You may have read a previous opinion piece, published in the Daily Wildcat at the end of May, which applauded BeReal for being a “refreshing take on social media” that “takes out the toxicity.” I would like to present an opinion which counters this perspective: BeReal is simply an equally toxic spin-off.
First, a brief reminder of how BeReal works. The BeReal website explains the app’s usage succinctly: “Every day at a different time, everyone is notified simultaneously to capture and share a Photo in 2 Minutes.” The resulting photo is then posted to your account, which can be public or private. All previous posts are stored in your private “Memories.”
By 2022, BeReal had been installed more than 28 million times and boasted over 21 million active monthly users. Suffice to say, the app is pretty popular — but I’ve personally only ever seen it used by Gen Z.
How did BeReal get such a chokehold on Gen Z? One possible answer is the BeReal college student ambassador program. According to an article published in Brown University’s student newspaper, an ambassador of the company recruited one of the university’s students back in June 2021: “The ambassador encouraged [the student] to promote BeReal at Brown [University] through monetary incentives: For every person she referred to the app, she would receive $30. Every person who downloaded the app and sent a review to [the student] would in turn receive $50.” BeReal continues to recruit college students for its brand ambassador program, the responsibilities and perks of which are outlined on a dedicated page of their website.
Of course, recruiting college students as brand ambassadors is a common practice for a whole host of companies. University of Arizona students are ambassadors for Duffl, for Kaplan — and now even for BeReal (I can’t be the only one who noticed BeReal tabling on the UA Mall at the start of the semester).
I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with hiring ambassadors to advertise for a company; folks need to get the word out about their products somehow! However, in the case of BeReal, an app which seems to target the more thoughtful portion of society in an effort to build a positive community of users, it is a bit off-putting to know that the first group of BeReal users was a random subset of students who probably just wanted or needed some quick cash. I doubt that these methods are likely to foster the kind of uplifting, non-toxic, authentic community that the company claims to strive for.
BeReal’s motives are called into further question by their counterintuitive and contradictory (perhaps even oxymoronic!) marketing on TikTok. Why would an app which lauds itself for creating a less toxic form of social media decide to advertise itself using a supposedly more toxic form of social media?
Allow me to provide some further background information: The BeReal iOS App Store page claims that “BeReal won’t make you famous,” implying that posts on the app will not go viral — and thus trends can’t develop. My BeReal “Discovery” page, for instance, appears to be filled with random posts that nobody has interacted with at all. Trends are clearly still part of BeReal’s marketing strategy though, and the company has turned to other social media platforms to advertise — and ultimately also to start and participate in trends (such as one involving throwing your phone into the air while taking your BeReal photo, and one surrounding people who got their BeReal notification at an inopportune moment).
As a result, a strangely symbiotic relationship between the so-called toxic social media and BeReal’s new and improved type of social media has emerged. Without TikTok and Instagram, BeReal may not have reached as large of an audience. Conversely, BeReal has allowed for new trends to form on other social media platforms, and the app now effectively acts as a stamp of approval and guarantor of authenticity.
Personally, I learned about BeReal through TikTok in February. I did not download the app immediately, primarily because I felt I did not need another form of social media to waste time on. On Sept. 15, I finally gave in to the trend. I thought that perhaps I had been too pretentious with all my philosophical pondering about authenticity and that I should just give the app a try. A friend of mine had also recently downloaded BeReal and told me how much she liked it, so I had a positive review and at least one follower.
Thus began my journey of becoming my most real self. It was a bumpy road at first. Since there was no way that I was going to allow my BeReal notification to make a tone (I had concerns about being alerted in class or in a meeting), I would often end up posting late, which frustrated me. The photosystem confused me a bit at first also. Once I got the hang of it though, I started enjoying myself. My daily posts felt a little bit like a photo journal.
The only problem was that I still only had one follower. I found myself wondering what the point of posting was when nobody was going to see my fabulous and very ‘real’ photos. The alarm bells in my head should have gone off right then and there, but instead of analyzing the problematic direction of my thinking, I began a BeReal following and recruiting spree. I wanted (needed!) all of my friends to make an account so that I could show them how authentic I was being. Therein lies a big part of the problem, though I didn’t realize it immediately: creating a BeReal is simply another form of social signaling.
A few days later, my brain started churning. I noticed that I was spending a lot of time checking my phone and wondering when my BeReal notification would go off. When I was doing something interesting or out of the ordinary, I was very conscious of the potential for those moments to become a good BeReal post. Other times, I was in a state of emotional turmoil when my BeReal notification went off, and I suddenly felt violated and controlled — as though the app was telling me that if I didn’t share a picture of my tear-stained face within the next two minutes, then I was not being “real” enough.
I dismissed that concern relatively quickly though, opting instead to focus on more important issues: I tried to figure out if I could view follower counts, wondered if I could publicize all of my past BeReal posts and considered making my account public instead of private. My vanity was certainly getting the best of me, but it appears that I am not the only BeReal user who has had these thoughts.
Based on the questions posted in the FAQ section of BeReal’s official website, it would seem that many users are concerned about their image and how to further capitalize on and publicize their BeReal experience. Sprinkled amidst more technical questions about how certain app features work, one can spot the following questions, some of which are very similar to those that I was also asking:
- “How can I see how many followers someone has?”
- “Is there a way to see people’s/friends’ past posts?”
- “Can I make my Memories visible to everyone?”
- “What if I can’t post within the 2-minutes of getting a BeReal notification?”
While this FAQ section may not be the best place to gauge public response to the app, I think we can safely assume that it does provide some insight into the concerns of a typical BeReal user — after all, the questions posted are presumably “frequently asked” ones.
After seeing these questions and paying more attention to my own thoughts in relation to my BeReal profile, I realized that the effects BeReal had on me were alarmingly similar to those of other social media platforms. In other words, it became abruptly apparent that BeReal had failed in its mission to create the platform it is praised for being: an “anti-Instagram,” a cure to curation, a toxin-free alternative.
So what exactly does BeReal market itself as? Which specific problems with traditional social media does the app claim to solve?
First, social media, particularly Instagram, is very prone to promoting unrealistic body and beauty expectations, because users can apply filters to and/or edit their photos. I think BeReal was relatively successful in addressing this problem. The app has no built-in filtering or editing features and no possibility to upload potentially doctored photos taken outside of the app. In addition, BeReal records the number of times a photo has been retaken and makes that number public to a user’s followers.
Second, BeReal and its defenders often argue that the app reduces screen time and encourages users to actually live their lives instead of spending time online. Unfortunately, I feel that BeReal exacerbates this issue rather than addressing it. Every BeReal post is marked with a time stamp. While this does create some additional transparency, the inclusion of a time stamp also essentially shames users for not being on their phones at the time of the notification or for prioritizing their own lives over a social media post. In a sense, in order to truly “be real” by the app’s standards, users actually have to pay more attention to their phones — and what does that mean for those who are less privileged and are perhaps working when they receive their urgent notification from BeReal? Should we shame their posts for being an hour or two late?
Third, BeReal is intended to counter the overly-curated and unrealistic lifestyle expectations fostered by other social media platforms. I’m sure that all of us who have an Instagram account are familiar with those travel influencers who seem to lead an absolutely perfect life. Or maybe you have come across the “that girl” trend, which presents an aesthetic and extremely productive day, complete with a 5 a.m. wake-up time, meditation, morning workouts and protein smoothies. If you have seen any of those posts, you have almost certainly compared your own life to these beautifully-curated representations of someone else’s. Those of us who cannot afford travel, or who do not have a glamorous job that leaves us with the energy and time to wake up at 5 a.m. for a workout, have almost certainly felt downtrodden or jealous after viewing the aforementioned media.
BeReal, through its reliance on and creation of trends on other social media platforms, also perpetuates these ideals. However, even the elimination of all other social media platforms and trends would not allow BeReal to extinguish this problem of comparison and privilege, since comparison is at the very core of social media as a concept. A user will always encounter a BeReal post that somehow speaks to and exposes a personal insecurity, even when those posts are all from close friends.
It may seem at first that the conclusion (for the millionth time) is that social media is the problem. To some extent, I believe that it is: a new form of social media cannot solve a problem of authenticity that is an integral part of the platform’s existence in itself. Yet, rather than claim that social media creates a problem, I would instead opt to say that it amplifies a struggle which is intrinsic to the human experience: competition. Competition can lead us to comparison and feelings of inadequacy, and competition can also lead us to exaggerated fakeness.
It is understandable that recent trends in social media (even before BeReal rose to prominence) capitalized on authenticity and realness; everyone wanted to be relatable and to feel less alone in their experiences. While social media has certainly helped many of us find connection, we might as well have found that in our friends and in day-to-day conversations. Personally, I greatly prefer the obvious fakeness of Instagram to the backhanded authenticity of BeReal though. Do I plan to delete either app? I doubt it; addiction turns us all into hypocrites.
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Fiona Sievert is a sophomore majoring in Anthropology and East Asian Studies. She is obsessed with linguistics, wearing wacky outfits, writing pretentious movie reviews and (occasionally) being a dirtbag in the great outdoors.