Image: Bianca Cross
Image: Bianca Cross

InternetApril 21, 2022

Will BeReal solve all our social media woes?

Image: Bianca Cross
Image: Bianca Cross

The much-hyped new social platform focused on authenticity promises to herald the future of social media – just like every other app before it. For IRL, Shanti Mathias checks out what all the fuss is about. 

A slight double chin, a tangle of cords across a plain white desk, a close encounter with my optional approach to hair brushing, vague natural light, the sparkly shoulders of a shirt my mum’s friend gave me. I examine the photographs. I am nearly out of time, an urgency in the haptic vibrations of the two-minute countdown.

I press send, and wait to be perceived by my three friends. I am trying to be real. Specifically, I am trying BeReal, the social media app which promises, ominously, to help you discover “who your friends really are”. 

Every couple of months it seems a new social media app is heralded as the Next Big Thing and the Future of the Internet. As a person who spent far too much time online even before I was obligated to do so for my job, I remember the early trend pieces about TikTok and the hubbub around Clubhouse early in the pandemic. Further back, I remember when Snapchat was something my friend’s brother was explaining to me on a dusty afternoon in early high school, when Curious Cat statuses filled the Facebook account I’d begged my mum to be allowed, mindlessly mimicking Vines at lunchtime and hoping that imitation was the same as being funny, writing melodramatic goodbyes to internet friends I’d met on Google Buzz in the last hours before Google closed the platform. 

Using BeReal reminded Shanti Mathias that her life was pretty mundane.

And so it was with the recollection of these social networks of yore, their early moments and often, their endings, that I downloaded BeReal, the latest social media platform du jour.

How does the knowledge of a new social media app arrive in your brain? I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I heard about BeReal, but suddenly there were at least ten articles about it, and cooler people than me were mentioning it online, so I decided to do what intrepid internet journalists have been doing for many years: try a vaguely hyped app, contribute to the hype myself, and hope it all means something. Become a guinea pig, bleeding (metaphorically) on the altar of content. 

BeReal works like this: once a day, at a random moment, the app sends you a notification. Within two minutes of receiving the notification, you take a picture with both your front and back facing cameras. You post the picture. If you post it late, you’re labelled as having done so. If you haven’t posted your BeReal, you can’t see your friends’ posts.

There are comments and, terrifyingly, custom photo emoji reactions, but no way to direct message others, no way to share posts, no likes, no ads (yet), no followers (like Facebook, friends must be mutual). These features are supposed to help circumvent the problems of other social media platforms. With only two minutes, posts can’t be ultra prepared and posed. With only one notification a day, the app is not constantly humming and distracting. Without followers – and free, so far, of sponcon – there is no doomscrolling, no envy of other people’s lives; just people you already know, doing ordinary things.

While BeReal did not respond to requests for comment about their operation in New Zealand, they did provide a fact sheet where they describe themselves as “an authentic, spontaneous, and candid social network”. 

For a social platform to become popular, people need to know about it. When I opened BeReal, which accesses your contacts to show you which people you already know are on the app, I found three familiar faces: my avant-garde, trendy cousin Ollie and my avant-garde, trendy co-workers Josie and Bianca. This is to say that – in New Zealand at least – the app is not overly populated, and it relies on other social platforms for people to discover it. 

“My friend found it on TikTok and told us all to download it,” says Ollie, the aforementioned trendy cousin. He’s been using it for several weeks, and especially likes getting glimpses of life from friends overseas. “Sometimes it makes me want to message them on another app,” he says. 

“I don’t post much on my other social media because I get too nervous about how good the post is,” says Bianca, The Spinoff’s social media editor, who also heard about the app on TikTok. “I think it’s really chaotic that you could have a really crazy day full of events and you don’t get the BeReal notification until you’re home on the couch.”

While “visible to friends only” is the default mode, BeReal also lets you scroll through users from around the world who have chosen to post publicly. This gives me a sense of the company’s global demographic, which is extremely young: a teenager in Mexico does homework, two roommates in the US smoke matching vapes, a young woman in France takes a picture of a sticker encrusted laptop on a rumpled bedspread. It’s a window into the deeply ordinary lives of people I will never know; less intrusive than happily boring. 

One of the joys of a new social app – from the company’s perspective, at least – is that in the glowy haze of early popularity and $30 million of capital funding, there is freedom from the media scrutiny and public perceptions endured by the well-established digital giants: consider the reams of content generated by a change in Google privacy policy or a indication of Mark Zuckerberg’s political leanings

Perhaps social media has made me cynical, but I wonder what BeReal does with the phone numbers of its five million users, and whether the emoji feature (to react to a friend’s picture, you use a photo of your own face) generates information about the emotional state of thousands of people, which could expose users to emotional manipulation à la Facebook in 2014. 

To react to a BeReal post, you use custom emojis: cute personalisation or sinister data harvesting?

There’s no link to the privacy policy in the interface of the app, which is found in small print at the bottom of the website. The policy itself says that the company will store your files and location data for up to three years after you stop using the app; I think, sadly, of years from now, when BeReal will retain graven images of my dumb face while I retain no memory of writing this article.

That said, to my non-expert eye, the company’s location in France – where it’s held to the standards of the EU’s GDPR privacy legislation – means its privacy policy and terms of service are no more egregious than other social media companies. At this point, private corporations having access to our personal lives via the shiny devices we all clutch has been thoroughly normalised. 

The assumption of BeReal is that your most authentic self can be found spontaneously, when your phone is nearby. “The notion of ‘authenticity’ is actually highly curated and constructed, which can mask the fact that interactions on social media platforms are always mediated in some way,” says Michael Daubs, a senior lecturer in media studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He says that people construct identities online by suggesting that their online presence is a real reflection of their life, “which social media platforms then take advantage of”. The BeReal app certainly trades in this currency of authenticity.

But maybe it’s not that deep. “It’s a bit of a gimmick, there’s nothing much to it,” says Ollie, who often finds himself overthinking other social platforms like Instagram. That gimmick is clever and unique, though it remains to be seen whether it has lasting power. “I don’t think it’ll last more than a couple of months,” Ollie tells me.

As for me, I’m not sure if I want my three BeReal friends to know how ordinary my life feels: reading books, reading screens, feeling full of ideas I can’t articulate. But around the world, millions of people are willing to be perceived, yet another fun little reason to pick up your phone. The trendy young things of Aotearoa (myself included, I guess) are determined not to be left behind. 

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