One of the first profile pictures I ever posted showed me in front and in the middle, a Yoda backpack on my shoulders, a Freddy Krueger inspired sweater, a pair of baggy blue jeans and a print on my face "Undateable."
It's adorable, and I just stumbled upon it, buried deep in my Facebook gallery, thanks to a movement that prevailed over the weekend. The "Glow-Up Challenge," as many have called it, challenges people to post one of their earliest Facebook profile pictures alongside their current one. It's a cute, if somewhat narcissistic, challenge, especially for people between 24 and 29 years old. Adolescent awkwardness is adorable and almost universal. In the 1
Universal loveable awkwardness is only part of what makes the challenge appealing. Photos from 10 years ago are sincere. Facebook profile pictures from 2008 and 2009 differed from the exaggerated aesthetics we were practicing on Myspace at the time. On Facebook, there was a sense of familiarity for teens. We firmly believed that only our friends saw what we posted, and this level of comfort made us publish what we wanted. Scouring my Facebook photos was like dipping into a treasure chest of happy memories that I would not dream of today.
There are photos of me making grotesque "funny" faces while I was sitting in the subway with friends and taking pictures with me stuffed buns in my mouth, photos of me that I planned on my school parking lot, while wearing camo shorts. It is needless to say that these are not photos that I would ever dream of throwing on Tinder today. But that's just the way it is: These kind of photos are made today but I do not post them anymore. I've learned that whatever I post online, even in a closed group, can be far beyond my control.
When I posted this profile picture in 2008 with the Yoda backpack, I did not think about the effects of embarrassing online photos. I just wanted to share parts of my life with my friends. Everything was experimental, exciting and new. When I posted a picture on Facebook or someone tagged me in their photo, I did not think about using it on Tinder, whether it would work well on Instagram, if it was appropriate for tweeting, or if it was Tweet Ex Ex might come across this. In addition, there was no consideration: "I want people to see that." A profile picture was not an overarching statement about a personal brand. It was a simple part of a visual narrative of our lives, and there was little conversation required when we were 16, at least in my circle of friends.
Today I'm 27 and nothing I post on Instagram. Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr is as straightforward as it was then. My current Facebook profile is provided. My current Instagram profile picture is shot in the right light, with the right filter for added effect. My Tumblr account is based on a person I want to be, not the one I am. And Twitter is a series of failed, self-deprecating jokes because Twitter has become so for its users. I enjoy the time I spend online most days, but it's certainly not as carefree as it was when I was 16 and only used Facebook.
Things are different now. Gen Z, as they hate to be called, is more aware of social media and how it works than anyone else before them. Already in 2008, the over 35-year-olds were aware of how the internet works, in order not to pay attention to their online pictures. For the rest of us, the middle to late 20's, 2008 really feels like another online era. At that time, our worlds became more and more digital as we embraced each new social media platform. We learned how to navigate the Internet, and we have rejected our sincere attitude towards websites like Facebook and replaced them with a burnt-out version of us that we wanted to share with a potentially large and unpredictable audience of condemning strangers.
Personally, I've changed exponentially over the last 10 years, switching from a messy teenager to a messy adult. But the Internet has also changed fundamentally over the last decade. I can not recognize the internet we are working with today and it is difficult to keep up. Those of us who were turning from constant Facebook users to Always Online individuals, sleeping with cell phones in their hands and tweeting around the clock had to grow up online and offline at a faster pace. The person I am online today is a product of growing up in a rapidly changing online environment.
That's why the person I'm online with today is a curated version of me. It's the version of mine that I'm very familiar with. I have learned to keep parts of my life private and to limit them to myself and my close friends. I can not control how ambiguous and massive the Internet has become or how big our circles have become. But I've learned that, unlike my 16-year-old self, who likes to overlap every little detail to stay up to date with my friends, I just do not care to just post. I spent so many of my teenage years online with all my friends. These days, I tend to work on deepening relationships with specific friends.
That's probably the best. Concerns about Facebook's privacy, trolling and harassment have led to a stressful, unsightly online world from which we are slowly breaking away. But the ardent challenge was a funny, nostalgic reminder of what it was like when we joined for the first time and who we were. We used to have fun on Facebook, and that's all I see when I see my friends face this particular online challenge.