One of my earliest memories of Facebook is searching for a girl’s profile after getting home from a high school church fundraiser. I made a Tumblr account that same year, posting diary entries and Youtube videos of music I listened to and hoping it would add up to something. Twitter and Instagram followed a couple years later, then Snapchat, all of it constituting a lifetime growing up online, in apps and social networks, each of them provoking, beseeching, or outright demanding a certain level of performance, a gradation of attention and serious engagement, until it was unclear what words like “communication” or “information” even meant.
I used to log onto Twitter for the shitposts, now I log on because I’m afraid I’ve missed important world events, or so I tell myself. Last week, I asked a friend how they quit Twitter, feeling like I was asking them how to put on a shirt. I deleted my Facebook ages ago, my Instagram last year, both of them constantly rekindling interest in faded friendships and acquaintanceships that I didn’t care to maintain. Tumblr’s the only platform I use almost identically to how I did when I first logged on. Meanwhile, for some reason sometime down the line, Snapchat became my mom’s preferred messaging app. There is a distinct lack of utility to the apps these days, even as they are alternately vital and mind-numbingly boring. You need them, but you don’t, but you also want to leave them, how could you, unless…
Enter BeReal, an app that Delia Cai at Vanity Fair described as “a kind of Frankensteined combo of what your old favorite apps were in their golden age—think small-scale Instagram feed, but with the intimate ephemerality of Snapchat and the low-fi, once-a-day instructive of HQ Trivia or Wordle.” The gamified part is the real key to BeReal, which prompts you to post a dual picture (the app snaps near simultaneous images from both phone cameras) once a day, at a random time, with only two minutes to capture what you’re doing, and no access to your friends’ posts until you’ve posted yours first. You can’t see anyone’s previous posts, except your own, no messaging, no videos, no ads. Right now, the interface is minimal, a black background with sans serif font, your post pinned at the top followed by a feed that shows your friends, their username, how many minutes or hours “late” they were Real after the prompt, and any relevant captions, comments, or, in another quirk, RealMojis, which are created by taking a selfie doing your best impression of, say, the crying emoji.
There is a distinct lack of utility to the apps these days, even as they are alternately vital and mind-numbingly boring.
During the first months of lockdown, there was a sense that everyone was online at once, more so than usual, this rare and sustained mass gathering of eyes and thumbs that felt almost wholesome and at times even dynamic. BeReal recreates a similar sense of excitement, even if only for one fleeting moment a day, especially because it is still catching on. Every day, I see more of my contacts creating profiles, and subsequently, more pictures of their laptops, apartments, pets, neighborhoods, relatives, lunches — common motifs of self-generated content, but occasioned by an immediacy that makes them appear, improbably, genuine.
Of course, this is exactly what the creators of BeReal want: buzz about authenticity, about getting back to some truer presentation of self. The app is titled BeReal, period, a clunky directive rather than a sleek portmanteau. Certainly, I’ve been made privy to perhaps a more honest glimpse into the working lives of my friends, who, no matter the time of day, seem to be on their laptops or in an office. The endeavor to make any given post, and by extension your own life, interesting or revealing by finding a cool object or weird angle or some sort of outstanding aspect of your setting places the kind of creative constraint that animated the novelty of Vine. BeReal, which has been targeting teens and college campuses with paid ambassadors, raised $30 million in a round of funding last year, a number that was estimated to skyrocket past $600 million in a series B round earlier this month.
So far BeReal is being covered with a shoulder-shrug — it’s “more like a group activity than a full-fledged social platform, a low-stakes diversion that, despite its direct demands, doesn’t ask for much,” as the New York Times recently described it. The territory marked out by the major social media companies is predicated on long-term engagement, consecutive time spent scrolling on apps. By contrast, BeReal’s pleasures are fleeting and, because of that, guilt-free, which situates it as unmistakably a product of current social media fatigue. The distinct lack of advertising or algorithmic suggestions only highlight the stark contrast between BeReal and every other app, and are of course unlikely to last.
The attendant trepidation in the trend forecasts is not only fair, but probably smart, given how often and quickly these things go, and how resigned all the tech writers sound about it, even when they’re trying to appear peppy. But it must mean something that during my weeks with BeReal I’ve contemplated logging off every other platform more seriously than I ever have before. In some ways, this is part of BeReal’s marketing strategy, and the false promise of any nascent tech fad. Wouldn’t it be nice if this is all you had to focus on?
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.