Why you’re seeing the 10-Year Challenge everywhere

It’s got all the ingredients of a perfect meme — plus some backlash.

Like many internet fads, the first major one of 2019 is a “challenge” that is not actually challenging. And also like many internet fads, it mostly acts as an excuse to post a photo of oneself. This is fine, of course; that’s pretty much what social media is designed for already. But for its inherent narcissism, and a litany of other slightly more bizarre reasons, people have attempted to make the argument that it is secretly evil.

The 10-Year Challenge, or the 2009 vs. 2019 Challenge, or the Glow Up Challenge, or the How Hard Did Aging Hit You Challenge, whatever you want to call it, is simple: You post a photo of yourself in 2009 next to a photo of yourself in 2019. Caption it whatever you want. That’s it!

The meme started to take off after the start of the new year, largely on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. At its core, the 10-Year Challenge is a wholesome, socially acceptable way to brag about how hot you used to be, how hot you are now, or how hot you were and continue to be. (You can also replace the word “hot” with other adjectives, like “educated” or “married” or “unfathomably rich.”)

None of this is particularly new — iterations of the 10-Year Challenge have been floating for years, and often resurface in January. Even the concepts of a transformation or a social media glow-up, which have existed for a long time, imply that the user is comparing photos of themselves from the past and present. And people were already constantly sharing pictures from years ago in the form of Throwback Thursdays or Flashback Fridays.

Celebrities, of course, love the 10-Year Challenge; it’s essentially an excuse to say, “look how hot I am — still!” Those who haven’t appeared to have aged a day, like Reese Witherspoon or Nicki Minaj, were eager to share their iterations, often posted alongside breezy captions that imply zero actual work involved in maintaining one’s skin elasticity.

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Nick Cannon and Padma Lakshmi even went so far as to raise the stakes to a 19- or 20-year challenge, because they can:

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2000 to 2019 ‍♂️

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Barbara Corcoran, noted Shark Tank personality, was far more transparent in her 10-Year Challenge, however. “Here’s what 1 facelift, a gifted makeup artist, a new colorist, and a new stylist gets you … TEN YEARS!” she captioned her side-by-side. (My condolences to Corcoran’s previous colorist and stylist for this brutal roast.)

There are, as with any meme, a fair share of ironic tweets implying that both one’s 2009 and 2019 selves are different iterations of trash cans, or that the past decade has turned them from beautiful ballerina into paranoid monster:

Even you, lowly noncelebrity, have probably seen plenty of your social media acquaintances posting side-by-sides of their glow-up from awkward brace-faced pubescence to “aspiring influencer,” or a dramatic weight loss transformation, or a heartwarming story of coming out.

For many, however, the challenge ironically has created actual challenges. Aging, for most people, isn’t as perfect and poreless as it is for celebrities whose literal professions rely on dermatologists’ ability to slow down time — nor should it be! We are supposed to age! In Mel Magazine, Tracy Moore writes that she noticed many of her friends who had children felt as though they had to apologize for their 30-pound weight gain when they posted their own 10-Year Challenges. “The only way to win the challenge was to age either zero or in reverse, to elicit confusion as to which picture was then and which was now. Gross,” she wrote.

And for trans people, the act of posting a photo from a decade ago, when trans people were far less visible in mainstream culture, has its own dangers. Ana Valens writes in the Daily Dot that while many queer or gender non-conforming people have used the 10-Year Challenge as “an opportunity to contextualize some of the most painful times of their lives and finally get some closure,” she says that she’s refrained from the meme because as a reporter, people online have long used photos of her body pretransition as a means of harassment.

The most widespread criticism of the 10-Year Challenge, however, suggests that it’s actually a ploy devised by Facebook to help train facial recognition algorithms on age progression. Tech writer Kate O’Neill floated the theory in a Twitter thread that went viral, which she later expanded on in a column for Wired.

In it, O’Neill argues that Facebook possibly encouraged the meme because having two sets of photos a fixed period of time apart could be used to train its software to understand how people age. This, then, could be useful to improve facial recognition software, which at a medium-bad level is used to target advertisements to specific people and t its worst is used by law enforcement to track average citizens they deem suspicious, like protesters, for instance.

Commenters on Twitter were quick to respond with the obvious assertion that Facebook already owns these photos, however, which themselves are attached to specific dates. Anyone who’s ever uploaded a photo to the social media site knows that its software automatically knows which of your Facebook friends are in it, which it reveals in the form of a suggested tag. O’Neill, however, argues that a “clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos” would eliminate confusion for algorithms, particularly when the dates that photos were taken and when they were posted to Facebook are often different.

Yet to suggest that Facebook somehow “started” the meme is also false — again, the 10-Year Challenge is hardly different from any one of the other many, many ways people have memefied throwback photos. The more likely reason that it spread: People really enjoy excuses to upload photos of themselves, particularly ones they look upon with nostalgia. Which makes the 10-Year Challenge no less evil than what social media already is: a decade’s worth of posturing that also contributes to a surveillance state.