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Courtesy Aneesa Ahmed

The death of BeReal

The number of daily users on BeReal has plummeted since its peak in September 2022 – but how did things go so wrong for the ‘anti-Instagram’ app?

In 2020, an app called BeReal arrived on the scene, billing itself as the anti-Instagram. It aligned itself closely with the cultural zeitgeist, answering the growing call for ‘relatable’ content that had emerged out of anxieties about highly artificial and curated online content. The premise is as follows: the app sends a push notification to all its users at a random time each day, instructing them to “be real”. Then, they have a two-minute window to take a picture using the app’s dual camera feature – which captures both their own face and what they’re looking at – wherever they are, whatever they’re doing.

While to start with, the app’s existence largely went under the radar, downloads of BeReal eventually skyrocketed, leaping from 1.1 million in February 2022 to an estimated 53 million by October in the same year. Its growth was largely driven by Gen Z, with under-25s making up almost 80 per cent of users in some markets.

But analysis by various market intelligence firms this year has suggested that both monthly downloads and daily users are now in decline. According to analytics firm Apptopia, the number of people who use the app daily has dropped 61 percent from its peak, from about 15 million in October 2022 to less than six million in March 2023. The conversation around BeReal has become more jaded too. “BeReal going off at 10.30pm is it,” one X user wrote. “Suppose I better obediently take a picture of myself barely awake whilst laying down on the sofa watching TV alone so that the only three friends I have left who are using it can see.” But why have young people turned their backs on the app that was once the hot new thing?

For one, there’s a bossiness to the way in which BeReal operates. It demands that you post within two minutes of the notification, or else it snitches on you to your friends. It also locks your feed until you have posted your own BeReal, like a parent bribing a child. But young people don’t want to be parented by their social media. As Aisha Attah, 20, says, “I’m busy and like to use social media on my terms and in my own time.” Amid a wealth of other apps that you can engage with however you want, BeReal can feel too much like hard work. 

Dr Harry Dyer, digital sociologist and lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia, notes that by rushing people to post, BeReal may actually stress out some of its users, particularly Gen Z. “There’s a tonne of research on Gen Z hating phone calls” because they find “the idea of having to respond in that moment [...] stressful”. BeReal, he says, may trigger a similar response by calling for that same kind of in-the-moment communication. He also believes that in “gatekeeping” the experience of browsing until users have themselves posted, the app disregards “a really important part of why we use social media” – the desire to ‘lurk’ and observe others while going unobserved ourselves.

Another corollary of blocking users’ feeds is that posting can start to feel like mere housekeeping – an obstacle to be cleared rather than a valuable form of self-expression in itself. This results in non-committal content – half-captured faces, blank computer screens, random window frames, empty dinner plates – which quickly gets boring. The boredom users experience when confronted with the mundanities of their friends’ lives also exposes a fissure in our wider cultural appetite for relatable content: although relatability is celebrated ‘intellectually’ or as a concept, as consumers we prefer relatability’s prettier, more polished cousin. A dimly-lit picture of an unmade bed, for instance, is too real. The Molly-Mae Hague brand of realness, however – the one that’s dressed in designer loungewear and filmed in a spectacular multi-million-pound home – now that is a winner. 

Then, of course, there’s the well-documented issue that BeReal users routinely ignore the app’s entire premise because, as Samantha Hall, 25, says, there are “no real consequences” to posting late. “I feel like a lot of people started waiting until they were doing something fun to post,” she says.

Clearly, despite the clamour for ‘authenticity’ on social media platforms, young people don’t object to staged posts. But it’s not something they need BeReal for, either from an observer’s perspective – “I could just use Instagram stories to see what everyone’s up to!” Samantha tells me – or from a poster’s perspective. If users want to ditch the randomly timed posts and go back to marketing themselves through posed, curated content, why not do so on a more public-facing platform like TikTok, with opportunities for viral success and brand collaborations? Plus, when BeReal loses its ‘authenticity’ USP, the app’s lack of unique features comes more starkly into focus. The dual camera, for instance, a popular innovation in the app’s infancy, has since been adopted by other platforms like Instagram.

All this begs the wider question of what authenticity even means anymore. It doesn’t take a genius to spot the irony in an organisation instructing us to “be real” and yet expecting us to perform that realness online. Also, as Dr Dyer explains, by calling for users to post immediately after seeing the notification, actively discouraging any preparatory enhancing of appearances, BeReal plays into “negative narratives and tropes” that dictate that we’re only truly ourselves without makeup and filters. But this narrow definition of authenticity is “not that healthy or useful” and has palpable undertones of the rampant “wellness toxicity” we see played out across internet and celebrity culture. Young people are becoming less interested in the concept of “authenticity” as a metric for appearance presentation, Dr Dyer explains, and more as a metric for the honesty and consistency of each other’s “values”, as numerous celebrity cancellations – like Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi faux-pas – attest.

Still, there are plenty who haven’t given up on BeReal. Jasmine Denike, 30, still uses it “on a near-daily basis” and finds it “an easy and fun way” to check in on friends “without the pressure to make the pictures look perfect.” A spokesperson from BeReal added that the app still “has over 25 million daily active users around the world”, up from 20 million earlier in the year (they also stressed that “the estimates provided in third party reports are not accurate”, although they didn’t refute the overall trend suggested by these reports or provide specific statistical corrections).

Maybe BeReal was doomed to join the ever-expanding graveyard of honourably-intentioned apps. In trying to pioneer new ways of engaging with social media, these ventures automatically risk triggering our fundamental dislike for being told what to do, and often metamorphose over time into the very things they once promised to stand against. In BeReal’s case, prescriptive messaging drove users to thwart its authenticity ethos altogether. The app has advanced us forwards though – just not in the way it meant to. It has proven just how slippery the often-invoked concept of authenticity really is, and reminded us that there is more than one way to authentically express our identities – both online and offline.