A dirty keyboard next to a rogue piece of fluff. Piles of dishes left over from last night’s dinner. A black rucksack in the middle of a table for no apparent reason. If all of this sounds desperately dull… well, that’s kind of the point. Because these are the kind of photos you see on BeReal, the social media app striving to show people as they really are. At least, that’s the idea.
Launched as an antidote to Instagram in 2020 by French duo Kevin Perreau and Alexis Barreyat, BeReal prompts users to take one unedited photo every day at a random time using both the front and back camera of their phones. The idea, the app says, is to “capture your surroundings” and therefore, as the name suggests, be real.
You’re given two minutes to take the photos and post them to the app, otherwise it will be marked as “late”. Users can only see their friends’ BeReal posts, and subsequently react to them with emojis or comments, once they’ve shared their own. All posts disappear after 24 hours.
BeReal has always been popular among Gen Z, slowly making its way up the iOS App store rankings since its inception. But its success has grown exponentially this year among a much wider demographic. Today, the app’s download figures exceed 53 million, while the company is estimated to be worth more than €600m (£524m). Influencers with millions of followers (Pressley Hosbach, Emma MacDonald and Mack Truex) regularly share their BeReal posts on Instagram. And in September, the app made global headlines when Harry Styles took a fan’s BeReal photograph in the middle of one of his New York concerts.
The triumph of BeReal is such that other apps now view it as a competitor, even though its USP is ostensibly to rewrite what all of them are doing. Nonetheless, TikTok recently launched its Now feature, which invites users to capture what they’re doing at that exact moment, via a 10-second video using their device’s front and back camera. Another copycat feature might also be coming to Instagram, which is said to be looking at launching a “Glimpse” option that prompts users to share a video or photo once a day to show followers what they’re doing at any given moment.
All this is very noble – and yet entirely unsurprising. After years of lamenting the trials and tribulations of social media – “it’s superficial!”, “it’s pressurising!”, “it’s filtered nonsense!” – it was only a matter of time until two tech guys in fleeces decided to solve this apparent issue by… creating another social media app. I understand the appeal, too. When we’re incessantly inundated with a stream of filtered, highly curated content, it can be refreshing to see the exact opposite.
Indeed, in recent months, many people have come to rely on BeReal for providing them with a daily dose of authenticity. “You get to peek into the everyday lives of friends you don’t necessarily have the time to catch up with,” says Max, 25. “I think it positively influences my friendships – even if they’re ugly photos.” The app serves the same purpose for Leah, 23, who downloaded it in July. “I love the aspect of capturing shots from both the front and back camera,” she says, “as it can sometimes show some really funny moments which you wouldn’t usually notice.”
BeReal may also help parents stay connected with their children in ways that other platforms might not. “My eldest child left home for university and said that if I wanted to catch a glimpse of him every day then I needed to get on BeReal,” says Nikki, 48. “I can’t tell you how nice it is just to have that tiny snapshot of his life.”
But among all the positivity that the app can offer, there is an increasing amount of scepticism. Search “BeReal” on Twitter, for example, and you’ll find countless complaints about its antisocial notification timings and the pressure it generates in its users to post something every day, ie everything that defines the app. “BeReal at 8am is violence,” tweeted one person. “BeReal notifications should be banned before 9am on a Sunday,” added another.
A quick straw poll among people I know on the app conjures a similar response. “I used it for a week and found it really dull,” said one friend. “I just never found anyone’s posts remotely interesting and was equally bored by my own.” Another concurred: “It’s completely pointless and I would like to be able to mute some people.”
Others lamented the fact that the majority of people post late, a fact I quickly proved by taking one quick scroll through BeReal’s “discovery” page, where you can see posts from people you’re not friends with. Not one person I saw had posted on time; most were several hours late. Are you actually being real if you’re not posting the second the app tells you to?
My first experience with BeReal was with my 15-year-old sister. We were walking to get a coffee when she suddenly stopped me and blurted that it was “time to be real”. Holding her phone in front of my face, she took the two necessary photos: one of the street and one of us. But after seeing the one of us, she decided to retake it. “Ugh, no. Let’s try again,” she said after the fourth try. Neither of us felt confident enough to post the final photo we took within the two-minute window. “Never mind, I’ll just post it late,” my sister concluded.
This is the other problem with BeReal: it’s actually very easy to be fake. And that’s exactly what I did when I downloaded the app. After seeing the photograph of myself – my eyes were half closed and something weird was going on with my chin – I immediately decided not to post anything until I’d done my make-up for the day. Once I had, I was more than happy to “be real” and share a selfie, 20 minutes later.
I’m not the only person with this approach. One writer recently explained how her BeReal notification came up when she was in the middle of an argument with her boyfriend, so she posted a few hours later when things had subsided. Another recalls frequently being in the middle of a nap when the notification arrives, and feeling “hurried to find something less embarrassing that I could plausibly be doing”.
With all this in mind, it’s clear that verisimilitude online is an impossible pursuit, a subject that has been written about ad nauseum since BeReal first blew up. Of course, the second you point a camera at something, it becomes part of an artistic construction. And yes, that’s the case even if it’s just a photograph of your radiator, or the rug on your floor. As long as you maintain autonomy over your camera, you are creating an image that can only ever be artificial.
It’s one thing to post a Valencia-filtered selfie on Instagram. It’s another entirely to post one on BeReal that you’ve already taken four times. And so if people aren’t actually being real on BeReal, how is it different from any other social media platform? And isn’t it more insidious to consume content under the guise of authenticity, than to consume that which we already know is inauthentic?
People like to look good online. It’s simply how we’ve been conditioned. And it works both ways. Because as much as we might like to think we’re above it all, it’s arguably far more enjoyable to see other people looking good online, too. I know I prefer seeing people’s glossy, sun-kissed holiday snaps far more than poorly lit pictures of their desks, for example.
The fact of the matter is authenticity simply isn’t something that can be sold, whether it’s on an app or otherwise. If being real is what you’re looking for, the best thing you can do is put your phone down.