In the last year, social media app BeReal took over the Internet.
BeReal operates on a very simple mechanism: Users need to post once a day within a two-minute window, and they can only see their friends’ pictures once they’ve posted. BeReal doesn’t have any filters, and its promise of reality and authenticity seemingly stems from an implicit desire to return to the “old internet,” a bygone era of casualness where social media was not tied to advertising and data collection and users felt comfortable enough to post unedited, unfiltered and mundane pictures of their everyday lives.
This nostalgia appeals to a time when the internet and its social opportunities were new and fresh, when posting didn’t feel like a necessity and was rather a product of gleeful play with a new gadget, an exploration of a whole new world. Though this has since been replaced by a stream of manicured pictures, each accompanied by well-thought-out, punctuated, capitalized and witty captions, Generation Z appears to turn back to the beginnings.
For a generation that grew up surrounded by technology, to be casual is the new cool. But, unlike the early days of social media, casualness now has to be manufactured and calculated. The discovery of the internet is dead.
Social media thrives on making life appear better than it is; strategic crops and filters center the glamorous while blurring out bad. BeReal, on the other hand, situates a user in a specific moment in time and place. Its double photo mechanism, which simultaneously snaps a picture from the front and back camera of a smartphone, adds dimensionality to where you are and what you’re doing. Coupled with the narrow time frames to post, it fosters an environment of apparent spontaneity and authenticity.
Ironically, the format of the BeReal is easily transferable to other social media platforms, the double photo frequenting Instagram stories. However, even as the BeReal appears on the very sites it was formed in reaction against, the sharing of a BeReal supposedly serves as a signal of authenticity. It is proof of honesty and casualness; a moment corroborated by a double photo ensures that you were where you say you were. As more users join BeReal, the more these recognizable images percolate onto other social media sites, contributing to a revolution of online aesthetic.
Sean Monahan, writer and founder of K-Hole, a trend forecasting group, coined the term “vibe shift,” which describes a sudden shift in aesthetic. In this instance, there seems to be a shift back to Y2K and an ushering in of the indie and anonymous. However, even as BeReal appeals to the past, it is inextricably tethered to the norms of the present.
In the early aughts, posting was a privilege. It has now turned into an obligation — a means of staying relevant or to remind your friends (followers?) that you’re still alive and well, still puttering around, still asking to be included in the discourse and still longing to be direct messaged a few memes every once in a while. On BeReal, the policy of participating — not solely viewing or “lurking” — pushes users into a constant conversation with each other. In this way, BeReal inventively navigates the “vibe shift”: it takes the aesthetics of the early internet that users desire while still appealing to their impulse to remain relevant.
In many ways, BeReal follows in the footsteps of Snapchat, the app that pioneered the 24-hour story feature that has now trickled into most forms of social media. However, it takes Snapchat’s temporal timeframes a step further by urging users to post each and every day, increasing their online presence. Storing these daily moments in a calendar graphic, it digitally catalogs user’s lives. With a monthlong archive of time frames, it offers a new way to reflect on day-to-day life that hinges on a virtual form of authenticity.
The digital chronicling of everyday details, whether this be to celebrate inherent mundanity or to romanticize and highlight glossy, architectured moments, has never been more attractive. To simultaneously have access to the lives of those across the world and those in the apartment next to you also means being pushed to ask, Am I normal? Does a Scandinavian model living in Los Angeles eat the same breakfast as I do? Should I make the same chia seed pudding she does? This perpetuity of chronicling brings the internet to a unique moment, one that combines the excitement of the early aughts with the neverending churn of information and discourse of the present day.
In a collective quest to gather more real understandings of how other people’s lives look, the digital landscape is continually propelled towards creating attempts at authenticity — to allow users and friends, digital and literal, to signal to each other moments of how they live, how they look sitting in their classrooms and offices, how they take their midday salads and how they really spend their Friday nights.
BeReal finds itself in a convenient time and space where authenticity comes above all else, yet it still finds itself conforming to the standards set by the modern digital age.