The latest viral fad took over social media as people started posting side-by-side photos of themselves in 2009 and 2019 with #10YearChallenge. And then arrived Kate O’Neill’s Twitter thread followed by her informed, but speculative article in the Wired.
And bam! In a world beleaguered by repeated incidents of Big Tech irresponsibly exploiting user data for their own profit, the article justifiably gained traction and the #10YearChallenge came to be viewed as another unintended weapon in Facebook’s hodgepodge arsenal of (mis)using user data.
But what is the challenge?
It is actually quite simple, and not particularly novel. You take a photo of yours from 2009 and place it alongside one from 2019. Few meme chains don’t specify any conditions, but few say that you should use your profile photos from 2009 and 2019.
Ostensibly, the aim is to show growth of the person, either for the better or worse.
Umm, it doesn’t sound particularly new, does it?
By itself, it isn’t particularly new. Just as New Year resolutions acquire a life of their own each January, these comparative photos have been around for quite some time. However, this time, these photos gained quite a momentum and the hashtag started trending globally. And as with any viral trend, numerous celebrities jumped into the fray.
The challenge wasn’t restricted to Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook); Twitter also witnessed a similar uptick of this trend.
Seems fairly innocuous. Why are you complaining?
Well, if it were another company who was involved, it perhaps would have been innocuous. But this is Facebook we are talking about, the company that gave a researcher user data who then sold it to Cambridge Analytica. 87 million users’ information became Russia’s primary tool to meddle in USA’s 2016 presidential elections.
In her now viral article following her, you guessed it, viral tweet, Kate O’Neill, author of Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans, argued that despite having all these photos already, Facebook has a vested interest in fanning this viral fad further. That is because it gives the company a data set wherein, they have two photos of one individual set a fixed time apart. The algorithms don’t have to trawl through hundreds or thousands of photos and a ton of metadata if the users readily provide a noise-less data set. The algorithms learn age-based characteristics and then the company uses this “new” capability and trove of data to get more advertisers and target your 70-year-old grandmother with ads for heating pads, and you, the spry 25-year-old you, with ads for the closest gym membership (it’s January still!).
But wait, is Facebook really involved?
When Wired’s editor, Nicholas Thompson, asked Facebook this question, retweeting O’Neill’s article, on Twitter (irony either died or gained a second life), Facebook denied any involvement.
While I am more than willing to accept Facebook’s denial, given what we know of how some fads gain viral notoriety for seemingly no reason, it is undeniable that Facebook benefits the most from this cleaned up data set. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the engineers at Facebook have already (ab)used this data and earned Zuckerberg another gazillion dollars.
That sounds dire. Did anything good come out of it?
As with all viral challenges of this nature, people of course veered from the mandate. While some posted pictures of their cats ten years apart, many drew attention to climate change.
Few people also called out continuing Middle East crises.
Here’s hoping that Kathy O’Neill is proven wrong and Facebook grows a conscience and commences ethical business practices this January!
Aditi Agrawal is a senior sub editor at Qrius.