One of the first profile pictures I ever posted featured me, front and center, with a Yoda backpack hanging from my shoulders, a Freddy Krueger-inspired sweater, a pair of baggy blue jeans, and a look on my face that said “undateable.”
It’s adorable, and I only came across it, buried deep in my Facebook gallery, thanks to a movement that caught on over the weekend. The “glow-up challenge,” as many have dubbed it, asks people to post one of their earliest Facebook profile pictures alongside their current one. It’s a cute, though slightly narcissistic challenge, especially for those between the ages of 24 and 29. Teenage awkwardness is adorable and a near-universal experience. In our 20s, most of us are much more composed than we were while going through puberty.
Universal adorable awkwardness is only part of what makes the challenge endearing. There’s a sincerity in photos from 10 years ago. Facebook profile pictures from 2008 and 2009 were different from the over-the-top aesthetic we practiced at the time on Myspace. There was a feeling of intimacy on Facebook for teens. We truly believed that only our friends saw what we were posting, and that level of comfort let us post whatever we wanted. Digging through my Facebook photos was like diving into a treasure trove of happy memories I wouldn’t dream of posting today.
There are photos of me making grotesque “funny” faces while sitting on the subway with friends, photos of me with bread rolls stuffed into my mouth, photos of me planking on my car in the middle of my school parking lot while wearing camo shorts. Needless to say, these aren’t photos I would ever dream of throwing on Tinder if they were taken today. But that’s just it: these types of photos are taken today, but I don’t post them anymore. I’ve learned that whatever I post online, even in a closed group, can spread far beyond my control.
Back in 2008, when I posted that profile pic with the Yoda backpack, I wasn’t thinking about the ramifications 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 an image to Facebook, or when someone tagged me in theirs, I didn’t think about whether I could use it on Tinder, whether it would play well on Instagram, whether it was worthy enough to tweet, or even whether an ex might run across it. There was no thinking beyond, “I want people to see this.” A profile picture wasn’t an overarching statement about a personal brand. It was a simple part of a visual storyline of our lives, and it didn’t warrant much conversation, at least in my friend circle, when we were 16.
I’m 27 today, and nothing I post on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr is as sincere as it was back then. My current Facebook profile is staged. My current Instagram profile picture is taken in just the right light, with just the right filter for added effect. My Tumblr account is based on a person I aspire to be, not who I am. And Twitter is a series of failed, self-deprecating jokes because that’s what Twitter has become 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 using Facebook.
Things are different now. Gen Z, as they hate to be called, are more aware of social media and how it works than anyone before them. Even in 2008, people over 35 were too aware of how the internet operated to be careless about their online images. For the rest of us, those in our mid- to late-20s, 2008 really does feel like a different online era. Back then, our worlds were becoming more digital, as we embraced every new social media platform that came our way. We learned how to navigate the internet, and we shed our sincere approach to sites like Facebook, replacing it with a cauterized version of ourselves we were willing to share with a potentially large and unpredictable audience of judgmental strangers.
Personally, I changed exponentially over the past 10 years, transitioning from a messy teen into a messy adult. But the internet has also radically changed over this past decade. I don’t recognize the internet we operate on today, and it’s difficult to keep up. Those of us who went from being constant Facebook users to Always Online individuals, sleeping with phones in our hands and tweeting at all hours of the night, had to face growing up at an accelerated rate both online and offline. The person I am online today is a product of becoming an adult publicly, in a rapidly shifting online environment.
That is why the person I am today online is such a curated version of myself. It’s the version of me that I’m comfortable with people seeing. I’ve learned to keep parts of my life private, limiting them to myself and my close friends, away from the internet. I can’t control how ambiguous and massive the internet has become or how wide our circles have grown. But I learned that unlike my 16-year-old self, happy to overshare every little detail in an effort to keep up with my friends, I’m more than okay with simply not posting. I spent so much of my teenage years trying to keep up with all of my friends online. These days, I'm more likely to work on deepening relationships with specific friends in person.
That’s probably for the best. Privacy concerns over Facebook, trolling, and harassment have all created a stressful, unappealing online world that we’re slowly trying to tear ourselves away from. But the glow-up challenge was a fun, nostalgic reminder of what it was like when we first joined and who we used to be. We used to have fun on Facebook, and that’s all I see when I look at my friends’ facing this particular online challenge.