Why The 10-Year Challenge Is Far More Sinister Than You Might Realise

Participate in all the memes you want, but do it with some awareness that almost everything you share online is being used by the companies that host these social networks
Prykhodov via Getty Images

In the past week the ‘Ten Year Challenge’ meme, which started life on Facebook, has gone viral and has seen millions of people sharing an image on various social networks of how they look today compared to how they looked in 2009.

It’s all harmless fun right? Just another meme that explodes in popularity for a couple of weeks and then dies away, just like the ice-bucket challenge, or the Success Kid. The once-respectable Mashable.com even went so far as to say that the 10 Year Challenge is a great thing because we can all show how we are so much hotter today than we were back in 2009.

No. People, just stop. Think for a moment. What are you sharing?

By now we should all be aware that what we share online is scanned and used by the social network companies. I’m not suggesting that we require conspiracy theory paranoia here because it is no secret that your online activity creates a profile of you that is then used to serve advertising. Your behaviour on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even on Gmail and WhatsApp, all determines the adverts you see online. That’s a fact. These companies make most of their income from advertising.

Facebook has been using facial recognition technology for years. They even dropped it in Europe back in 2012 because of privacy concerns from the Irish regulators, then reintroduced it in 2018 with promises that it would be GDPR-compliant. How do you think Facebook knows who all your mates are when you upload a batch of new photos from the beach?

Thankfully Facebook restricts facial recognition to tagging only the people you know, otherwise it would be extremely easy to take a photo of that hot girl/guy sitting opposite you on the tube, quickly run it through Facebook, and then say hello using their name and ask how their dog is recovering from the operation last week. This is already normal in Russia.

These systems can be continually improved through a process called Machine Learning. Basically this means that the more information you feed it, the more it can learn. It’s a bit like showing a child a photo of a cat, teaching it the word ‘cat’ and then seeing that the child says cat when you show the child a photo of a different cat. The computer system learns from experience in exactly the same way. It just needs more and more data to get better.

Which is exactly what millions of people are now sending. They aren’t receiving anything in return other than the warm glow of a humblebrag, because let’s face it if you really look ten years older then you are unlikely to participate in the challenge. Millions of people are feeding the facial recognition system and teaching it about the effect of ageing on the human face.

Facebook, and anyone else who wants to scrape the Internet using the meme hashtags, now has a new supply of millions of images of people and how they looked exactly ten years ago. It might be possible to find this information anyway. Facebook will have access to all your old photos, but these new ones are out there on many public networks such as Instagram and Twitter, just waiting to scraped and fed into systems that are creating better and better facial recognition algorithms.

Why should I care?

You might ask this and it’s a valid point. Facebook and Google already know so much about you, what does one more selfie matter? The point is that millions of people are sharing information that is far more personal than they realise and they are sharing it without any realisation that it is being used to train an advertising system. They should at least be aware of what they are doing.

I did participate in the Ten Year Challenge myself, although I think I may have broken the algorithm with my photo. Have fun, participate in all the memes you want, but do it with some awareness that almost everything you share online is being used by the companies that host these social networks. You don’t pay a monthly subscription in cash to use these systems, but you do pay with your personal data. Just think about what you are sharing and be more aware about what you want to keep private and what you are comfortable sharing online.