Self-proclaimed “authentic” social media apps are becoming a major part of the Gen-Z social media landscape
You’re walking in public, and one of your friends stops in their tracks, immediately grabs their phone, and turns to you asking: “It’s BeReal time! Do you want to be in it?” You look around to see a couple other people snapping a quick selfie and moving on with their day. How many of us have observed this strange phenomenon in the past year, seeing others overcome by a seemingly unexpected and random need to take a spur of the moment picture?
“WARNING! BeReal is life, real life, and this life is without filters.” This is the description you’re greeted with when downloading the photo-only social media app currently taking the world by storm. Touted as “not another social network,” BeReal has recently been at the centre of discussions about showing our authentic selves in the social media realm. The question is, is it working? Or is it just another app to add to the list of shallow, repetitive, and performative masquerades users take part in online?
BeReal was created by two French developers, Alexis Barreyat and Kévin Perreau, and was released in 2020, gaining major traction in the past year. According to Influencer Marketing Hub, a “resource for influencer marketing platforms and agencies,” the app accumulated over 43 million downloads by August 2022.
BeReal alerts users at a random time every day with a notification announcing that it’s “Time to BeReal.” Users are supposed to share photos in under two minutes, using both their front and back-facing cameras. If photos are posted after those designated two minutes, the post is identified with a late label to incentivize people to “be real.” The app also scolds the user if they take multiple shots before posting, revealing to followers how many times the photo was re-taken before uploading. And this is only one layer of the app’s promotion of authenticity — participation is key, since you have to post your own BeReal photo before you can see those of your friends.
Alternatively to other social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook, BeReal does not have likes, filters, retouching, ads, or follower counts. The only reactionary elements the app allows are comments and photo reactions. Similar to apps like Snapchat, posts vanish after 24 hours, bestowing a certain transient and spontaneous energy to the platform. According to the app store, BeReal is “your chance to show your friends who you really are, for once.”
Numerous other apps have capitalized off of this growing trend of being (or seeming) authentic. Platforms like bopdrop (the music equivalent to BeReal which invites users once a day to post a 30-second snippet of a favorite song) and Poparazzi (a platform where users create a social profile that only their friends, or their own “paparazzi”’ can post to) have jumped on the the ‘being real’ bandwagon. This new generation of social media companies are endeavoring to provide authentic digital connections, and betting on the fact that users are shifting from sharing performative and carefully crafted content to more unfiltered and unadulterated moments.
So who is consuming and using these apps? According to Statista, an online platform specializing in providing market and consumer data, in August 2022, the most substantial demographic group that used BeReal in the United States was women between 18 and 24 years old, comprising 66 per cent of BeReal’s users that month. Men between 25 and 34 years old amounted to 14 per cent of the total users of BeReal in America. Based on these statistics, it seems that the app resonates the most with women in the Generation Z demographic, those born from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s.
In a journal article exploring the intricacies of Gen Z, social media, and digital literacies, Dr. Trevor Boffone, a professor from the University of Houston, explores how Gen Z views social media very much the same way that former generations saw social life at school, in extracurriculars, or at church. What once was done in person is now being completed online, such as networking, communication, participation, and collaboration between users, as well as overall diversifying one’s community.
“Today’s Zoomers (so-called members of Generation Z) flock to social media platforms that give the allure of authenticity and a sense of community that they can’t get in ‘real’ life or in other spaces. Whether it’s TikTok videos or BeReal pictures, Zoomers use these apps as spaces to both document their lives and take a glimpse into the lives of their friends,” says Boffone, in the journal article.
Rowan Harris, a grad student at UVic, first downloaded BeReal after a friend sent her an invitation to download the app. After being initially confused about the rules, having to Google what the app was, and how it worked, she eventually got the gist of it. She started out with a few friends on the app, but she’s slowly gained more and more as people have added her.
When she posts on time, she feels a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that she’s participating according to the rules of the app. But she sometimes finds the overabundance of social media notifications overwhelming.
“I just kind of blow [the notification] off until I have the moment to be like ‘Okay, I can participate in social media at this time,’” said Harris. “When I do post on it, sometimes I’ll take a picture and I’m like ‘I’m gonna make this moment not look as grungy as it is.’ Like me just sitting with my hair in a bun doing homework.”
Another layer of the app she has to navigate is the reality of her remote working situation. Harris has to be careful not to accidentally post any work or confidential information, and as a result, she doesn’t tend to post on time during work hours. In terms of what she uploads to the app, Harris posts what she thinks her followers would like to see or what she thinks would be interesting, such as her cats or her dog. While she’s not usually bothered by what she posts, she does say that it’s somewhat annoying to feel the need to be constantly ready to present herself on the app at any point in the day. As a result, while Harris used the app more frequently when she first downloaded it, she doesn’t post as much as before.
“Working from home, it’s not super glamorous … I’m sitting in the same spot,” said Harris. “If a BeReal [goes off] every time between 8:30 and 4:30, everyone’s gonna get the same picture every day.”
Harris doesn’t think that BeReal has separated itself from other platforms as being more real or authentic. Even though people post in the spur of the moment, she finds that oftentimes posts can still be curated. For her, BeReal is just another platform to add to the list, slid into the folder on her phone titled “social media.”
Other members of the Gen Z demographic have abstained from downloading the app entirely. Willem Graham, a recent highschool graduate and aspiring UVic student from Victoria, prefers a small number of social media apps on his phone, such as Instagram and YouTube. For him, however, it’s hard not to hear of apps like BeReal when so many people are using them.
“I feel no pressure to have to download [BeReal] … people in my immediate friends circle aren’t using it a whole lot. And even when they do, I feel like I have easier and better ways to contact them,” said Graham.
Still, Graham can see how others might feel coerced into downloading and using these up-and-coming apps. He reflects on how his younger cousins, who he views as “a little more impressionable,” most likely have BeReal downloaded as they might feel more pressured to keep up with what’s trending.
A school project Graham did on various social media apps, such as Instagram and YouTube, has made him more critical of social media in general. He believes the primary goals of the marketers on these apps are to make money or exploit people’s interests, and that casual users often don’t know about the methods businesses use or the intentions they have. Since BeReal does not make money through advertisement investments, increasing engagement and time spent on the app is essential.
The ever-changing game of social media also has effects on institutions, businesses, and has had real-life impacts on people’s jobs.
Ali Baggott, UVic’s digital media strategy manager, says her current position at the university didn’t exist five years ago, attributing the change to how rapidly the environment of social media is advancing. When she worked as a communications officer in the athletics and recreation department in 2011, the only prominent social media platform they used was Twitter.
In looking at these apps who are now touting authenticity on their platforms, Baggott compares the surge of interest in BeReal to a kind of online “cat-and-mouse game” between Zoomers and marketers. When she was in university, Baggott recounts how when advertisements hit Facebook, people tried to escape to Instagram to find some relief from being marketed to. And then when businesses tried to market to those on Instagram, particularly Gen Z, they then flocked to Snapchat.
“[Gen Z are] running from people who can’t catch them, which is sales and marketing and businesses. Because I think, especially Gen Z, they don’t want to be marketed to,” said Baggott.
Baggott also attributes this to the rise of influencer culture in the last 10 years. She posits that Gen Z prefers to build authentic relationships with others online and be marketed to by people they know and trust. Gone is the reliance on the brand itself, and present is the reliance of perceived authentic connections between the influencer and the influenced.
When asked if apps like BeReal provide any mental health relief compared to traditional apps like Facebook and Instagram, Baggott says yes and no. In her opinion, there may be some relief in these apps in comparison to the Instagram generation, in which young people strived to look perfect online. However, the demands of real-time, unfiltered posts can still add to the stress of posting anything on the Internet. Anyone sharing their life and putting it out there for people to see opens themselves up to be judged, so there’s always some lingering hesitation accompanying that.
“I still think there’s a sort of social-cultural problem with feeling like you need to tell the world what you’re doing every five seconds,” said Baggott.Ultimately, in an age where people are yearning for genuine human connection, many seem to be pulling away from engaging and participating in more performative and curated content. BeReal has opened the conversation around authenticity in an online world, giving consumers an opportunity to shift the way they interact online and marketers a challenge to keep up with the changing times in order to meet their audience where they’re at.