Is it a harmless meme, or something bigger?
A recent Internet challenge that requires people to post before and after selfies that are 10 years apart has come under scrutiny after social media users suspected it may have been developed by Facebook for secretive purposes — and the company is denying such claims.
The “10-Year Challenge” went viral earlier this month on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter after it asked users to post comparisons of their 2009 selfies to their current ones. According to Forbes, over 5 million people participated, including celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Mariah Carey and Gabrielle Union.
Shortly after it became a trending topic around the world, Wired writer Kate O’Neill took to Twitter to pose the question whether there was a hidden purpose to the challenge. Perhaps, O’Neill wondered, Facebook was using this meme to train their facial recognition algorithms.
“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),” she wrote on Wired.
“Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures,” O’Neill continued. “It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years.”
Others over social media weren’t so sure if Facebook would actually benefit from the 10-Year Challenge since the company already has a large library of user photos to draw from. But O’Neill pointed out that the meme could make it easier for Facebook since users were creating a “clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos” under the guise they were participating in an innocent meme.
“Through the Facebook meme, most people have been helpfully adding that context back in (“me in 2008 and me in 2018”) as well as further info,” O’Neill wrote. “In many cases, about where and how the pic was taken (“2008 at University of Whatever, taken by Joe; 2018 visiting New City for this year’s such-and-such event”).”
She added: “In other words, thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now.”
The idea picked up so much traction over social media that Facebook felt compelled to respond to the claims in a statement posted to Twitter.
“This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own,” the company said in a statement on social media and sent to PEOPLE. “Facebook did not start this trend, and the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook. As a reminder, Facebook users can choose to turn facial recognition on or off at any time.”
While Facebook denies planning or drawing data from the challenge, the company has been criticized in recent years for having made questionable decisions with their user information — which is why many, likeO’Neill, are now more conscious of what they post.
“Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram,” O’Neill posted on Twitter. “Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition.”