When the creator of Beme, a video-based social network predicated on raw life footage, asks me to be realer, my first reaction is to be a little insulted. My Snaps are not to be trampled on. My Insta shots are on point.
But there's rhyme, reason, and a little sadness to what he and some other social network founders have said about what modernity has done to our brand of authenticity. What a lot of them are saying is this: we are not Facebook. You are safe from the invisible hand of the market here. What you're sharing on Snapchat, Instagram, etc., is essentially a gussied-up version of reality—here's a place where you can have a real conversation.
The app works like this. You join up (it's in beta, but you can trawl Twitter for an invite code), and you're asked to follow people. To post an update you press the phone's screen against your body. It records, and when you pull it off, the app posts without a chance to review the footage. The video can only be viewed once by any one user, and then it's gone.
The conceit is pretty simple: to break the pattern of over-tailored and over-garnished content, you have to limit the tools people have to make it. It's Snapchat with no review screen and #nofilter, cinéma vérité for the app-tethered age.
I tried the app in earnest, learning a couple tricks on the way. For instance, the "proximity sensor" that Casey Neistat, the co-founder of Beme, says the app uses, isn't picky. Your finger can trigger it. It doesn't need a surface so much as a thing covering up the front-facing camera. That could solve a problem that writer Casey Jonhston had when using the app—the chest-recording gesture clearly wasn't designed with women in mind.
On the homepage, there seems to be a steady stream of names and updates to watch, but very few visual cues or thumbnails or anything of the sort. The design is similar to Snapchat's, with nondescript updates being paramount. Communication is done through selfie-reactions or video updates and nothing else.
But beyond the actual usage, there are flaws in its manifesto. As Wired's Kyle Vanhemmert points out, most of us aren't Casey Neistat. Most of our lives revolve around ephemera, and documenting that only serves to fill an already-saturated internet of boredom.
"Most of the sunsets I see aren't particularly brilliant. This is why Instagram first blew up, after all: Its filters made our ordinary lives look extraordinary. This same appeal holds true for many of today's most popular social apps. Life is usually more interesting when it's edited and scrutinized before being rebroadcast," Vanhemmert wrote.
Moreover, Neistat is an adventurer, a viral video maker, and his brand of reality is already several levels of entertaining above what the rest of us have to offer. And it shows: Beme right now looks a lot like what Vine, another short video-sharing network, was when it first started out. A bunch of people posting videos of them doing some menial thing. Going outside. Going to work. Eating a thing. Walking the dog. And so on. It's like watching paint dry.
Another question: what's the fate of a social network whose existence hinges on fixing problems another had? Ello was frequently hailed as an ad-free, privacy-conscious alternative to Facebook. It's still figuring itself out and squeezing by with millions of dollars in investment. You never hear anything coming from Rooms, Facebook's own anonymous-if-you-want-to-be network. And that rose as response to the network's naming policy, one that still gets flak for getting stricter.
The thread stringing social networks together is the longing for different shades of authenticity. It often feels that networks are asking us to put on different masks for different purposes. A Twitter self is no less real than an Instagram self is no less real than a Facebook self. But all of these grasp at distinct attitudes that never amount to something we can 100 percent consider "the true self." Neistat's point might be right: some networks are guilty of preening us to pass off some version of ourselves that borders on inauthentic and self-deceiving.
But what's even authentic anymore? And who's to say holding a phone to your heart will fix your authenticity problems any more than chucking it into a river would?