Facebook's 10-year challenge: Fun and games, or something more?

Wired op-ed suggests so-called 'harmless meme' could be a lot more serious

By Michelle Ganley - Graham Media Group
Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg -- on the left is a photo from 2009, and at right, Zuckerberg is shown in late 2018. (This was not posted by him as a 10-year challenge). Both photos copyright Getty Images.

For one writer, it all started with a tweet about Facebook’s “10-year challenge.”

It was just a “flippant tweet,” admitted Kate O’Neill, who posted it Saturday and then authored the opinion piece in Wired, which ran Tuesday. O’Neill, for reference, lists herself on Twitter as an author and a keynote speaker, among a few other short descriptors. But she seems to really know her stuff, and we're interested in this theory she presents about facial recognition algorithms.

Let’s back up: The Facebook meme, or challenge, to which we’re referring has several versions, but the gist of it involves people posting their very first profile picture alongside their current profile photo -- or on the flip side, if their first-ever photo isn't available (which seems to be the case if you had Facebook in the early days, like in 2004-05), then you're just supposed to use an image from 10 years ago and compare it to today's. Make sense?

That "flippant tweet" has now now gone viral, so we're not the only ones whose curiousity was piqued.

“My intent wasn't to claim that the meme is inherently dangerous,” O’Neill says on Wired. “But I knew the facial recognition scenario was broadly plausible and indicative of a trend that people should be aware of. It’s worth considering the depth and breadth of the personal data we share without reservations.”

Something to consider

But really -- and there’s no official answer to this next question, so maybe ponder it later today, or take a minute to gather your thoughts on the matter: Do you carefully consider what you share on social media?

One social media expert we spoke with for another story on these types of sites -- her name is Nicole Hudson, the founder and president of Inbound Lead Solutions, which has offices in Metro Detroit -- said that apps and sites aren’t always as private as you might think. It’s easy to be seduced into a false sense of security. It helps to consider these “rented channels,” Hudson said. Think of it like this, she said: There’s nothing in a social media channel or an app that you own. Not your pictures, not your data or chats; none of it. All of those things are accessible.

That's good to keep in mind, and it seems relevent, considering this theory.

What does it all mean?

Getting back to O’Neill, she said some people have been critical of her idea, many saying that the Facebook pictures at issue were already available. “The most common rebuttal was: ‘That data is already available. Facebook's already got all the profile pictures,’” she said.

To which O’Neill countered, yes, of course.

We’ll try to sum up her next few points as best as we can, considering we’re not tech experts of any sort. But O’Neill says, “Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics, and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g. how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you'd want a broad and rigorous data set with lots of people's pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart — say, 10 years.”

You could dig through Facebook and pour through photos, dates and other data -- but you’re going to get a lot of “useless noise,” O’Neill said. Pictures aren’t always posted in order by date, for example, and sometimes, people don’t even use their own images as profile photos. You might use your child, car or pet instead.

This 10-year challenge is a “clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos.”

What’s more, people are adding some context to accompany their photos: “Here I am in 2008 compared to 2018,” or “My freshman year at State vs. this past New Year’s Eve with my now-husband.”

“In other words, thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large data set of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now,” O’Neill writes.

To borrow a Facebook phrase, 'It's complicated'

In the op-ed, O'Neill also touches on last year’s privacy scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, in which tens of millions of Americans’ information was shared without their explicit permission. It all factors into the equation.

But getting back to the main point: It’s not even necessarily a bad thing that someone could use your Facebook photos to train a facial recognition algorithm, O’Neill said. “In a way, it’s inevitable,” she wrote.

It sounds as if it’s just one more thing to be mindful of.

The author brought up yet another good point: maybe all of this could help authorities find missing children, as in, especially ones who’ve been gone for a long period of time, perhaps who’ve grown up. If they’re alive, that means they’ll have aged, so this type of study might give investigators a better indication of what those missing people might look like now.

And hey, for what it’s worth, we’re not saying O’Neill is right or wrong on any of this. Is there an answer, really? We think she's raising some excellent questions.

So tell us: Did you participate in the challenge? Do you ever give it some thought before you jump in on the latest social media craze or trending "challenge?"

Even if you’ve been relaxed about personal sharing online, don’t assume the worst. We’re not saying anything bad will happen, and your profile pictures were public already, right? We’ll just leave you with a really powerful line from O’Neill that resonated with us especially: Overall, “we should demand that businesses treat our data with due respect, by all means. But we also need to treat our own data with respect.”

Graham Media Group 2019