A few months ago you might have been confused if you were out with a friend, their phone buzzed, and they screamed ‘ooh, BeReal! Quick, take a picture!’ Not so much anymore. The ‘alternative’ social media app has taken the world by storm and continues to grow, with over two million downloads in March 2022 compared to a mere 500,000 back in December 2021.
In case you weren’t aware of it, the premise is simple: the app hits you with a notification at a random time of day between around 7.30 and 11pm, and you have to take a picture of yourself and whatever’s in front of you within 2 minutes of seeing the notification (although you can post late). Only once you have taken your pictures can you see what all your friends and followers on the app are up to.
The idea seems to be to create a more ‘authentic’ social media feed, one that isn’t full of posed beach pictures and carefully curated ‘photo dumps’. Being in Oxford, this usually means your BeReal is swamped with people sitting in the library looking bored, doing ‘work’, or, if the notification hits unexpectedly early the morning after a night out, with all your friends hungover in bed taking pictures of their ceilings.
The premise is quite fun: I love seeing what silly things my friends are up to at random times of the day, especially in Oxford when life moves so fast you don’t always have time to keep tabs on everyone. The app has capitalised on many things that seem to define Gen Z and have helped to skyrocket its popularity: self-deprecation, chronic nosiness, and a relentless addiction to documenting our lives online.
Yet for all its alleged pretensions towards ‘being real’, in many ways I have noticed that people’s relationship with the app is as toxic as any other social media. I keep seeing TikToks of people doing exciting things (visiting a beautiful church, having brunch with friends, on a mountain hike) with the caption, ‘if BeReal doesn’t come up here I’m going to be so pissed’.
I’ve also heard similar things said in real life. Whilst partly meant to be humorous, statements like these possess an underlying sincerity that is slightly unnerving. Although BeReal encourages us to show off the more boring moments of our day, we still feel the urge to present ourselves as if we have the most exciting lives possible, and perhaps even feel annoyed if BeReal passes us by when we are engaged in doing something ‘cool’. As the old adage goes: if a tree falls in the forest and the BeReal notification doesn’t go off at the moment it falls, did it even happen?
Moreover, the way the app works encourages this sort of mentality, since you are only allowed to see what others have posted once you have done the same. This breeds engagement with the app by playing off our nosiness and sometimes our insecurity, constantly wanting to see what others are up to and how their lives compare to our own.
This is perhaps a minor personal failure of mine but I have also ruined my BeReal experience by accepting friend requests from too many people. Whilst I initially intended to limit my followers to close friends only, out of fear of being seen as rude for rejecting them my feed is now full of random acquaintances from college and ex-schoolmates whose lives I don’t really need to see. Having too many faces on the app means it becomes just another dead-eyed scrolling session to be sucked into rather than a fun window into the banality of everyday life.
But as I said, it’s my own fault my BeReal has ballooned out of control, and perhaps I should just commit the brutal online sin of quietly unadding some of my ‘friends’. Nevertheless, I still think the way people talk about BeReal and the way it is used simply plays into our obsession with online projection and does little to cut through the inherent artifice of this.
On your laptop when BeReal comes through? One simple switch of tabs and you can show everyone that you are not a sad sack scrolling through the ‘Personal Life’ section of Timothée Chalamet’s Wikipedia page, but a dedicated student working on their next essay. Adding less familiar friends on BeReal seems to encourage this sort of behaviour, it being less tempting to be completely honest about our activities when we know people we aren’t entirely comfortable with are watching.
Another breed found on BeReal is the user who posts several hours late every time, and in every photo is suspiciously surrounded by hosts of friends or exciting scenery. You FORGOT to post did you? Yeah, right – not when we have our phones in our pockets basically all the time. And there lies the main problem with BeReal, and social media more generally: even when the app’s title literally tells us to do otherwise, we cannot help but lie.