You're probably already familiar with the viral '10 Year Challenge' meme.
You may have even participated. But for the uninitiated, you simply post a picture of yourself 10 years ago next to a current picture of yourself now. It's the sort of fun, simple premise that understandably gains traction online. It's cool seeing how your friends, family, and even strangers have changed over time, so it's no wonder '10 Year Challenge' images have taken over social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
But it's also important to remember that whenever you use social media, you are a product and any information you post, including your interests and identity, can be utilized by corporations. Considering this reality, author Kate O'Neill considered a distinct possibility: that perhaps the '10 Year Challenge' was not so innocent after all - perhaps it was being used to train facial recognition algorithms.
The tweet quickly gained traction, leading Kate O'Neill to pen a piece on the topic for Wired. There, she discusses potential scenarios in which a seemingly harmless meme could be utilized to shape our future in indeterminable ways.
For instance, advanced facial recognition technology could be used to great societal benefit in helping recognize missing people. With the right algorithm at work, we might be able to accurately age up child abduction victims or other missing persons with enough accuracy to make them fully recognizable even decades later.
On the other hand, advanced facial recognition technology could potentially be utilized by insurance companies to deny coverage to people they deem likely of developing certain conditions. Obviously the technology is nowhere near that point yet, but it's essential to consider the reach of future technology when discussing the way we put information about ourselves online in the present.
That being said, the notion that Facebook is using this meme for the purpose of facial recognition technology has detractors too. Some argue that most of the pictures people are using were already on Facebook in the first place. As such, Facebook wouldn't gain any new information from this meme. Others think the non-serious nature of many online posts would probably ruin a lot of potential data.
Still, the existence of two images, both dated by their subject as being a decade apart, creates a more accurate data sample then two images simply posted ten years apart and assumed to be accurately dated. Moreover, even current facial recognition software is adept at recognizing human faces, so joking content would likely not be as big a hindrance as some might imagine.
All that being said, Facebook denies any direct involvement with the popularity of this meme. A spokesperson told O'Neill: "This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own. 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."
Not to say that Facebook is being honest here, but chances are that this really is just a harmless meme being pushed by users who find it fun. Even if Facebook could possibly use it for technological advancement, there's probably no conspiracy at play. But the larger conversation about the way we freely supply data about our lives to companies online is still entirely relevant.
Before you post anything online, always consider how that information could be used in the future. Do you really want that out there?