Is the Ten Year Challenge a Facebook scam???

Facial recognition

If you have an Instagram account, if you’re on Facebook or you if use Twitter, or any other social media, or read the news, own a phone or have eyes, you will probably have encountered the ten year challenge.

The challenge is the latest social media craze and it simply involves posting a contemporary photo of yourself alongside another from ten years ago. Ostensibly it’s about nostalgia and showing how much things have changed in the intervening years.

Like all good viral crazes, it’s visually interesting, conceptually simple, easy to do and replete with opportunities for poignancy, reflection, virtue signalling, celebrity humble bragging, commentary (…guilty!) and humour.

Here’s Star Trek Discovery and the Walking Dead’s Sonequa Martin-Green showing us how it’s done:

This meme du jour follows in the footsteps of other social media fripperies, such as the similarly self-descriptive Ice Bucket challenge and the No Makeup challenge.

Social media’s capacity to spawn viral crazes isn’t limited to challenges though. Older readers may remember becoming concerned for friends whose speech turned into incoherent jabbering about crop yields around the turn of the last decade, as they battled crippling Farmville addictions.

And surely nobody managed to escape the onslaught of quiz invitations promising to reveal what kind of animal/superhero/Disney princess/star wars character/boss/sandwich/weather system/plumbing accessory/microbe they were.

Of course we now know that the latter example, the pox of Facebook quizzes, turned out to be a giant data-gobbling bait and switch by Cambridge Analytica and its ilk. The scars from that scam are still fresh, and I suspect its those wounds that are behind the latest twist in the unfolding story of the ten year challenge: What if it’s a trap?

In the last few days, the chorus of enthusiasm for the ten year challenge has been joined by a low rumble of dissenting voices worried that it’s another scam.

A side-by-side comparison of the same person, separated by a fixed period of time is excellent fodder for training a facial recognition engine about ageing, the cynics muse.

Facial recognition of the kind used by Facebook relies on machine learning, a process that creates sophisticated computer programs through training by example. The more examples of accurately described data you have, the better.

Perhaps, they ponder, the challenge isn’t just some random outgrowth from Facebook’s planet-scale userbase, but some juicy bait to lure us into putting our heads into the maw of its facial recognition combobulator.

It seems to have started rolling with a Wired article by Kate O’Neil. Expanding on her own semi-sarcastic tweet, the author explains why the challenge might be good for Facebook:

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 dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years.

The article stops short of actually claiming that Facebook is behind the challenge, and it includes a rebuttal from a Facebook spokesperson, but it was enough to get the ball rolling:

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.

An even more direct rebuttal appears on coverage by CBS of O’Neil’s conjecture:

Our face recognition systems are not tracking, studying, or ‘aware’ of this meme.

Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Like all good conspiracies, it’s impossible to prove that it’s not true, but I’d bet my last penny that Facebook isn’t behind this and, perhaps more importantly, I don’t think it actually matters.

Firstly, as any marketing department in the world can attest, forcing something to ‘go viral’ is what everybody wants and almost nobody gets. I suppose if anyone could pull that off it would be Facebook, but there’s something else that’s likely to be far, far better at it: Facebook’s users.

The social network’s pool of over a billion users is a boiling cauldron that’s capable of conjuring memes as bizarre as the Talking Angela hoax spontaneously (that’s the one about the app with a tiny weeny paedophile in it). Indeed I suggest that Facebook (and Instagram, 4Chan, Reddit and a bunch of others) are Darwinian meme generators. The overwhelming majority of memes die early, with hardly anyone noticing, while the fittest few thrive, arriving in our timelines, looking like they were perfectly designed and ripe for post hoc rationalisation.

It’s not quite an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

Facebook wins whether it’s behind this challenge or not. It’s an ad platform and it lives and dies by the information that’s shared with it and the time we spend on it, and it’s facial recognition tech is just a means to that end. If the Ten Year Challenge has you sharing more on Instagram or Facebook than normal then it’s succeeding without having to improve its facial recognition (and if you’re happy doing it, and aware of the cost, you’re winning too, I guess).

Facebook’s algorithms have been hoovering up data like a blackhole since 2004. By 2012, Facebook’s users had made it the number one photo sharing site in the world by uploading, cataloguing, tagging, handing over rights to, and contextualising an almost unimaginable 350 million photos (and their EXIF meta data) every day.

The Ten Year Challenge won’t reach the size of a drop in the ocean if it lasts ten years.

In other words, it seems a curious point at which to worry about oversharing. If you’re worried that your Ten Year Challenge might be helping to train Facebook’s facial recognition algorithms, you’re about eight years and a trillion photographs too late.

So, rather than fretting about who’s behind this little incentive to overshare, I suggest you set your privacy settings and behaviour to match the amount of exposure you’re prepared to tolerate on whichever social media platforms you use. If you aren’t comfortable with your platform of choice using facial recognition on your photos, turn it off.

If you’re not a Facebook user, or you’re considering not being one, read Maria Varmazis’ article about how to share photos – without using Facebook.

And then enjoy the Ten Year Challenge, some of them are hilarious.