Unlike the more established social media platforms, BeReal leans into spontaneity, notifying users randomly once a day to take and post a photo using both the front and rear cameras of their phone.
You have just two minutes to post, are largely only connected to people you know and are actively shamed if you retake your photo or take it outside of the allotted time. The result is a series of images documenting mostly mundane activities with a smaller, unflattering snapshot of the user in the corner of each one.
A decade ago it was common for people to scoff at Twitter with the attitude: Why would I care what anyone else had for breakfast? But as the success of that app, together with Facebook and, later, Instagram showed, many people did care.
That is not the world of social media now. These days it is governed by algorithms and commercial interests, dominated by influencers and brands vying for our attention via ads, and home to increasingly incendiary arguments.
In this context, it makes sense that social media users who grew up using these platforms are clamouring for something less paid for, more 'real'.
BeReal is currently the most successful attempt to carve out a kind of 'authenticity' in an online social world, ranking as the top free app in the UK, US and Australia in August 2022. However it is far from the only one, or even the first. Take Poparazzi, the "anti-selfie selfie app" that is currently generating a lot of buzz, or the short-lived Beme (2015-2016), whose users would film seconds-long clips to upload without being able to see a preview. Besides, it's not as if users haven't tried to bring 'authenticity' back to the original platforms, particularly Instagram.
In the last year alone there have been different visual and linguistic trends that stand in opposition to the careful curation that is Instagram's hallmark. Photos that are deliberately blurred; photo dumps of thrown-together, intentionally clashing images; ‘meta’ selfies that make the behind-the-scenes work visible. In captions and tweets there is a broader self-consciousness about ‘being perceived’ or acting parasocially online. Many users are fully aware of the performative, 'highlights reel' nature of posting on social media – but they still want to post.
A particularly clear example is a reel that found its way onto my Instagram explore page. Combining Disney channel nostalgia with mundanity and aspirational glamour, the user demonstrates (complete with Hannah Montana soundtrack) how their life is the best of both worlds: modelling and creating on the one hand, and working in a bar on the other. They are, in this format, giving their audience an authentic insight into their existence, acknowledging that their profile makes their whole life out to be a compilation of the best moments.
It’s clear that ‘authenticity’ here means a rejection of polish, perfectionism or paid-for targeting and that this is what users are clamouring for. This is particularly explicit with BeReal, which promises that it "won’t make you famous". The app prides itself on not being an advertising or influencer generator and on connecting you only with people you actually know.
But this particular version of authenticity is just the same story we’ve told before on the internet, through a slightly different format. Refinery29 even published a story about it in 2019.
As pointed out by Sophie Haigney in the New York Times this year, and by the writer and philosopher Susan Sontag in 2003, every picture or video contains an active choice of what will and won’t be in frame. That framing is always building some kind of story, a narrative that you are consciously or subconsciously constructing.
Even though BeReal has an inbuilt function that rats you out if you miss your two-minute window or retake the photo, it's impossible to fully escape performance the moment a camera lens is involved. It’s just that this performance, as opposed to a highlights reel or boastful work accomplishment, is one where you’re in on the joke about just how mundane or repetitive or occasionally exciting your day-to-day is.
The success of BeReal seems to be less about authenticity and more about the joy of being in on the joke. And if we're honest, isn't that what many of us are looking for when we entertain ourselves on social media? It’s just a new way to perform for ourselves and each other online.
Whether it is self-aware mundanity, aspirational glamour or insightful commentary, the only joy left in social media is using it purely as entertainment, as a place where everyone is performing in some way at all times. It is a waste of energy to attempt to find or show reality. But instead of being a burden, that can be a blessing. Removing the stress of confusing your Instagram self with your flesh and blood self takes away the pressure and enables you to lean into the eccentric, the sardonic, the anonymous, the preening.
We will never return to the original era of Facebook, nor will we really be able to avoid the rampant monetisation of online spaces. What we can do is push platforms to mitigate the negative effects of their apps on real life while embracing every performance as time to play.