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Courtesy of Aneesa Ahmed

Is BeReal the saviour of social media, or a dystopian nightmare?

The app, which bills itself as a more authentic alternative to Instagram, is quickly becoming one of Gen Z’s favourite platforms – but what’s the actual point of it?

I’m festering in bed on a Sunday morning. Light is streaming in through my paper-thin blinds, there are small crystals of sleep in the corners of my eyes, and my teeth feel furry because I couldn’t be bothered to brush them when I got in last night. Then a notification pops up on my phone informing me it’s time to take my BeReal.

Dutifully, I open the app and snap two pictures with my phone’s front and rear camera. I look horrendous and my room is a mess, but I don’t care. I only have a few close friends on the app anyway. I wait a few seconds to see their photos, then they pop up: Lotti is also in bed, Hannah is cooking with her boyfriend. Cool. The faint twinge of anticipation I felt while their posts were uploading dissipates into apathy, and I close the app.

The premise behind BeReal is simple. The app sends out a notification at a random time during the day, which gives users a two-minute window to upload a ‘BeReal’ – essentially, two photos taken simultaneously on your phone’s front and rear camera. BeReal markets itself as the antithesis of Instagram, where curated, polished photos promote unrealistic lifestyles, and taps into young people’s growing preference for raw, ‘anti-aesthetic’ content (à la casual-posting and photo dumps). “Anti-aesthetics are about pushing back against perfectionism; striving for something supposedly more raw, real, and ‘unfiltered’ in alignment with a wider shift against the perceived artifice and inauthenticity of social media culture,” explains Olivia Yallop, author of Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence.

Mayanne Soret, content creator and the co-founder of Tabloid Art History, adds that she feels the app taps into our deep attachment to photographs as a way of capturing memories, as your previous BeReal uploads form a kind of visual diary. “It feels increasingly difficult to make sense of time passing, which I think has been heightened by the pandemic,” she says. “I don’t think I realised how much of the way we make sense of time passing, to others and to ourselves, is through photographs. So taking any reason to take a picture or your life and sharing it on social media is also a way to witness your own time unfolding and your life happening.” 

My friend Hannah, who told me to get the app in the first place, says she enjoys BeReal because of its unfiltered, spontaneous quality. She explains that it helps remind her that people aren’t doing exciting things all the time, “because there are definitely some people who you think are always doing really fun things.” It’s certainly true that the neverending ‘highlights reel’ of social media can make people bristle with FOMO, and on the surface BeReal has the potential to offer an antidote to this.

But in my experience, BeReal has only intensified my own FOMO. If someone posts a photo of a train station, I’ll convince myself that they’re going somewhere glamorous while I’m lying on my sofa. If someone uploads a shot of a pint, I’ll start to feel anxious that I’m not making the most of the nice weather. Soret explains that in her view this shift towards casualised content is still driven by “a fantasy version of an offline life” that is somehow more ‘real’ and worthy.

“Mainly, I feel that we want to commemorate all the smaller ways in which we live our lives, to make sense of time passing outside of big events or societal milestones like graduation and weddings and jobs,” she says. “But I also do think there is a small element of competition, a way to show our peers that we live better offline lives than them, that we have understood a way of being they have not and this is why our lives, no matter how pixelated or blurry or casual our photos of it are, are better lived than theirs.”

“The growing presence of surveillance technology, the constant possibility of surveillance, has led us to being more performative in how we present ourselves and act in every aspect of our offline and online lives” – Mayanne Soret

BeReal has identified a problem that, by now, is common knowledge: social media can make you feel bad. But it doesn’t pose a solution. Instead, it exacerbates the very problem it claims to be addressing, by encouraging us to both surveil others’ private moments and share more and more of our own lives. “Not to veer too much into the dystopian, but I do think that the growing presence of surveillance technology, the constant possibility of surveillance, has led us to being more performative in how we present ourselves and act in every aspect of our offline and online lives,” Soret says. “We are more prepared for the possibility of surveillance at any moment, and anticipate it in a lot of what we do.”

My friend Lotti agrees. “I feel like it’s a contradiction of itself a bit,” she adds. “Like, you’re sharing snapshots of your ‘real life’, but you must respond within two minutes.” It’s true: there have been multiple occasions where I’ve been too busy ‘doing real life’ to spot the notification, and yet if you choose to upload a BeReal past the allotted time, the app shames you for being ‘late’, as if being late is less ‘real’ than posting on time. As Yallop says, “technology that claims to help you spend less time with technology is always a curious and awkward proposition,” and it’s impossible to entirely ignore the fact that apps are primarily a means of money-making for Silicon Valley execs and are purposely designed to be addictive.

“BeReal’s premise feels inherently backwards-looking and quite 2016,” Yallop adds. For Hannah, this is part of the appeal: “it reminds me of what Snapchat used to be like, when you’d just send your friends dumb things,” she tells me. Hannah certainly isn’t alone in enjoying the app – daily downloads of the app have grown by 315 per cent since January – but while the novelty of nostalgia may be exciting right now, will BeReal be able to sustain its growth?

Yallop is doubtful, and points to Gen Z experimenting with digital identity in much more exciting ways. “[They’re] creating immersive virtual worlds on Minecraft, customising in-game skins, and exploring virtual avatars and VTubing. For me, this kind of blended or enhanced reality is where the real innovations in social media identity are taking place,” she says. “Though [BeReal] may be a successful mechanic, it doesn’t feel sustainable long term or in line with where digital culture is moving.” Even Hannah concedes that she will “probably get bored of it soon.”

Equally, though, for now it looks like BeReal is set to keep growing. Even I can’t help but reach for my phone whenever I see the daily notification pop up. How long until I can no longer be bothered? Only time will tell.