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If you waited until Facebook launched and opened their doors wide before you started poking your pals and professional colleagues online then you may have waited longer than you needed to.

The computing language BASIC was born in 1963 and enjoys twin delights of the PEEK and POKE commands.

These commands would let programmers insert some data into the memory (the POKE) or read some data already in memory (the PEEK).

This later became something of a social currency for the gamer geeks.

It was possible to load 8-bit computer games into the computer and then use the POKE command to insert the right codes into the right memory slots to cheat the game.

The right POKE could get you super stamina, immunity and a limitless supply of ammo.

Back in the day it was easy enough to find people trawling Usenet looking for a POKE for their favourite game.

In 2001, Google bought Usenet and archives for an undisclosed sum. These early POKE requests live on in Google Groups.

Linux's finger command may well have been one of the first 'social networking' instructions.

The finger command combined with a linux user name to return information about that user.

If you were on the same linux network as myself then you could, if you wanted, 'finger andrew' and be shown my profile in exchange. I could add data to my profile by creating a .plan file.

The information commonly found by fingering someone included their real name, office phone number and their idle time.

If their idle time was nice and low then it was a safe bet that they were at their terminal and had a fair chance of picking up their phone. The finger command could also reveal someone's home phone number.

We don't yet have something quite so simple and elegant for the web.

It's common to need to click, type, navigate a web site and perhaps click again.

The most you can hope for would be to know the URL which took you directly to a contact's online profile.

The social networking site linkedin lets users create a custom URL for their profile and Bebo does a good job at producing short URLs. However, both sites are still short of the Linux finger's speed and elegance.

Toolbar extensions to web browsers may be one way in which the web catches up.

It is easy to imagine a Google Toolbar on which you can type in a user name, press the orkut button and be whisked to the best match that you are allowed to view.

Of course, on Facebook the point of poking a contact is to let them know that you're there rather than to check out their profile.

In that respect we can look at the humble web guestbook or shoutbox as a forerunner of the Poke.

Last.fm is a hero social site that deploys a shoutbox on every user profile today. Dating sites have let users wink at or nudge one another for many years now.

These nudges are seen as an easier way to break the ice than sending a message to a prospective match out of the blue.

There you have it. As it turns out we've been poking and fingering for quite a few years before Facebook...

Andrew Girdwood

Published 7 January, 2008 by Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood is Head of Media Technologies at Signal and a guest blogger for Econsultancy. He can be found on Twitter here.

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