If social platforms can be said to have had the good old days, that’s when people still signed up to see if their friends were there and to understand why: those early moments when their potential was felt but not yet described. This is what’s happening now on BeReal, a new platform where people post photos for their friends, with some crucial twists.
Once a day, at an unpredictable moment, BeReal notifies its users that they have two minutes to post a couple of photos, one from each phone camera, taken simultaneously. The only way to see what other people posted that day is to share yours. You can post after the two-minute window closes, but all your friends will be notified that you were late; you can take the photo of your day, but your friends will know too. Your friends can reply to your posts with something called “RealMoji”, basically a selfie reaction, visible to all your connections. All photos disappear the next day.
Other platforms experiment with manipulative gamification. Be real is a game. Although its rules are simple – mail now – the message is mixed. Don’t be too hard on yourself, post anything, suggests the ticking of the clock. And then in a whisper: But don’t be hard work. (BeReal did not respond to requests for comments via email or Twitter.)
As a result, BeReal’s typical feed features photos taken in class, at work, while driving or getting ready for bed. There are many people who make funny or bored faces while doing funny or boring activities. Is cute! Or at least not miserable, which is worth a lot these days.
Right now, BeReal feels more like a group activity than a full-fledged social platform, a low-stakes diversion that, despite its direct demands, doesn’t ask for much. It’s a randomly scheduled social break from your day but also from your other feeds, where scrolling and posting have shifted from leisure to work or worseas reported by the Wall Street Journal last year in a story about Instagram’s toll on teen mental health.
One of BeReal’s founders is a former GoPro employee and markets his experience as a return to rawness and authenticity, but, at least for this user, it may seem more veiled and nostalgic, like a reproduction of the experience of joining one of the dominant social networks when everyone was still feeling like toys. Look, my friends are here, it’s funny, we’re doing this specific thing together. What could go wrong?
Post like there’s no tomorrow
BeReal, headquartered in Paris, was founded in 2020 and had been installed approximately 7.41 million times as of April this year. according to ad Apptopia, an analytics company. The app has been covered in student newspapers in recent months, which have noted its aggressive use of paid campus ambassadors; in March, Bloomberg reported that the app was “trending in colleges”.
Great new apps are popping up all the time. Part of the appeal of using them is never knowing which one will stick. The possibility of an app becoming something meaningful makes it tempting; novelty and unpredictability prevent the feeling that, Oh no, here we go again. The much higher probability that a particular platform will explode or cease to exist, gives you permission not to worry too much about what you are doing there and where it might lead. It’s the best of all worlds and doesn’t last long.
My fond memories of subscribing to services that would eventually alter the course of history are strongly characterized by desktop computers; I am, for the purposes of this conversation, old. But when it comes to social networks, nostalgia hits fast and young.
“By posting on Instagram these days, there is such a process,” said Brenden Koo, a college student at Stanford. His parents follow him on Snapchat, which he says was “at its peak”. He joined BeReal in December after hearing about it from a friend. He appreciates that he is temporary, low effort and “situational”. He is less of a substitute for nothing more than extracurricular social media.
“Even college students find it a bit kitschy,” said Mr. Koo, 21.
Her classmate Oriana Riley, 19, agreed that the app asked her less than others. “I think BeReal’s everyday look makes it a lot healthier than other social media,” Ms. Riley said. “He Seems less trapping than other social media.”
The comfort of close friends
BeReal is by no means an anti-social-media project: it is a commercial social photo sharing app that is attempting to gain a critical mass of users within a widely familiar paradigm. Most apps expect users to ultimately generate revenue through advertising, commerce, and other forms of engagement.
What BeReal now offers is a new version of an experience that has been tainted or consumed elsewhere. But most social apps want to be the next big thing, not a tribute to the latest. The welcoming new app that Ms. Riley describes as helping her feel “close to her friends with her” is her investors’ next hope for a big payday.
If Instagram or Snapchat notified all of their users daily that they had two minutes to post, it would be considered desperate spam; if TikTok asked its users to share a video before seeing anything else posted that day, as BeReal does, it wouldn’t seem like a way to promote trust or intimacy, but rather as a breach in the service of growth hacking. Random check-ins are fun between friends; on a large scale, they are surveillance.
That’s not to say a larger platform won’t mimic or attempt to buy BeReal if it continues to grow – Snapchat, Instagram, and now Twitter have encouraged users to post less consciously with features like Close Friends and Twitter Circle. They also love the good old days.
BeReal is blunt but makes its points well: if you spend enough time in spaces that require you to be interesting, you eventually get boring. Expecting to see non-great posts from your friends makes users more generous to each other and to themselves. Photos of keyboards, sidewalks, pets and children, of desks and walls and many screens, all accompanied by poorly framed faces, may not look entirely new or sustainable. But for now, for some, they feel like a relief.
For context is a column that explores the boundaries of digital culture.