The pitfalls of the Ten Year Challenge

Paul Levy, researcher at the Brighton Business School, gives his opinion on the recent 10 Year Challenge trend on social media.

You are invited to share two pictures of yourself online – on Facebook, Twitter or another of the manifold social media platforms. One image is of you right now, the other from ten years ago. Harmless fun? Of course, this bit of fun goes viral. The rich and famous join in, and some of the posts are genuinely educational. Some are socially valuable – for example, someone comparing themselves now to a time when they were going through mental health issues, sharing their important story. For many it is pure entertainment. Welcome to the Ten Year Challenge. What’s not to like?

Influential writer, Kate O’ Neil, has questioned the possibly hidden motives of the whole enterprise. What if this is all just a means to get two images of you side by side, which you have rather conveniently selected from the thousands you have shared, and there’s an algorithm that can now covertly use those images for the purposes of facial recognition, for potential use in crime prevention, medical analysis and the usual commercial uses that social media is built upon?

Facebook denies that there is any hidden agenda (and even states it didn’t instigate these memes in the first place).

From an academic point of view, O’Neil’s suggestion that “thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now” raises all kinds of questions about ethics and governance around the data we share, often innocently and in the name of fun. O’Neil isn’t accusing Facebook of having a secret agenda. What is more at the heart of this is the way we all “submit” so quickly without much awareness of the possible consequence of all this unconditional transparency and openness. Some reading this may not care, others may be concerned.

It is certainly an issue worth sharing with our students and indeed all who use social media regularly. Shouldn’t we at least be more aware of the purposes to which our publicly shared data could be put to? Questions of ethics around the digital realm emerge from the Ten Year Challenge and the debate that blew up on Twitter after O’Neil raised the difficult questions.

A second issue is the fact that the attempts to apply AI (Artificial Intelligence) in order to make use of and “mine” our data are still problematic. It isn’t easy to sort through thousands of images, and a picture of me I posted ten years ago may actually be dated then but in fact be an image of me as a baby, taken twenty years ago with a digital camera. Asking very specifically for users to post two images, with a clear brief for everyone, creates crowdsourced sorting. We do the work that algorithms can’t do. Most algorithms are currently still clumsy and very primitive, which generates its own risks and dangers if important, even legal decisions may be made based on how those images are interpreted and analysed.

So, next time you choose to join in with social media-based fun, pause just for a moment and consider what the consequences of doing so might be for you, your friends, colleagues and loved ones in the longer run. Once posted, these images are much harder to erase. The internet seems to find it hard to forget and truly erase what you have shared. For academic researchers, all kinds of technical, legal, social and ethical questions arise that we may be researching for years to come.

Paul is the author of the book Digital Inferno (published by Clairview).

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