BeReal Can’t Save Social Media

I am trying to break my habit of checking Instagram every morning. I know I do it not because I want to know what has changed between 1 and 7 a.m., but because my morning scroll has become a ritual. There is something comforting about sifting through the remnants of others’ lives and keeping subconscious mental notes on people you haven’t seen or heard from for years but with whom you still share your biggest accomplishments and aspirations. A girl who moved away in seventh grade now goes to college in Michigan; a boy you met at summer camp is standing among the ruins of Pompeii. Is he studying abroad or are his parents filthy rich? There’s no way to know. What you do know is that the gelato looks heavenly. 

With typical social media apps, these glimpses into others’ lives are not really glimpses at all, but curated montages of shareable moments deemed worthy of being incorporated into an online persona. What we choose to post online defines who we are and significantly impacts others’ perceptions of us. These layers allow us to project idealized versions of ourselves. 

Our ability to manipulate our online presence is a new phenomenon that has changed the way we interact with ourselves and one another. We are treated to a constant barrage of others’ highlights, making it easy to compare our worst, most intimate selves with others’ best. Numerous studies have linked high levels of anxiety and depression with consistent social media use. School assemblies warning against the dangers of too much screen time are presented to us from a young age. The app store has become crowded with apps ironically intended to limit screen time. These are Band-Aid solutions. They don’t get to the heart of the issue, which is not the amount of time we spend online, but the way we spend it. 

A new social media platform called BeReal claims to be the antithesis of everything wrong with social media. Every day, at an unspecified time, users receive a notification that “it’s time to BeReal,” and are prompted to take two photos of whatever they are doing at the time: one with their front camera, one with the back. BeReal users have followers just like other social media platforms, except for one important caveat: until you have posted your own BeReal, you cannot see others’. Its design mitigates any effort you might make to curate your own experiences. The goal is to show your life as it is, without any false pretenses or manipulations. It also curtails the endless scrolling many social media apps rely on to draw users in. You can see your followers’ BeReals for the day, but that number is finite as opposed to other apps’ never-ending feeds. 

Recently, the app has gained international attention. Released in 2020, BeReal rose in popularity in 2022, obtaining a cult-like following of 10 million daily users by August. Will BeReal change the way that we interact with others online for good? Or will the trend be over and done within the next few months? I would argue the latter. Although this movement to a less filtered, more spontaneous online presence is an improvement over the way social media has been used previously, it may not have a lasting effect. It’s hard to tell if these high-minded concepts fit the reality of BeReal usage.

 About two months ago, I downloaded the app. At first, I liked it. It was fun to be prompted to upload pictures at a random time every day, to see what my friends were up to, and to have a compilation of my past week in random stills. But as time wore on, I found myself waiting to take my BeReal until I was doing something I felt was worthy of posting. Though the idea behind the app is to take the picture immediately when you get the notification, I sometimes found myself unable to accomplish this task because I would be in class, at work, or in the shower, so I would wait, and the spontaneity would be ruined. 

I have since abandoned BeReal, partly because the service in Oberlin makes it impossible for me to upload, but also because, in practice, BeReal didn’t feel that different from other social media. Rather than subverting a curated social media presence, BeReal adheres to a different type of image. As opposed to the perfect, poreless, sepia-toned, beach-pic aesthetic of the 2010s, BeReal is all about looking like you don’t care. The popular rise of “photodumps” on Instagram is another example of social media users attempting to curate their content to look like they’re not curating their content.

One of the most interesting aspects of BeReal’s sudden rise to popularity is its reliance on limits. The choice to download the app and adhere to these limits is optional, yet BeReal’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent times. Maybe this is because of the endless warnings about the dangers of social media or dissatisfaction in the way we interact with one another online, but there seems to be a push to move away from the heavily manufactured world promoted by other social media and toward spontaneity.

Despite my belief that BeReal is not the saving grace of social media it bills itself as, its widespread popularity has shed light on a large demographic of teenagers and young adults who want an alternative to traditional social media’s emphasis on curated perfection. While BeReal may not be the app to fill this void, the market is out there. It’s just waiting for someone to fill it.