BeReal is the latest Gen Z social app obsessed with authenticity

BeReal, as the name of the app suggests, wants me to publish my truth. Once a day at random, I’m prompted to “be real,” to capture my unfiltered life synchronously through my phone’s selfie and rear camera. There is, so BeReal claims, a distinctly authentic self behind the smoke and mirrors of social media, waiting to be revealed.

The premise of BeReal is simple. Every day, users are randomly asked to take a photo within a two-minute window, although the post window stays open for hours. Users can add a caption, comment on friends’ posts of the day, and interact via RealMojis or custom reaction photos. Upon posting, two feeds are unlocked, one personalized with posts from friends, and one a Discovery feed that features strangers in the midst of mostly mundane activities. The feeds are updated once a day and the posts expire when the next BeReal alert is sent, presumably to allow users to put their phones down and live their “real” lives after a few minutes on the app.

BeReal falls into the genre of “anti-Instagram” apps, new photography platforms that attempt to fulfill a niche social function that Instagram lacks. In this case, it’s all about authenticity and an ad-free experience. “BeReal won’t make you famous,” the app declares. “If you want to be an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.”

Every year or so, a hot new social startup emerges from the carpentry with an overconfident vision of a better, more authentic way to be online. It rarely sticks. In early 2021, the app du jour was Dispo, which simulated the experience of using a disposable camera by making users wait for photos to develop. available benefited from co-founder David Dobrik’s YouTube fame, but a scandal prompted investors to quickly do so distance yourself since the start, even with the resignation of Dobrik. That same year, Poparazzi, an app that encouraged users to take paparazzi-style photos of their friends, took off on TikTok. It topped the App Store for a few weeks, but the advertising frame it soon subsided.

This year, the vibrant VC-backed treasure is BeReal, which is currently the second most downloaded social networking app on the App Store, behind TikTok. It launched in December 2019, but nearly 75 percent, or 7.67 million, of BeReal’s downloads occurred this year, according to recent data from Apptopia shared with TechCrunch. The app recently closed a Series B funding round and is expected to quadruple its valuation to around $630 million, reportedly Business Insider in early May.

“We always try to connect with friends casually,” said Kristin Merrilees, 20, a student at Barnard College and BeReal user, who also writes about culture and the internet. “I think Snapchat was briefly that space until my friends stopped using it. Now, it’s BeReal that lets you peek into people’s lives during the day.”

What’s real, though, and what’s fake when we spend so much of our time tethered to screens? In a commoditized social media landscape, authenticity is as much a marketing buzzword as it gets a value on the screen, touted by people, brands and, of course, apps. BeReal assumes that the authentic self can be disclosed under the right conditions: that catching users off guard will lead them to abandon all pretense. And so far, users seem to accept his presentation.

“It has the vintage vibe of early Instagram,” said Sasha Khatami, 21, who works in digital marketing. “I think it’s an interesting shift for people like me, who are used to posting curated content for so long, now toward a reminder to post in the moment.”

BeReal’s unsubtle marketing strategy has led to it becoming a hit among college students. The startup pays students to act as campus ambassadors, invite friends, and host promotional events. Regardless of its trend, however, the concept and main functions of the app are far from original. It’s a timely reinvention of Double sidedan app that popularized the simultaneous selfie and rear camera photo before shutter in 2015. Similarly, its unpredictable daily push alert mimics the engagement strategy of Minutiae, an anonymous daily sharing app of photos launched in 2017.

However, BeReal poses little threat to the established hierarchy of social platforms that have built a decade-long fiefdom over our data and attention. BeReal does not intend to redo the social internet. Instead, it operates on the fringes of this seemingly unshakable world order and is backed by some of the same companies that bankrolled Instagram and Twitter. (Venture capitalists are perpetually on the lookout for the next big social startup, though his story of false starts.) Its goal, like that of most startups, is to become commercially viable, which means that it must eventually find ways to make money off its users.

The app’s biggest appeal may be how new it is now and the fact that it’s not Instagram or Snapchat. However, BeReal doesn’t seem to escape the mantle of the main social networks. Merrilees has noticed an increase in people sharing their BeReals on Instagram. Some are even remixing them in TikToks, as a sort of memory reel. “A lot of people are migrating content to different platforms,” Khatami tells me. “It feels very natural to me. I started making TikToks of my BeReal photos after seeing people post theirs.

Because BeReal is so insular, usage is highly dependent on individual circles of friends. Once people start to tire of it, chances are their friends will too. There is a FOMO undercurrent to the hype. People download BeReal because they are curious. They don’t want to get lost. It’s also nostalgic bait for those old enough to remember the ad-free days of Instagram. John Herrman of the Times to found being a “reproduction of the experience of joining one of the dominant social networks when we all still felt like toys”. BeReal’s daily reminder seeks to enforce a reflexive instinct to post and use the app, similar to how Snapchat users feel compelled to maintain their streaks. These alarms, however, seem more contrived than spontaneous. They go against not only BeReal’s stated mission, but also the psychological literature on authenticity and self-perception.

Authenticity is a fluid and ever-changing social construct that cannot be clearly mediated, let alone through an app. In a critical examination of the concept, researchers Katrina Jongman-Sereno and Mark Leary argued that authenticity “may not be a viable scientific construct,” citing the different definitions used by psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral researchers in their assessments. So why does this concern about online authenticity seem so pervasive? The Internet flattens all distinctions between irony and sincerity, man and machine, true and false. If it’s all artifice, why do we care?

Our fixation with authenticity posts is perhaps a reflection of our anxieties about the internet and how it debilitates our modern sense of self. Authenticity is a metric for measuring content and the celebrities, influencers, brands and individuals behind the facade. “Lately, it seems like more and more people are noticing and calling out social media performance, like how ‘Instagram casual’ has been identified as a trend,” said Los Angeles-based artist and programmer Maya Man. The notion of authenticity sweetens the viewer, assuring them that there is some truth to what is being seen online. For the poster, it’s an ego-driven ideal to aspire to or embody, even with the content they’re paid to promote.

BeReal’s attempt to curate an authentic space is far from perfect, but it comes down to an unanswered ontological question: are we ever truly ourselves on the Internet? “I see every single thing you post online as contributing to this distributed internet avatar that you’re running,” Man said. “Performing is not a bad thing. It’s the fact that you have a mediated audience in mind, even if you’re posting to a private account.”

Users who started using the Internet at an early age, or “digital natives”, may share the Gestalt theory of man and are more used to reconciling these different personalities. That’s why people have Twitter alts, finstas, and specific accounts dedicated to food, aesthetics, or memes. Some of these disaggregated identities may be perceived as more authentic than others. As the online self is fragmented across multiple platforms and mediums, authenticity matters as it is a coherent and ready-made identity for consumption by a public audience.

In a critique of BeRealReal Life magazine editor Rob Horning says, “An even more real version of BeReal would simply give your friends access to your cameras and mics without you knowing, so they can peek at you and see how you behave when you think no one is watching. If the panoptic gaze is faking us, only voyeurism sets us free.”

These voyeuristic conditions were what Man sought to investigate in creating Look back, a Chrome extension that unpredictably takes a photo of the webcam once a day when the user opens a new tab. “I was very upset by the feeling that someone has been watching you for a long time and you don’t look back,” he told me. “This is what my computer experiences all day, and we don’t have the ability to interact with its display.”

Even under Glance Back’s unexpected voyeurism, what he captured felt no more or less authentic than BeReal’s self-directed gaze. Glance Back catches me in a distracted, bleary-eyed state, broadcasting a more serious and alert version of myself on BeReal. After a few weeks of observing the repetitive outlines of my life through my browser and phone, it became apparent to me that authenticity is an easy concern, easier to deal with than our constant state of surveillance. Rather than worrying about our perceived authenticity, perhaps a better question is: Why are we so willing to read up on it to prove what we already know?