According to the theory, the meme – which calls for Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) users to upload a photo of themselves a decade ago alongside their latest photo – was deliberately crafted by Facebook as a means to harvest photos for the sake of improving the social media giant’s facial recognition software and AI machine-learning capabilities, or for Facebook to sell in batches to third-party companies.
The first writer to lay out the theory in detail was Wired Magazine writer Kate O’Neill, whose sarcastic tweet questioning “how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition” spread like wildfire after it was posted over the weekend.
Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram
Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition
— Kate O’Neill (@kateo) January 12, 2019
In a subsequent opinion piece for Wired, O’Neill argued:
“Thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now.
… But even if this particular meme isn’t a case of social engineering, the past few years have been rife with examples of social games and memes designed to extract and collect data. Just think of the mass data extraction of more than 70 million US Facebook users performed by Cambridge Analytica.”
O’Neil added that “we need to approach our interactions with technology mindful of the data we generate and how it can be used at scale.”
The author isn’t alone in her speculation that the meme’s spread could potentially mask the tech giant’s potentially nefarious motives.
Amy Webb, a professor and author at NYU Stern School of Business, told CBS News that the viral trend gives Facebook “a perfect storm for machine learning,” adding that the challenge “presented Facebook with a [terrifying] opportunity to learn, to train their systems to better recognize small changes” in users’ facial appearances.
Facebook, for its part, has issued a statement distancing itself from the meme’s conception and that it sees no benefit from the challenge, explaining:
“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.”
Indeed, users are theoretically offered the ability opt-out of the social network’s own facial recognition algorithm through Facebook settings.
While Facebook may have nothing to do with the challenge, the fact that Big Data’s motivations are being questioned is a positive sign that social media users are growing increasingly sensitive to the fact that their personal data is being captured, parsed, analyzed, stored, and shared by a network of data brokers, social media firms, and advertisers.