September 1, 2022

KUBINEC | BeReal is Saving Gen-Z

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For today’s column, I will write about … hold on, it’s time to BeReal. 

I scoffed when a friend told me about the photo sharing app BeReal this spring between ping pong matches at his north campus fraternity. Some seven months later, Cornellians — myself included — are improbably still posting on the app, indicating a possible shift in the way Gen-Z uses social media. 

BeReal is too dumb to be addicting. That’s the beauty of it.

After growing tired of drinking Red Bull and shredding the French Alps on his mountain bike, GoPro co-founder Alexis Bareyat launched BeReal, promising users “your friends for real.” The app sends users a notification at a random time every day telling them to post a photo of what they’re doing. Don’t post late or retake your picture lest you suffer the judgment of your fellow BeRealers.

The push notification has spawned a sort of secular liturgy among BeReal users. Sitting in a dining hall or cafe, students will turn to each other with mock urgency when their phone dings: “It’s time to BeReal!” before snapping photos of one another. The social aspect, I think, is why BeReal caught on, and it is why the app spells hope for Gen-Z’s online presence. 

While it’s easy to be alarmist about the effects of social media, there is evidence that our scrolling is taking a toll on our mental health. In 2012, a Cornell psychology professor teamed up with Facebook for a controversial study demonstrating users’ moods could be changed by altering the content of their feeds. More recently, researchers linked increased Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook usage to depression and loneliness. 

Social media that once brought joy now induces anxiety. Eight years ago, it was normal to make a Vine of you and your friend singing Taylor Swift. Now, in our war against being labeled as boring or cringe, we sit alone in our rooms curating online personas with the perfect amount of whimsy and depth. No one wins but the social media company’s shareholders.

My peers are aware of these issues — I even had a couple Cornell friends delete social media after watching the 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma, which chronicled Facebook’s nefarious efforts to grip our attention — but generally shrug at them because social media is an intractable part of college student life. A couple of my friends bought the Light Phone, but let’s be real — Pandora’s box has already been opened, and it’s fanciful to imagine a future without social media.

BeReal walks a middle road between throwing your phone into Beebe Lake and spending your vacation obsessively taking selfies. It’s what I like to call dumb social media — apps whose entire appeal is their limitations. BeReal does not allow users to see follower counts, filter their pictures or post more than once a day. The app exists more or less as an elaborate inside joke between its users, a meme turned to reality. And it’s not alone in the dumb social media category. 

Sidechat grew popular at Cornell for intentionally limiting users to Cornell students, rather than curating an endless For You page. Poop Map even had a moment in 2020 where Cornellians were sharing their bathroom trip locations with their friends. 

Sometimes, what we need is a dumb social media app rather than the perfect internet machine. In terms of performance, Instagram is the Lightning McQueen to BeReal’s Towmater, but the fact remains that people crave real-life connections. Cornell is capable of holding classes entirely remotely. Forcing a lecture hall’s worth of students to sit and listen to a professor is no longer necessary given the wonders of modern technology. And yet, we’re (mostly) thrilled to be returning to that old inefficient system because as a rule, technology that takes away our ability to connect in-person does not help us flourish.

Dumb social media apps also succeed on some level because we resent being commodified by social media giants throwing money at initiatives meant to win our attention. TikTok is building an unfathomably large database of surveilled user data. Snapchat has scores of engineers tinkering with its augmented reality filters. Facebook is building a Metaverse. Yet to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, engineers were so preoccupied building social media attention factories that they failed to consider whether they should be building them in the first place.

I should make a confession, though — I’m not very real on BeReal. I use the app’s archive as a college photo diary, so I don’t post myself doing mundane tasks that I won’t care to revisit in the future. BeReal cannot do away with the desire to curate our online personas. 

What BeReal can do is move the focus of our online lives from viral videos made by strangers to memories shared with friends — and that seems like a definite, if measured, step in the right direction.

Jack Kubinec is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. You Don’t Know Jack runs alternate Thursdays this semester.