An early 2019 meme called #10yearchallenge, that involved someone sharing an image from 2008 or 2009 next to one from 2018 or 2019, gained tremendous popular traction and within days spread like a virus across social media.
It's unclear where it started, but was probably prompted by Facebook's feature that brings back old memories (including pictures) on users' walls. Initially it was called #HowHardDidAgingHitYou as it was supposed to show just that. It evolved to #GlowingUp to show how well many aged, before it became known as the #10yearchallenge. Soon it was also all over Twitter and Instagram. Celebrities dined out on it, ordinary people across the world followed suit and participated enthusiastically.
On the surface this phenomenon was simply superficial fun. In fact it's provided an interesting window on society. There are two particular insights I've drawn from the explosion of interest in #10yearchallenge.
The first is how well people who posted images of themselves have aged. In some cases, there was hardly any change in the participants' faces, hair, weight or bearing. Take global celebrities like Jessica Biel and Rihanna as examples.
The second is the issue of sharing images that could be used for nefarious reasons. A number of alert technology watchers have warned that the #10yearchallenge may be more than harmless fun. Viewed sceptically, participants in the challenge could be playing into the hands of surveillance agencies or companies precisely because all the images can easily be mined for data.
It could be argued that the #10yearchallenge is providing people with the opportunity to show off their longevity. With mottoes such as "50 is the new 30", not only is the ageing population, particularly in developed countries, growing in numbers, they are becoming younger looking judged by appearances.
This obsession with youthfulness, of the older generation looking younger in a distorted inversion of age and youth, reminded me of German director Damir Lukacevic's science fiction film Transfer (2010). It took this future scenario to a potentially dystopian conclusion.
It shows how the rich elderly have the opportunity to become "immortal" by swapping bodies with youthful refugees and other marginalised youths. The one group has money and power but time is running out, while the other only have youthfulness on their side. Youthfulness becomes the transferable and highly sought-after commodity. And it highlights how the haves can buy anything, including longevity.
But there is a demographic twist to this narrative.
Clearly, people are ageing better these days. If one had to compare images of our fairly recent ancestors over 10 years intervals, the ageing process might have been more obvious and dramatic in the past. It may just be that all the Bantings, Ketos, Botox and creams are working! And in some cases, social media filters and photoshopping as well.
The #10yearchallenge told the world about the improving age, welfare and health of a particular cohort of people: those who use social media. The number of internet users worldwide in 2018 was 3.196 billion. But a recent Pew research survey showed that for example, just one-in-five adults in India and Tanzania use social networks, and all five sub-Saharan African countries surveyed report social media is much lower.
Due to this massive digital divide we don't know how the biggest part of the poorer global south aged. We can, however, safely assume that it's nowhere as well as the north.
The #10yearchallenge went beyond showing off, fun, irony and wit. A few social media users posted images that illustrated the sharp contrast between the good-looking ageing human population and the deteriorating environment.
Images of rain forests in 2009 compared to 2019, places where rivers once flowed, or forward projections of extinct or near extinct animals in 2019 compared with 2029. Nature seems to be disappearing while we are thriving.
The sinister end of the spectrum
Technology author Kate O'Neil has explained that the #10yearchallenge provides the perfect raw material for setting up a facial recognition algorithm. The then-and-now photographs are ideal for such an exercise - they are clean, simple and helpfully labelled.
Facebook denied that the #10yearchallenge was a form of social engineering. But O'Neill reminded us of the mass data extraction of more than 70 million US Facebook users by data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. It harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters and used them to build a powerful software programme to predict and influence choices at the US ballot box.
O'Neil suggests three plausible scenarios for the use of facial recognition.
In the benign scenario it could help find missing kids, especially when they've been missing for a while.
On the mundane side, facial recognition could be useful for targeted advertising.
But there's a more sinister side to facial recognition uses, raising major privacy concerns. As O'Neill cautions:
the police could use the technology not only to track people who are suspected of having committed crimes, but also people who are not committing crimes, such as protesters and others whom the police deem a nuisance.
She goes on to say:
The broader message, removed from the specifics of any one meme or even any one social platform, is that humans are the richest data sources for most of the technology emerging in the world. We should know this, and proceed with due diligence and sophistication.
For those who still consider memes as harmless and innocent information sharing perhaps it is time to reconsider. Memes like the #10yearchallenge have become ideological barometers that carry social meaning and context. Whether viewed as bait to put our faces and information online for algorithmic mining or interpreted as signifiers of human ageing - the #10yearchallenge meme says a lot about what it means to be human in a digital age.