The creation and rapidly developing popularity of BeReal, an app that seeks to embody the idea of authentic social media, proves that authentic social media is an oxymoron. BeReal sends users a notification once a day at a random time, prompting them to take both a front-facing and back-facing photo of whatever they’re doing at that moment. The mission statement is: “Your friends for real. A new and unique way to discover who your friends really are in their daily life.” What started out as a new concept for social media that heavily nudges users to be genuine soon became another highlight reel under the guise of authenticity.
When BeReal first began to get popular in early 2022, it was mostly within very small circles. Back then, it was much easier to comply with the concept by taking the photo on time, rather than repeatedly deleting and retaking it. As the app’s user base has grown, adding more friends has made it harder to post a picture that may not be your best. From the perspective of the app’s creators, they want it to grow as much as possible, but as it has grown and networks of friends have expanded on the app, it has naturally strayed from the originally intended concept.
BeReal was intended to eliminate the polished images that appear on other platforms, but it arguably worsens this issue. It is just as curated as others, but gives the illusion of authenticity. One protection against this problem is displaying icons that tell friends how many times users retook their photos and how late they posted. This provides transparency, but doesn’t preserve any of the authenticity of the concept. The app does, however, eliminate the ability to edit or photoshop.
Last week, of my 50+ friends on the app, an average of five posted on time when the notification went off. Of everyone who posted, there were an average of 1.3 retakes. I also frequently wait until I’m doing something exciting to “BeReal” or quickly open the book I had stopped reading when the notification goes off. The more curated the platform becomes, the harder it is to be authentic. Social media is, by nature, social, and it is natural to look to others to figure out the norms of the virtual space. If each of my friends’ BeReals show them on a hike or at a concert, it is difficult to post myself in bed watching Netflix.
The past few years have revealed a new tendency toward curating a genuine image on social media, which is inherently contradictory. It seems that the new push for authentic social media is still shrouded by a layer of wanting to seem unpretentious, rather than actually being yourself. This trend of calculated sincerity is the perfect environment for BeReal to become as popular as it has.
Social media has created a personal brand for everyone who chooses to participate in it — every post becomes a way to signal your identity and promote that brand, even to close friends. Because our online presence can be so closely linked to our real-life self-images, it makes sense that the stakes can feel too high for us to actually be real. Images of ourselves have become such a significant part of who we are that it feels vulnerable to put out an unflattering picture. It’s natural not to want to showcase this vulnerability as you add more people on BeReal and your audience expands from close friends to acquaintances. There are so many platforms out today that creating cohesion across each one is exhausting and nearly impossible, adding an unnecessary pressure to something that was originally supposed to entertain. BeReal adds a new dimension to that pressure.
If there was an app that forced users to be authentic, not giving them the option to post late or to retake photos, would it become popular? Maybe the allure of social media is the ability to present only the best parts of yourself, so any sincerity within that system would be counter-intuitive.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an app like BeReal, but it’s silly to pretend that it’s a remedy for the problem of social media. It’s a new iteration of the problems that have always existed. Even if well-intentioned, any platform that becomes widely used enough to be successful will revert back to the fundamental issues of social media: making users feel less attractive, less interesting or less active than their friends, being a source of FOMO and driving our identities away from authenticity.
Rachel Cannata is a sophomore in the Hotel School. She can be reached at [email protected]