Striving for “authenticity” is a noble aspiration. It’s also a relatively meaningless one. Go ahead, define authenticity for me. If anything, authenticity is better defined by the absence of it — it’s far easier to grasp a sense of inauthenticity than it is to capture the real thing.
Yet, as Instagram solidifies the market for a commodified sense of self, alternative social media platforms have increasingly attempted to market themselves as the app’s foil, where people can really be themselves. Such is the case with BeReal, an app that calls upon its users to submit a single photo of themselves once a day within a two-minute window, utilizing both the front and back facing camera at once. The goal is to give people the opportunity to see the “real” lives of their peers, in the moment, uncurated and “authentic.”
Again, though, I have to ask — what the fuck does any of that actually mean?
Over the last few weeks, BeReal has exploded in popularity. While it was founded in 2020, it’s been downloaded 3.2 million times in the first quarter of 2022 — a 315 percent increase from the beginning of the year — and it currently sits at #11 in the App Store’s social media rankings. It’s been particularly popular among college students and shared widely among TikTok, too, where it’s often cited as a sort of Gen-Z panacea to the polished pressures of Instagram.
To be sure, its setup is antithetical to Instagram and the like. You’re only able to capture a photo to post within the two-minute window, and while you can retake your photo several times within that window, the number of retakes will be publicly published alongside the photo. There’s little opportunity for curation, nor any chance for editing or the usual selecting from a batch of 100 photos that might occur on Instagram. You can include a caption on your photo and comment on others, but there’s no other opportunity for posting beyond one photo a day. And because there’s no way of seeing how many friends a person has on the app or the comments on another person’s photo, nobody appears more “popular” than anyone else.
Most often, then, the app just captures a person’s day-to-day banality. My BeReal contribution today featured a makeup-less selfie of me sitting at my desk, with my back camera showing the corner of my dusty, slightly broken windowsill. It’s terrible. A scroll through the Discovery feed, which shows the photos of people I don’t know, captures people sitting in the backseats of moving cars, cooking stir-fries and watching The Office.
Perhaps this qualifies as authenticity, but it also demonstrates that authenticity isn’t all that interesting. The fun of the app doesn’t seem to be catching what your friends are up to at a specific moment, though it does highlight how what we might share on Instagram or TikTok represents only a small fraction of our actual lives. The fun, instead, is really much the same as any other social media platform: getting a notification. The surprise element of the two-minute photo capture, which could strike at any time, adds a sense of excitement and spontaneity. It’s a guarantee that you’ll get the little endorphin rush of a push notification on your phone at least once per day.
So sure, while BeReal does somewhat succeed in its premise of offering a better dose of reality in our social media use, it ultimately relies on the familiar proposition of keeping us checking our phones. At very least, BeReal doesn’t yet seem to be trying to sell us anything, nor has anyone managed to pivot their influencer status to sell us sponsored products in their daily BeReal post in a major way, either. And maybe that’s as close we can get to authenticity in our current moment, anyway.