My reaction to the #10YearChallenge circulating on Facebook: Nope.
Perhaps I am a curmudgeon. In my view, the meme, which prompts people to post before-and-after photos of themselves on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites, is no better than a data-siphoning social engineering attempt. The viral campaign exploits our vanity, encouraging us to surrender images of ourselves from a decade ago. People just happen to be packaging the chronology of their physiognomy in a usable format for machines to parse.
One can imagine how this dataset might be useful for big tech to train facial recognition algorithms. The photo cache could help these companies determine people’s ages at a glance, trace identities over time, or digitally mirror the aging process (as well as the reverse). It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see how these abilities might benefit marketers looking to personalize advertisements—for retirees (picture yourself—literally—in this lovely home), for beauty products (want to look dozens of years younger?), and untold other age-discriminating possibilities.
Facebook did not respond to my requests for more information about the origins of the so-called challenge, but a spokesperson told Kate O’Neill, an author and speaker who wrote a thoughtful commentary on the subject for Wired, that it played no part in the campaign’s inception.
“This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own,” a Facebook spokesperson told O’Neill. “Facebook did not start this trend, and the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook. Facebook gains nothing from this meme (besides reminding us of the questionable fashion trends of 2009). As a reminder, Facebook users can choose to turn facial recognition on or off at any time.”
I disagree, at least in part; Facebook does gain something.
Consider applying the #10YearChallenge to the beast that begat it. In 2009, Facebook overtook MySpace for the first time. The site spring-boarded from college campuses into the homes of tech-savvy youngsters everywhere, setting it on a path that would produce the world-dominating media juggernaut we know today. Ten years later Facebook’s demographics are skewing much older; Millennials and Gen Z-ers are ditching the flagship site even as parents sign up. Many Baby Boomers-and-up are no doubt uploading selfies to which Facebook previously had no access. Same goes for youngsters newly joining Instagram.
To be fair, this particular meme may very well be benign—just some harmless fun! But the same may not be true of the next viral phenomenon. Even if the 10-year challenge is not some grand conspiracy with an ulterior motive (see: Cambridge Analytica), it’s worth considering what ulterior outcomes one’s participation might enable.
Before engaging in another seemingly innocent round of show-and-tell, check for wrinkles.