Monday, February 11, 2008

Response 1: Metaphor in Social Applications

Week One

Metaphor and Design

The Poke

The facebook poke function has no instructions. It is something you ambiguously do to someone else. Some facebook members, either uncomfortable in ambiguity or curious about social practices, have started groups that read the poke. There is a group called "I Poke You, You Poke Me, What Does All This Poking Mean?" and another called "CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT THE HELL A POKE IS?" and yet another called "The Society for those who "Poke" but don't really know why."

Other users have worked to eliminate this ambiguity by developing new applications that define the poke function. A quick search reveals both the "Kinky Poke," and the "Naughty Poke," as well as the more g-rated "Karma Poke," "Pet Poke" and "Superhero Poke" and the culturally-customized (or customizable) "Desi Poke," "Turk Poke," "Foreign Poke," and the group "Poke=Prayer." These applications can be added to the account so that the user can send more a clearly-defined, less ambiguous poke to their friends.

The metaphor of the poke, by virtue of its name alone, is clearly a physical one. The poke is invasive. As with a finger-to-body poke, it enters a personal zone. Perhaps this is why friendster, in an attempt to mimic the popular feature, created the similar, but metaphorically less tactile, "smile." Perhaps seeking to ameliorate this awkwardness, some facebook users have started the group, "Official Petition to change 'Poke' to 'Hug.'"

If a user sets their preferences accordingly, the poke can can allow someone to get more information about them. This is quid pro quo. The Poker gets more information, but they've declared their presence in doing so. Is it also, then, a contract?

The poke is without overt "content," but that content, in the hands of users, is most often either sexual or violent. Facebook group such as "Mmm Poke Me Harder" are an effort to affirm this sexual definition. Other groups, such "If you poke me, that means you want to have sex with me" are even more overt. Groups have formed in response to frustrations of communication about this sexual dimension such as "Don't Poke Just Add (Gay Guys only)" and "Don't poke me unless you finna poke for real."

Equally common is the metaphor of violence. There are multiple groups demanding, in various ways, that the "poke" be replaced by the "bitch slap." There are others suggesting that it be replaced by "roundhouse kicks" and "headbutts." Then there is the gesturally agressive "Poke the Other Team's Quarterback."

Although the common practice of "Poke War" (dedicated to which there are many groups) is at face value employing a violent metaphor, but it in intent and practice, it seems more self-consciously meaningless. A poke warrior (?) seems aware that their action is neither sexual nor violent, though it may start out as or evolve into flirtation or competition.

The Blank Text Message

Most blank text messages are mistakes. One accidentally hits "send" in response to a message before one has composed the actually reply. Or, the cellphone company messes something up and your messages appear blank. Or, the content sent is incompatible with the receiver's phone.

Because most people currently assume that a blank text message is unintentional (and because it can easily be explained away as such), it is an ideal mechanism for flirtation. It says, "This may have been a mistake. You'll never know for sure. But, I have reminded you that I exist, and now you are thinking about me."

A blank text message is "fire and forget." The receiver can pretend not to have noticed or to have assumed that the text was a mistake without causing the sender to lose face. This makes it ideal for late-night tentative communiques.

Who was the first otherwise decorous lady to drop a handkerchief intentionally/unintentionally? How did it become affirmed as a symbol of invitation?
What kind of literacy was required to read it? Is there a such a literacy of the blank text message? Is it currently too ambiguous to be a useful form of communication? But, once it loses its ambiguity, will it still be useful, or will the flirtation become too overt? Will it then emerge as a reminder, like a the "143" ("I Love You") beeper messages of the past?

Conversely, a blank text message can also display impatience. It can be a foot-tapping, "I am waiting for your response." Can it can convey any message that requires no content?

(thanks to Josh Diaz, Kevin Driscoll, and Louis Blackaller (El Pokemon, Prince of Pokes) for inspiration and chat)

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