Co.Design

Why Facebook Poke Scratches A Much-Needed Itch

Facebook has released its Poke app. Yes, it’s a shameless Snapchat clone, but it also responds to a basic human need.

Nothing on the Internet ever really dies. A deleted tweet is still archived by some overzealous marketing algorithm. And any long-dead website is preserved in the digital formaldehyde of the Wayback Machine. In an era when machines can remember everything, perfectly, it’s getting tougher and tougher to make mistakes.

Generic iOS UI elements make it pretty obvious that Poke was rushed out the door.

Facebook’s new Poke app is a shameless Snapchat clone. It’s easily the ugliest, least creative piece of software the company has thrown together in a long while, but it’s also a response to this oppressive accuracy of unlimited-storage digital archiving. If you haven’t heard of it yet, Snapchat is a person-to-person social network, a means to send just one person a photo that will self-destruct in a manner of moments. Immediately upon its release, the media snarkily labeled Snapchat as a sexting app. Articles were written in the defense of the chastity of teenagers--full of warnings that these photos could still be saved--and in doing so, Snapchat was unfairly pigeonholed.

Facebook’s Poke is somewhat proof of that fact. Because if there’s anything on the Internet that’s the anti-sext, it’s probably the place where your conservative extended family is hanging out: Facebook. That’s only partially a joke. When you load Poke, you’re greeted with a simple screen of who you’d like to contact. Everyone you know from Facebook is here--their faces--your parents, siblings, grandparents, and all those weird people you follow from high school. Their avatars form a tacit PG rating, like a reminder to be somewhat decent, even when whispering, in a room full of people.

Take a photo or a video, add a caption overlay if you like (pretty much identically to Snapchat), select how long you’d like it to be viewable, and send the image on its way. When it arrives, the receiver can hold their finger down on the notification to see the images for just a few moments. When the time expires, the message is still there in your history, but the camera icon has disappeared. The image is gone forever. (Unless the receiver screengrabs it, in which case the sender is notified through a bright orange flash icon on their end.)

So why does any of this matter, you’re wondering. Why are so many words going into describing Facebook’s Snapchat clone? Well, for whatever Poke may lack in polish, it makes up for in acknowledging the failures of social networking--namely, that social networks lack one of the most important parts of socializing: The safe spontaneity that stems from the forgetfulness of the human mind.

The Internet is designed to remember everything, to perfectly catalog and update every piece of information you could possibly need at any moment. And while that’s great for researching penguin migrational patterns and getting the best deal on Bounty Select-a-Size, it’s agonizing for socialization. How long do you spend composing a quip on Twitter? 30 seconds? A minute? Several minutes? How long do you spend composing a quip in person? A split second? Why is there such a difference? While the Internet can be wonderful in allowing everyone to seem clever through revision, it also determines that the heavily broadcasted bad jokes, misspellings, and unintentionally prejudiced statements live on beyond a few quiet moments over dinner, when friends give you an odd look but quickly move on. In person, mistakes are quick to amend. On the Internet, our idiocy is immortal.

Poke/Snapchat allow you to whisper, and they allow for those whispers to be forgotten again. Their privacy is imperfect, and that’s an engineering problem that needs to be solved to support the design. It’s no doubt time for Apple’s walled-garden to kick in and allow developers to easily block screenshots in the SDK, assuming they can’t yet.

That orange explosion icon shows that Jason screengrabbed my cat. Not that I can do anything about it.

Now, the popularity of Poke is rapidly declining. As of the time this was written, Poke was already #34 in the App Store--not a great showing for a product of the preeminent social network--and it’s not totally surprising, either. We’re already trained to communicate on Facebook a certain way. For Facebook to change our behavior, it will take more time and a more thoughtful design to reshape it. Meanwhile, Snapchat has raised a wave of VC funding and will likely grow before the fad ends. With no operational lineage, we’re already used to “snapchatting” on Snapchat.

Yet independently of these two apps, don’t expect the core philosophy behind their design to go anywhere soon. Yes, their privacy is imperfect, but the sentiment feels revolutionary for a reason: In an Internet that remembers everything, we’re all just eager to make some mistakes.

Download Poke here.

[Image: Cursor via Shutterstock]

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