If it can be said that social platforms have had the good old days, it was when people were still signing up to see if their friends were there and to find out why – those early moments when their potential was felt but not yet described. That’s what’s happening right now on BeReal, a new platform where people post photos for their friends, with some crucial twists.
Once a day, at an unpredictable time, BeReal informs its users that they have two minutes to post a few photos, one from each phone camera, taken at the same time. The only way to see what other people have posted that day is to share your own. You can post after the two minute window closes, but all your friends will be notified that you were late; you can recreate the photo of your day, but your friends know that too. Your friends can respond to your posts with something called a “RealMoji” — basically a selfie response, visible to all of your connections. All photos disappear the next day.
Other platforms are experimenting with manipulative gamification. be real is a game. Although the rules are simple – place, now — the message is mixed. Don’t be too hard on yourself, just post it suggests, the clock is ticking. And then whispering: But don’t be difficult. (BeReal did not respond to email or Twitter requests for comment.)
As a result, the typical BeReal feed features photos taken in class, at work, while driving, or getting ready for bed. There are many people who make funny or bored faces while doing fun or boring activities. It’s fun! Or at least not miserable, which is worth a lot these days.
Right now, BeReal feels more like a group activity than a full-fledged social platform, a low-stakes distraction that doesn’t ask much despite its immediate demands. It’s a randomly scheduled social break from your day, as well as from your other feeds, where scrolling and posting from free time to work or worseas The Wall Street Journal reported last year in a story about the toll Instagram has taken on teen mental health.
One of the founders of BeReal is a former GoPro employee and markets his experience as a return to rawness and authenticity, but, at least for this user, it can feel more gauzy and nostalgic, reproducing the experience of joining one of the dominant social networks when they all felt like toys. Look, there’s my friends, this is pretty fun, we’re doing this particular thing together. What could go wrong?
Post like there’s no tomorrow
BeReal, based in Paris, was founded in 2020 and by April this year it had been installed an estimated 7.41 million times, according to to Apptopia, an analytics company. The app has been covered in student newspapers in recent months, who have noted its aggressive use of paid campus ambassadors; in March, Bloomberg reported that the app was ‘trending in colleges’.
Buzzy new apps pop up all the time. Part of the appeal of using them is that you never know which one will stick. The chance that an app will become something important makes it attractive; novelty and unpredictability distract from the feeling that, Oh no† here we go again† The much greater chance that a particular platform will explode or run out of existence gives you permission not to worry too much about what you’re doing there and where it might lead. It’s the best of all worlds, and it won’t last long.
My tender memories of signing up for services that would change the course of history strongly feature desktop computers; For the purposes of this conversation, I am old. But when it comes to social networking, nostalgia strikes fast and young.
“Posting to Instagram these days, there’s such a process,” said Brenden Koo, a Stanford student. His parents follow him on Snapchat, which he suggested has “reached its peak”. He joined BeReal in December after hearing about it from a friend. He appreciates the fact that it is temporary, low effort and ‘situational’. It’s less of a substitute for anything other than an extracurricular social media.
“Even college students think it’s a bit kitschy,” said Mr. Koo, 21.
His classmate Oriana Riley, 19, agreed that the app asked less of her than others. “I think the once-a-day aspect of BeReal makes it feel a lot healthier than other social media uses,” said Ms. Riley. “It feels less immersive than other social media.”
The comfort of good friends
BeReal is definitely not an anti-social media project – it’s a commercial photo-sharing app that tries to gain a critical mass of users within a largely well-known paradigm. Most apps expect that users will eventually monetize through advertising, commerce, and other forms of engagement.
What BeReal now offers is a fresh version of an experience that has been tarnished or worn elsewhere. But most social apps want to be the next big thing, not a tribute to the last. The cozy new app that Ms. Riley describes as a tool for her to feel “close to her friends” is the investors’ next hope for a big payday.
If Instagram or Snapchat informed all their users on a daily basis that they had two minutes to post, that would be interpreted as desperate spam; if TikTok required its users to share a video before seeing anything else posted that day, as BeReal does, it wouldn’t feel like a way to build trust or intimacy, but rather a violation in the service of growth hacking. Randomly timed check-ins are fun between friends; at scale they are surveillance.
That’s not to say a larger platform won’t mimic or try to buy BeReal if it continues to grow: Snapchat, Instagram, and now Twitter have encouraged users to post less self-consciously with features like Close Friends and Twitter Circle. They too long for the good old days.
BeReal is blunt but makes its point: if you spend enough time in spaces that require you to be interesting, you will eventually get boring. By expecting unobtrusive messages from your friends, users become more generous to each other and to themselves. The photos of keyboards, sidewalks, pets and children, of desks and walls and lots of screens, all accompanied by poorly framed faces, may not feel completely new or durable. But for now they feel like a relief to some.
For Context is a column that explores the edges of digital culture.