BeReal Is the App Challenging Instagram's Pursuit of Perfection

The social media platform is blowing up on university campuses everywhere – and for good reason.

The birth of “casual Instagram” heralded the death of conventional influencer culture. Obviously airbrushed selfies are out, anarchy is in. Pioneers of the movement include YouTuber Emma Chamberlain and Bella Hadid, whose blurry shots and lawless posting have paved the way for Gen Z’s casual posters. No longer is posting a selfie with an ugly strand of spaghetti dangling from your mouth social suicide, but actually *relaxed* and *trendy*… Because fuck social media, right?

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This new form of posting is refreshing, but is it genuinely casual? The most prominent participant in this trend is a supermodel whose most off-guard pictures still look insanely glam. Even US president Joe Biden posted a photo dump (yes, captioned “Photo Dump”) now. Regardless of whether these posts look genuinely casual, the premise behind them is still deeply rooted in a hierarchy of aestheticism – with conventionally attractive or high-status people on top – which Instagram can never fully escape, no matter how many pictures of a half-eaten, greasy Big Mac you post.

Enter BeReal, perhaps the first meaningful challenge to the highly curated feeds of social media. When downloading the app, users are met with a clear warning: “BeReal won’t make you famous, if you want to be an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” The app gives users a simultaneous, randomised two minute daily window to upload a “BeReal” which uses both your front and rear camera. There’s nowhere to hide and no time to pose. You must post your BeReal to see other users, and the app informs your friends how many times you’ve retaken the photo or if it’s late. 

“It’s so obvious if people try to stage it, you just can’t,” Milla Kalling-Smith, a 21-year-old user, tells VICE. ‘It makes it so authentic and it’s a fun way to see what my mates are up to.’

Despite being founded in 2020, BeReal’s growth has dramatically accelerated in recent months. It was downloaded 1.1 million times in February alone and frequently features in the UK App Store’s top ten ranking. One TikTok video praising the app has been watched 2.4m views, and it’s spawned a whole genre of TikTok videos where users make jokes about structuring their day around BeReal notifications. Despite this, it’s received only begun to receive mainstream coverage – which, to many, only serves to underline its appeal. 

Internet trend expert Clark Boyd sees this explosion of interest as an unsurprising reaction against inauthentic content. “There is an opportune moment for an alternative to the attention-hogging social networks. BeReal knows this all too well; it positions itself in direct contrast to Facebook and Instagram. That levels the playing field. On Instagram, we cannot help but compare ourselves with the lives we see, often in unfavourable terms. The pictures are perfectly curated and they are, well, they're not real.”

Despite marketing itself as a direct opposite to Facebook and Instagram, BeReal has taken moves directly from Zuckerberg’s playbook – targeting top-tier US universities. “It is now very popular at the likes of Harvard and Duke,” explains Boyd. “This did not happen by accident; for example, BeReal has sponsored clubs and events at Georgetown. At Harvard, it hosted a free party for students who downloaded the app and added five friends.”

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You just need to take a look at BeReal cofounder’s Alexis Barreyat recent retweet of a young user to know it’s working: “bereal is a noun and a verb at georgetown university,” they wrote. (Barreyat declined to speak with VICE for this story.)

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

The users that VICE spoke to say they enjoy the app for a multitude of reasons, but first among those reasons is that Instagram can make people feel like shit. “I believe it might help those with self-conscious tendencies, seeing people go about their ‘real’ life rather than the limited, tailored portrayal that can be seen on Instagram.” James Murphy, a 20-year-old student tells VICE. “It’s way more entertaining than scrolling aimlessly. I don’t ever use Instagram, but I do post every day on BeReal because it’s so impromptu.”

The randomised and simultaneous notifications are also key to the app’s success, some say. “I love that everyone posts at the same time, especially when you’re in public,” Oliver Neale, 20, tells VICE. “Yesterday I was in Lidl when the notification came in and I saw two separate people both do their BeReals as well.”

While this is a fun novelty, it’s certainly a pretty dystopian one. Olivia Orr, another 20-year-old user, is more sceptical of this feature. “Say you take the Pav (Orr’s college student bar), everyone’s having a nice time. Then we all get the BeReal notification and you can just look around and see how many phones are taken out for poses. I suppose it takes away from the conversation you are having at the time.”

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So is this Peep Show-style POV app a bizarre symptom of our need to be hyper-present online, or a necessary challenger to our otherwise performative feeds? 

“I would say it is rather a reflection of the fact that we already are ever-present online, but we are straining to maintain a perfect façade,” insists Boyd. “Given how much importance we increasingly give to our online identity, it is natural that people should have some desire for reality to break through.”

The increasing popularity of the app doesn’t come without its own problems. “Sounds so conceited but I got it in like November and now I have too many friends on the app so now it’s unusable because everyone posts at the same time and the timeline is flooded,” Alex Clark, 21, tells VICE. “Otherwise – I fucking love it.”

This isn’t the only feature that irks people. Many users think there’s a special place in hell for those who ignore the notification and wait until they are doing something more interesting to take their daily snap. “I have a friend who waits until she’s at a pre-drinks or doing something more interesting to post her BeReal,” says Tom Molony, a 21-year-old user. “It’s annoying and very embarrassing and obvious.”

Still, it’s clear that BeReal has managed to successfully channel the backlash against the validation Olympics of conventional social media. In its App Store description, it promises that “BeReal will piss you off”. What it has done – besides annoy those grappling with the flood of content on their timeline and the try-hard nature of those trying to game the app – is create a buzz around sharing the truly authentic mundanity of daily life. I, for one, am here for it. Anything beats the synthetic curation of Instagram, even if it is a POV of a friend rotting away in their student bedroom at 11.34AM on a Sunday morning.

@izzy_copestake

Tagged:

Social Media, internet culture, BeReal, Instagram, influencers

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