Clearly, people want something from social media that they aren’t getting. It’s something they think they remember getting at one point, but which is now being held away from them by the machine. Some people describe that disappointment elliptically, saying that they are exhausted by “the algorithm” or by “surveillance capitalism.” What they’re really desperate for is connection without the anxiety of performance. They want something real.
They’ll try anything, and right now, they’re trying a French app called, appropriately, BeReal. Created in 2020 and now sitting near the top of the charts in Apple’s App Store (ahead of TikTok, Instagram, and Google Maps), it has taken off in the United States in the past several months. Its official description has a “WARNING” with 10 bullet points. “BeReal is life, Real life, and this is life without filters,” one says. “BeReal won’t make you famous. If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram,” reads another.
How it works: Once a day, at a random time, users receive a push notification telling them that it is time to “BeReal.” That means they have two minutes to post whatever they’re really doing at the moment by taking one photo with their smartphone’s outward-facing camera and one selfie at the same time. These are rendered as a single image, with one photo positioned in the top-left corner of the other. (Instagram has re-created the BeReal image-within-an-image format and renamed it “Dual.”)
There is no punishment for posting outside of the two-minute window, except that it may raise eyebrows among your friends. Did she wait until she was looking good? Looking cool and fun? Regardless, once you’ve posted your own BeReal each day, you can look at other people’s too. The app has two feeds: One shows pictures of your friends and family; the other allows you to “discover” random people being real. Scrolling through this morning, I saw my boyfriend’s sister watching Stranger Things, as well as some guy waiting at a bus stop in Kansas City and a rabbit sitting on a stranger’s foot. This is real life, no doubt: desk chairs, escalators, conference rooms, coffee cups, microwaves, ellipticals, steering wheels, the line at Subway, a dog tangled in a laptop-charger cord.
The first American outlets to cover the app treated its premise with credulity. “With BeReal, there is no way to lie about where you are or what you’re doing,” a Mashable post said. A Teen Vogue write-up suggested that the app represents, finally, an opportunity to “let the world know who you actually are.” Not long after, the pushback started. Writing in The New Yorker, R. E. Hawley critiqued the app’s “moralizing” language and noted that its gamified daily posting was an example of “a far more annoying and even insidious aspect of social media than encountering phony representations of others’ lives.” In other words, the app is designed to get people addicted. (Among its bulleted App Store warnings: “BeReal can be addictive.”)
“Authenticity” is a slippery concept. Two years ago, I wrote about a shift in selfie culture, where there was no longer a stigma around taking them but still “something taboo about needing more than one try” to get a picture right. At the time, an American Eagle ad campaign was wallpapering New York City with unaltered images of models and the tagline “#AerieREAL is the first photo vs. the 100th.” BeReal reveals how many times you’ve retaken a picture that’s supposed to be one-shot-and-done, and this is one reason why I am so bad about using it. (My sister, who is 23, downloaded the app at my request but later became angry: “You made me get BeReal, and I have yet to see you post one thing.”) I always need more than one try. Then I give up, because I’m embarrassed that I can’t be as game (and as photogenic) as everyone else.
BeReal “hypes its departure from Instagram,” Brooke Duffy, a media researcher at Cornell who has written frequently about “authenticity policing” on social media, told me. But it’s actually very similar to the “fake Insta”—or “finsta”—fad of several years ago, which saw users post more candid and banal content for a smaller audience of friends. When Duffy and her colleagues interviewed young adults about this trend in 2016 and 2017, they often heard the accounts described as a means of escaping from ambient online surveillance and the pressures of performance.
BeReal has repackaged that impulse, but its target demographic isn’t necessarily responding as intended. (When I asked another of my sisters, who is 20, to download BeReal, she texted back, “No, that app is dumb.”) Although it is poor BeReal etiquette to wait until you arrive at a party to take your photos, people do it. And though the point isn’t for BeReal photos to be charming enough to repost on Instagram, people do that too. Olivia Oldham, a 22-year-old early BeReal adopter who is currently an American-studies major at Harvard, told me that this particular move gives people an excuse to share images that would otherwise be considered uninteresting. Maybe sitting around at a picnic with friends wouldn’t normally merit an Instagram post, but a snapshot presented in BeReal format feels acceptable: As you can see, their hands were tied … they had no choice but to BeReal.
Oldham, who uses they/them pronouns, downloaded BeReal at the end of last year and became “evangelical” about it among their friends—even while acknowledging that it wasn’t a real departure from other social-media platforms. “I’m totally not bought into the premise,” they said. “The minute you sign up for the app, you know you’re just messing around with the idea of authenticity.” Oldham enjoyed committing to the bit of being excited whenever the “time to BeReal” notification popped up, especially among friends who would also play up its urgency. As a joke, Oldham even applied to be part of the app’s campus-ambassador program, in which “well-connected” college students agree to host parties and “represent BeReal’s mission and execute creative activations.” The company said it wasn’t interested in doing outreach on the Harvard campus at the moment, and Oldham was instead offered a position recruiting high-school students (which would be paid based on the number of prospects who actually signed up). They turned it down: “Personally, as a 22-year-old, I just was not comfortable with the idea of loitering outside of a high school.”
BeReal images are now part of the language of other social-media platforms. They’re shared on Instagram and TikTok and repurposed into memes on Twitter. Soon after the official Teletubbies account shared a BeReal post, the BeReal account asked people, at least partly in jest, to stop making memes so as to spare the app’s servers from even more attention and activity. (The servers do seem overtaxed: Many users have complained that the service is glitchy and slow.)
The app about not getting famous is getting, maybe, too famous. Soon, it may feel like just another toxic social platform. This week, the writer Sophie Haigney tweeted that she was disappointed it hadn’t been “time to BeReal” while she was out to dinner at a stylish downtown restaurant: “I was like there should be an option to do it at different times…turns out I invented Instagram.” Oldham described to me a day when the BeReal notification came in while they were sitting across a table from a friend, and they felt a prickle of the Instagram feeling. “I was like, ‘I’m going to take a photo of you,’ but instead of taking a photo of me back, he took a photo out the window zoomed in on something across the street. I was sort of offended because I realized he was trying to make a more interesting BeReal than me as a subject.”
Dispirited by the social media you already know, you can try out a more “real” platform—but, as they say, wherever you go, there you are. Oldham’s eight-month BeReal posting streak ended about a week ago—they were feeling “social-media-poisoned in general” and tired of checking for the BeReal notification all day. “I still do have this sense of being aware, when I’m doing something, that perhaps this is the moment when BeReal will strike,” they said. “It’s fun, but it’s a little bit intrusive.”