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Facebook ten year challenge: how our need to belong trumps our distrust of social media

When the ten year challenge began doing the rounds on social media, people rushed to post profile pictures of themselves from 2009, side by side with one from 2019, to highlight how much they had changed (or not) in the meantime. It is estimated that more than 5.2m social media users participated in this challenge.

It started on Facebook towards the end of January 2019, and it didn’t take long for experts like tech author Kate O’Neil to suggest that the trend could have harmful consequences. Specifically, by posting the now-and-then photos with the #10yearchallenge hashtag, social media users were, possibly, helping to train facial recognition software to recognise – or predict – age-related changes. Facebook has denied that it is behind the viral trend or that it had anything to gain from it. The company highlighted that, in most cases, the photos used were already available on Facebook.

As O’Neil and other experts mentioned, the meme provides a quick way of finding and pairing profile photos of the same person, exactly ten years apart. And with trust in Facebook at a low following a number of negative press it’s probably no surprise that the company has had to deny its involvement.

Nothing sinister, honestly. sFwFun

The 2019 release of Edelman’s Trust Barometer reveals that many people do not trust social media, particularly in Europe and North America. In fact, globally, many people do not trust institutions in general, not just media (including social media) but also governments, NGOs and businesses.

Taken on trust

The Oxford dictionary defines trust as the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something”. Not trusting an institution, such as social media, means that we no longer rely on it to tell us the truth, look after us, or work properly. So if we distrust social media in general – and are so suspicious of Facebook in particular — why did more than 5.2m people jump on the #10YearChallenge bandwagon?

Helen Kennedy, professor of digital society at the University of Sheffield, argues that by and large, the public does not understand how data collection systems and algorithms work and cites research suggesting that many people are unaware of the extent to which data is shared and used beyond the initial purpose for data collection.

People are also confused by what is covered by the term “personal data” and have a cavalier attitude to the role of algorithms in determining choices in their lives. This means that the problem might be solved or, at least ameliorated, if social media users were more educated on these matters.

Research suggests that increasing the knowledge of social media users about invasive data collection practices and about the consequences of algorithmic decision making in daily life, might not be enough. For instance, a 2018 study by academics Bernadette Kamleitner, Vincent W. Mitchell, Andrew Stephen and Ardi Kolah showed that mobile app users would still sign up for an app that accessed their list of contacts (names, addresses, phone numbers and so on) – even after users had been made explicitly aware that, by doing so, they were sharing other people’s personal data without their consent and so infringing on their privacy.

Likewise, a study by Nominet – the UK domain name manager – revealed that many parents had uploaded a photo of someone else’s child to social media without asking the parents’ permission, even though they themselves expected others to ask their permission before posting a photo of their child.

Why people use Facebook

To understand lax attitudes and behaviour of social media users, it might help to go back to the reasons why people use Facebook. As has been demonstrated in relation to other media – television, the press – the mode of engagement with a medium is shaped by the specific need driving the use of that medium. You may need to access a site to find out some specific information (“instrumental” use) or you might browse a website for entertainment purposes, or view content because it has been presented to you, often by someone you trust (“hedonistic” use).

Various authors have proposed that Facebook use is largely motivated by people’s desire to belong – for example to family groups, social groups and the like. Users are also often motivated by a desire to present themselves in positive ways to shape a deliberate public persona. Not only do these factors lead us to use social media, but they predispose us to join memes such as the ten year challenge. Specifically, by joining our friends in taking part in something like this, we strengthen our social bonds with the group, enhance our image and feed our narcissism – all the while helping the ten year challenge spread quickly and wildly.

So this is where the problem lies: a lot of people say they don’t trust social media – but when we use these tools it’s all too easy to forget about the company collecting and monetising our data through ever more predatory and questionable methods. Instead, we focus on the social side – our friends, relatives and peer groups who we trust and whose approval we seek. But if you look behind all the people who “like” your posts, you might catch a glimpse of the calculating minds who don’t care about how well you aged, except as a way of turning that into an algorithm. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

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