Sunday, May 28, 2023

BeReal is the latest Gen Z social app obsessed with authenticity

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

BeReal, as the name of the app suggests, wants me to post my truth. Once a day I am randomly asked to “be real”, to capture my unfiltered life in sync via the selfie and the camera on the back of my phone. There is, 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 remains open for hours. Users can add a caption, reply to messages on their friends’ day, and communicate via RealMojis or personalized reaction photos. After posting, two feeds are unlocked, one personalized with messages from friends and a Discovery feed featuring strangers amid mostly mundane tasks. The feeds are updated once a day and messages expire as soon as the next BeReal alert is sent, presumably for users to put their phones down and go about their “real” lives after a few minutes in the app.

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

Every year, a hot new social startup emerges from the woods 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 the photos to develop. Dispo benefited of co-founder David Dobrik’s YouTube fame, but a scandal led investors to quickly take distance from the start, even with the resignation of Dobrik. Later that year, Poparazzi, an app that encouraged users to take paparazzi-esque photos of their friends, launched on TikTok. It shot to the top of the App Store for a few weeks, but the hype soon disappeared.

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

“We always want to connect with friends in a casual way,” says Kristin Merrilees, 20, a junior at Barnard College and BeReal user, who also writes about culture and the Internet. “I think Snapchat was that space briefly until my friends stopped using it. Now it’s with BeReal that lets you look into people’s lives all day long.”

However, what is real and what is fake when we spend so much of our time strapped to screens? In a commodified social media landscape, authenticity is as much a marketing buzzword as it is a value on the screen, touted by people, brands and of course apps. BeReal assumes that the authentic self can be revealed under the right circumstances – that overwhelming users will cause them to give up all pretensions. And so far, users seem to be buying his pitch.

“It has the vintage feel of early Instagram,” says 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, toward a reminder to post right now.”

BeReal’s unsubtle marketing strategy has made it a breakthrough among students. The startup pays students to serve as campus ambassadors, refer friends, and host promotional events. In addition to the trend, the concept and key features of the app are anything but original. It’s a well-timed reinvention of FrontBackan app that popularized the simultaneous selfie and photo from the rear camera before shutting down in 2015. Similarly, the unpredictable daily push alert mimics the engagement strategy of Minutiae, an anonymous daily photo-sharing app launched in 2017.

Still, BeReal doesn’t really pose a threat to the established hierarchy of social platforms that have built a decade-old fief of our data and attention. BeReal does not intend to recreate the social internet. Instead, it operates on the sidelines of this seemingly unwavering world order and is backed by some of the same companies that have funded Instagram and Twitter. (Venture capitalists are constantly on the hunt for the next big social startup, despite his history of false starts.) Its goal, like most startups, is to become commercially viable, which means eventually finding ways to monetize its users.

Perhaps the biggest draw of the app is its current novelty and the fact that it’s not Instagram or Snapchat. Yet BeReal does not seem to escape the veil of the major social networks. Merrilees has noticed an increase in the number of people sharing their BeReals on Instagram. Some are even they remix in TikToks, as a kind of memory coil. “A lot of people migrate content across different platforms,” Khatami says. “It feels very natural to me. I started making TikToks from my BeReal photos after seeing people posting theirs.”

Because BeReal is so isolated, its use is highly dependent on individual circles of friends. Once people start to get tired of it, chances are their friends will too. There’s a FOMO-esque undercurrent to the hype. People download BeReal because they are curious. They don’t want to miss anything. It’s also nostalgic bait for those old enough to remember the ad-free days of Instagram. John Herrman of the Times found it it would be a “reproduction of the experience of joining one of the dominant social networks when they all felt like toys.” BeReal’s daily reminder tries to enforce a reflexive instinct to post and use the app, similar to how Snapchat users feel compelled to keep their stripes. However, these warnings seem more contrived than spontaneous. They conflict not only with BeReal’s mission, but also with the psychological literature on authenticity and self-perception.

Authenticity is a fluid, ever-evolving social construct that cannot be clearly mediated, especially not through an app. In a critical research 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 widespread? The internet blurs all distinctions between irony and sincerity, man and machine, real and fake. If it’s all artifice, why do we care?

Our fixation on authenticity posting may be a reflection of our concerns about the internet and how it weakens our modern sense of self. Authenticity is a measure of content and the celebrities, influencers, brands and individuals behind the facade. “Lately, it feels like more people are noticing and exclaiming achievements on social media, like how ‘casual Instagram’ was identified as a trend,” said Maya Man, a Los Angeles-based artist and programmer. The idea of ​​authenticity softens the viewer and assures them that there is some truth in what is seen online. For the poster, it’s an ego-driven ideal to aspire to or embody — even with content they’re paid to promote.

BeReal’s attempt to create an authentic space is far from perfect, but it comes down to an unanswerable ontological question: are we ever really ourselves on the internet? “I consider anything you post online as a contribution to this distributed internet avatar that you run,” Man said. “Performing is not something negative. It’s the fact that you have a medium-sized audience in mind, even if you’re posting to a private account.”

Users who started using the Internet at a young age, or “digital natives,” may share Man’s gestalt theory and be more used to reconciling these different personas. That’s why people have Twitter alts, finstas, and specific accounts devoted to food, aesthetics, or memes. Some of these disaggregated identities can be considered more authentic than others. Since the online itself is distributed across multiple platforms and media, authenticity matters because it is a coherent, ready-made identity for consumption by a public audience.

In a criticism of BeReal, says Rob Horning, editor of Real Life magazine: “An even more real version of BeReal would just give your friends access to your cameras and microphones without you knowing so they can see you and see how you act if you think you no one is watching. If the panoptic view distorts us, only voyeurism can set us free.”

These voyeuristic conditions were what man tried to explore when creating look back, a Chrome extension that unpredictably takes a webcam photo once a day when the user opens a new tab. “I was very disturbed by that feeling of someone looking at you for a very long time and not looking back at you,” she told me. “That’s what my computer feels all day, and we don’t have a chance to bother with its rendering.”

Even under Glance Back’s unexpected voyeurism, what it captured felt no more or less authentic than BeReal’s self-centered gaze. Glance Back catches me in a distracted state with blurry eyes, while conveying a more serious, alert version of myself on BeReal. After a few weeks of observing the repetitive contours of my life through my browser and phone, it became clear to me that authenticity is an easy concern, an issue we can grapple with more easily than our constant surveillance. Rather than worrying about our perceived authenticity, perhaps a better question is: why are we so willing to document ourselves to prove what we already know?

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