A few years ago, I gave up on Instagram.
When I posted a selfie featuring a sleek blow-out or a vacation shot of a velvety moss garden, I’d feel temporarily good about myself—but self-conscious about the fact that in reality, I spent most of my days staring at a laptop screen with poofy hair. And how was I supposed to represent the times when I was unhappy? I wasn’t comfortable sharing personal problems with hundreds of followers, but posting exclusively upbeat photos not only made me feel fake but worried that I was contributing to the social-comparison phenomenon that makes other people feel bad. The only way to be authentic, I concluded, was to not share photos at all.
Plenty of people have taken similar steps to distance themselves from social media in recent years, having grown tired of competing for outside validation in the form of “likes” or deciding that scrolling past the most polished versions of other people’s lives was bad for their mental health.
Now the social media landscape is evolving in ways that reflect people’s growing queasiness around submitting their personal lives for public approval. Meta, for example, is altering the algorithms of Facebook and Instagram to become more like TikTok, which is geared more toward helping users find and share entertainment than connecting with friends.
Meanwhile, young people are turning to another breed of apps that promise more intimate online interactions—treating social media as an extension of private group chats. One of them is BeReal, a French app that’s taken American college campuses by storm and is currently the most popular free app in Apple’s US App Store. Its 20 million downloads suggest its approach–getting people to share the more mundane moments of daily life, like going for a walk in the park or lounging on the couch watching Netflix on a Monday night—is resonating with users.
But can an app really facilitate authenticity and help users bypass the envy economy? After all, the imperative to make money has historically pushed both social-media companies and their most popular creators to pair up with brands that turn every post into a commercial. I recently joined BeReal and recruited a few friends to see if the app could deliver on its promise to help us be more genuine online.
What is the BeReal app?
The basic premise of BeReal, which launched in 2020, is that at a different time each day, users receive a notification nudging them to post a photo of whatever they’re up to at that particular moment.
The app was founded by French entrepreneurs Kévin Perreau and Alexis Barreyat. Before BeReal, Perreau worked as a project lead at the French IT company Opteamis, according to his LinkedIn page. Barreyat, meanwhile, previously worked as a video producer at GoPro. The job put him into frequent contact with influencers, and he grew disillusioned by the constant onslaught of perfect imagery he saw on their feeds, according to Protocol. In a LinkedIn post unveiling BeReal, Barreyat summarized the vision for the platform: “After being tired and annoyed with all the bullshit on social media, I decided to launch my own. No like, No followers, No ads, No filters, just what my Friends are doing, in the most authentic way possible.”
BeReal first gained traction with young people in Europe, and raised $36.6 million in a Series A round that included Andreessen Horowitz in June 2021. It’s since become a favorite platform among Gen Z in the US, too. App research firms estimate that it’s been downloaded anywhere from 20 million to 29.5 million times to date.
For now, BeReal is relying on the funding that it’s raised. (Insider reported in May that the company was close to closing another funding round, this time for $85 million, that would put its valuation at $630 million.) Its founders haven’t said much about whether, or how, they might go about trying to turn a profit. But while it doesn’t currently host paid ads, brands including Chipotle and PacSun have already begun experimenting with ways to promote themselves on the platform.
There’s a clear backlash risk for brands that “try to invade what is purported to be a safe, authentic space for users,” Sela marketing agency managing director Brady Donnelly told The Drum. If more companies find ways to peddle products on the app, with or without BeReal’s cooperation, that would inevitably change users’ experience.
Meta embraces a new era for social networking
As BeReal rises in popularity, the old social-media titans are trying to find ways to stay both relevant and profitable. That’s become more of a struggle for Meta in recent years, as underscored by the news last week that its year-over-year revenue fell for the first time since the company went public in 2012.
In a bid to keep users’ attention, Facebook has announced that going forward, its feeds will surface videos and other popular content from various creators rather than prioritizing posts from people you actually know. Mark Zuckerberg estimated in a Meta earnings call this week that the amount of content Facebook users see from strangers will more than double in the next year. Similar changes are underway at Instagram, though the platform has temporarily walked back the portion of recommended posts that appear in users’ feeds in an effort to improve the algorithm that personalizes the recommendations.
All this is seemingly a big departure from the early purpose of Facebook and Instagram: To keep people abreast of what was happening with their circle of friends and acquaintances. But while that mission has never gone away entirely, the platforms have frequently changed directions over the years.
In 2015, for example, the Facebook news feed was dominated by links to articles and videos, with Facebook surpassing Google that year as the biggest source of traffic for publishers. But by January 2018, Facebook had decided that its algorithm needed to prioritize “meaningful social interactions” in user feeds rather than posts from publishers and brands. The decision was likely at least partly political: By that point, Facebook was facing regulatory scrutiny over the role it had played in spreading disinformation in the runup to the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook had a business motive too: User engagement was in decline, and the company theorized that more organic posts would help draw eyeballs back to its feed.
Ultimately, Facebook’s gambit didn’t work out so well. Rather than amping up feel-good personal interactions, the algorithm change elevated the proportion of negative and politically divisive posts that users saw on their feeds, according to the Wall Street Journal. For this and other reasons including negative sentiment toward Zuckerberg himself, Gen Z and millennials now spend far less time on the platform compared to sites like Instagram and Snapchat. A 2021 survey of 10,000 US teens from Piper Sandler found that just 27% of adolescents said that Facebook was their most-used platform.
Unlike Facebook, Instagram still has a strong hold on young people. Around 7 out of 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use the platform, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year. Part of its success has come from replicating the features that made other social-media platforms popular among young people. In 2016, for example, Instagram rolled out a “Stories” feature that mimicked the impermanence that made Snapchat so popular, allowing users to share photos and videos that would disappear after 24 hours. And just this week, Instagram introduced a dual-camera feature that lets users snap selfies as well as images of what they’re seeing, imitating one of BeReal’s distinctive features.
But Instagram is worried that young users may not stick around. The 2021 Piper Sandler survey, for example, found that Instagram was the third most popular social network among teens, with Snapchat number one and TikTok at number two. “We’re in a cultural moment where people just seem to be getting tired of the aspirational, performative culture of Instagram,” Cornell University professor Brooke Duffy told the New York Times last year. And in the wake of last year’s leak of Meta papers showing that the company was aware of the link between Instagram use and body-image issues in teenagers, at least 11 state attorneys announced that they were investigating Instagram’s potentially harmful impacts.
All this helps explain why both Instagram and Facebook are copying the TikTok model. It’s not just about trying to take a bite out of the competition. The deeper story is that TikTok is winning over young people precisely because, as Axios’s Sara Fischer writes, “have become much more deliberate about how they present themselves online, forcing social giants to become far less social.”
How does BeReal work?
BeReal boasts a number of features designed to encourage authenticity. A count-down clock gives you only two minutes to take a photo before posting, a feature that limits how much users can fuss with their hair or take multiple selfies trying to find the right angle. Selfies themselves are fairly inevitable on BeReal: The app takes pictures with the phone’s front- and back-facing cameras simultaneously, so there’s no hiding your messy bedroom or the fact that it’s 95 degrees outside and your forehead is covered in sweat. And on BeReal, there are no beautifying photo filters or editing allowed.
Only after you’ve posted can you see your friends’ photos on a feed that’s automatically erased each day, which means it’s impossible to curate the perfect pastel grids that allow people to rise to influencer status.
In the few weeks I’ve been on BeReal, about 80% of the photos I’ve taken feature me with my dog in my apartment, doing activities I’d normally never think to share online: Writing in a Google doc, making frozen yogurt, watching my favorite ridiculous witch-army TV show. Most of the time, I’m not wearing makeup. The notifications prompting me that “It’s time to BeReal” frequently seem to come when I’ve just gotten out of the shower. A person looking at these photos would conclude that I never leave my home or dry my hair, though I do in fact do both things practically every day. But I’m not too worried about what my 10 friends on the app think about the contents of my posts, since everyone else’s photos are just as mundane. The point of BeReal is not to seem like you’re trying to impress anyone.
That’s not to suggest that BeReal is the path to blissful self-acceptance. “I hate the selfie mandate,” my colleague Susan Howson said. “Even if the point is to look ‘real,’ it’s like you instantly get self-conscious.” Indeed, on BeReal, I still cringe at unflattering selfies. The difference is that while I’d never share a bad shot on Instagram, on BeReal, I go ahead and post the photo anyway.
My coworker Scott Nover agreed that the two-way camera feature should be jettisoned. “That’s way too much effort and doesn’t inspire candor, but actually more posed/thought-out posts, because you’re so hyper-conscious of what’s in what frame,” he said. He also took issue with BeReal’s notifications system: “The constant reminders about friends posting or your time to post are too much.” The app is also still periodically buggy, which means that users may sometimes receive a notification that it’s time to post only to open the app and discover that they have no way of doing so.
The beauty of being boring
Whatever their quibbles, my admittedly small sample size of friends were all on board with BeReal at least in principle.
“Plenty of people want to engage with friends online in a more organic way,” Scott said. “Facebook is no longer a place to post pictures and Instagram is known as a place for your most pampered and put-together pics.” He pointed to the popularity of finstas—secondary Instagram accounts where people are meant to share boring, goofy, or slightly risqué shots with smaller groups of friends in a judgment-free zone. Young people are also pushing back against social media staging requirements and ubiquitous beauty filters with Instagram posts that feature unblotted zits and shots of their messy rooms.
The casual aesthetic of the BeReal feed certainly alleviates the pressure that many of us feel when we try to post photos of our lives online. “With the house, it’s not like, ‘Is this good lighting’ or ‘Do we have nice design,’ it’s just, ‘Is there a pile of actual trash? If no, then we’re doing great,’” my friend Melissa Sexton said, summarizing her posting philosophy on the app.
Writing for his newsletter Platformer, tech journalist Casey Newton also observed that part of the magic of BeReal lies in the fact that it’s structured as a universal experience: Everyone receives notifications to post at the same time each day, and you never know when the notification will come. Much like HQ Trivia or Wordle, Newton writes, “apps that attempt to replicate the logic of appointment television keep finding success”—at least temporarily.
Another part of what makes BeReal feel different is that it nudges us to take photos of moments that we don’t normally document online. Vice writer Jason Koebler points out that because people immersed in activities like hiking or dinner with friends aren’t likely to be looking at their phones and thus see their BeReal notifications at the time they get sent out, the app is actually designed to capture us at our most humdrum. “If Instagram has the problem of making people’s lives look artificially glamorous, BeReal has the problem of making people’s lives look extremely (EXTREMELY) boring,” he writes.
That’s true enough. But the boringness on display via BeReal is also a bit of a revelation. For one thing, it serves as a cure to FOMO: Thank goodness everyone isn’t constantly off having a maximum fun time while I’m lying on the couch. Most other people seem to spend a lot of time at home, too!
What’s more, BeReal has reminded me that the parts of our lives we often don’t find noteworthy enough to share or talk about are, to me at least, plenty interesting.
Thanks to BeReal, I know that one friend recently introduced their partner to the Jennifer Garner classic 13 Going on 30, and that another keeps as many tabs open on their computer screen as I do. I’ve seen the view of a lake from Melissa’s patio and spied Susan making cookies.
These details aren’t more real than a photo of a friend’s beach wedding or fancy wine-tasting outing. But they are more relatable, particularly in the context of a pandemic that’s imposed innumerable changes on the ways we live, work, and travel and forced many of us to grapple with loneliness, burnout, and other mental-health issues. What’s the point now in trying to perform the shiniest possible version of your life online when everyone knows just how hard the past few years have been? Emotionally, the jig is up. Even being on the receiving end of an innocent question like “How are you?” can usher in an existential crisis.
For people who don’t want to feel like a fraud online, there’s still the option to decline to share anything personal. But the experience of documenting the mundane on BeReal may be a small way to resist the idea that our lives have to be remarkable to have value—and to remind ourselves that if we want other people to know the real us, online or off, it’s the everyday stuff that’s worth sharing.