Several Yuletides ago, before the novelty of camera phones had worn off, a group of us spent much of Christmas doubled up with laughter after inventing 'hand porn', where we'd photograph close ups of our hands in a way that looked anything from suggestive to explicit. It was funny at the time.
All too late, but Facebook has just produced the perfect platform for this kind of smut in the form of its Poke app. Old school Facebookers will remember Poke as that innocent nudge gesture still hidden in a corner of the site, but the new Poke is a standalone app that's caused no small amount of consternation among the startups community.
Download Facebook Poke and you'd be forgiven for being a little mystified. You'll be invited to write a message, take a photo or record a video to any of your Facebook friends, and then asked to choose how long they'd like to see it for – anything up to 10 seconds.
In the often banal world of social updates, it could be seen as a blessing that messages self-destruct after a few seconds. No more compulsive, infinite timeline scrolling – freedom! But the darker purpose to this design is sexting – allowing teens (and it is mostly teens) to flash their bits without adding those bits to a photo library somewhere.
This is in a different league to bit-flashing on Chatroulette; the intimacy and access of mobile and the cunning self-destruct feature designed to lull the bit-flasher (almost always female) into a false sense of security. The app alerts the user if a screenshot is taken while the message is displayed but there's always a workaround – not least taking a picture of the screen with a separate phone.
If it seems morally questionable that Facebook is actively pursuing the sexting audience (especially a company with an inexplicably prudish attitude towards breastfeeding) it's also worrying app developers. The format for this app was first carved out by the startup Snapchat which launched quietly in September 2011.
"Putting aside the abhorrent nature of children sexting for a moment, Poke brings up massive questions about Facebook's product direction … What do Facebook's elite developers think when Zuckerberg comes into the room and says, 'Let's all bust our asses for two weeks to copy a sexting app?' What do those same developers think when their friends at Google talk about Sergey Brin walking into the room and asking them to create dent-in-the-universe projects like Google Glass, self-driving cars and a dozen other insane products Google X has going on that you would be proud to tell your kids and grandkids you worked on?"
Facebook has never been shy of its agile development policy – do it, ship it, ask forgiveness later. But it does beg questions about its priorities, its focus and its own understanding of its mission. Facebook used its privileged and monopolistic position as controller of more than one billion newsfeeds to promote Poke which rocketed to top place in the app charts. But it quickly dropped off and now comes in at 34, while Snapchat basks at number 5.
Being cloned by Facebook doesn't mean certain death; AllThingsD points out that Facebook has already killed its Quora attempt, Questions. Still, I'm hoping there's a niche market to be captured in grainy pictures of suggestive digits, so there's a starter if Facebook wants to grow its core audience.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010