads” and “Sponsored Stories.” The virtual gift shop was closed. The “looking for random play” and “whatever I can get” options were removed from the profile. Random movie quotes like “I don’t even know what a quail looks like” and “Too close for missiles, I’m switching to guns” no longer appear below search results. We don’t even write on “walls” anymore. We have Timelines and life events.
It’s no wonder young people are turning to other networks and mobile apps besides Facebook. Not only is Facebook what their parents and teachers use, but it’s a little stale. Compare Twitter with all its parody accounts to Facebook, which allows users one account and requires that they use their real name. Compare the infinite customization of Tumblr with Facebook’s rigid profile that allows little personalization beyond the cover photo and profile picture. Or consider the difference between Instagram’s retro filters like Toaster and Kelvin, and Facebook’s photo sharing app — called Camera rather than “Snap” as it once was during development — which uses neutral filter names that explain what each looks like: Cool, Bright, Golden, Emerald, etc.
That’s why when it was first reported that Facebook was building a Snapchat competitor, it was unclear how the company would make a version that fit into its brand identity. The company managed to succeed thanks to the nonsense “poke” feature, which originated in 2004.
Zuckerberg once called poke “a feature that has no specific purpose,” which is likely why it got buried over the years. Now, with everything else on the platform so deliberate, it’s refreshing to see Facebook re-embrace the poke and update it for the mobile app generation.
Although today’s high schoolers and college students aren’t likely to get the reference, Poke has an Easter egg that says “I’ll find something to put here” when users scroll all the way up or down on their inbox. It’s a line that Zuckerberg had in the footer of the site years ago and is the perfect nod to the lighthearted early days of Facebook. Maybe it’s even a sign of more to come.
Vintage Facebook screenshot via Mashable