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The Anti-Instagram App Promising to Make Us Feel Good

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

BeReal isn’t just a photo-sharing app — “it’s life, Real life,” the company says. The buzzy social-media app du jour is “authentic, spontaneous, and candid” and aims to “make people feel good about themselves and their lives” and say good-bye to “addictive social networks.” In other words: the answer to all our social-media prayers.

It’s free to anyone with a smartphone — though it’s still in its start-up phase, so some sort of monetization is presumably coming — and it’s so embedded into the daily life of its users that even if you’re not on BeReal, you’re hearing about it on TikTok and Twitter. Maybe celebrities are using it, but you wouldn’t know unless you’re friends with them. Even Chipotle (an early TikTok adapter) is on BeReal.

Imagine: Social media that made you feel good, cured you of your anxious-preoccupied attachment style, healed your body-image issues, and mended your relationship with your mother just by making photo-sharing simple and honest.

Here’s how it works: The app delivers an unscheduled daily notification that gives you two minutes to take and post a photo of yourself and your surroundings — only then can you see what your friends on the app have posted. You can’t edit the photos, and you can’t import old ones either. The goal is to capture your crusty, boring, lovable self just as you are in that very moment.

Early reviews of the app lauded the “delightful way in which this forces an authenticity” and how the BeReal feed is “aggressively normal” in a good way.

BeReal is the product of a namesake French start-up founded in 2020. Since then, the social-media app has amassed about 8.7 million downloads and counts on 3 million monthly active users. On the App Store’s “Top Free Apps” chart, it’s ahead of Snapchat and Facebook. According to Business Insider, its downloads have increased by 315 percent just this year.

Amid all the complaining we do about social media, the words real and authentic come up a lot, which is why BeReal is so attractive. It dangles the prospect of a social-media experience that feels fun and airy, that can be small and intimate and doesn’t threaten you with your own “brand.”

Like many BeReal users, Katie Kim, a 21-year-old college student living in College Station, Texas, joined after watching a friend post to it in person and thought the concept was fun. Kim had already abandoned TikTok because it was too overwhelming, spending most of her time online posting on Twitter to the delight and entertainment of her 13,000 followers. On BeReal, she is learning to enjoy a different kind of sharing: “It’s not really that special,” she says, “but it’s only special on this app. I wouldn’t post it anywhere else.”

Once, while sobbing through a K-drama on YouTube (“I’m emo”), Kim got a BeReal notification: “It wouldn’t occur to me to cry and be in the moment and take a photo of such an emotional thing.” But the way she and her circle of 20 or so friends use BeReal made it worth sharing.

In practice, it seems as though BeReal offers a playground for experimenting with a new kind of posting, a new way of presenting ourselves to our peers and the world. Those who download it are committed to, or at least interested in, exploring a kind of low-stakes photo-sharing that doesn’t emphasize follow or like counts or even aesthetics.

Fellow BeReal user Sanjulaa Chanolian admits she spends hours editing her Instagram pictures: “I spend a lot of time editing filters, changing the background, making it look more aesthetic.” Casual Instagram? It’s “an interesting aspect of the app” she hasn’t “hopped on quite yet.” For the 20-year-old Lincoln, Nebraska–based student, BeReal was a challenge. “In the beginning, I wanted to make sure I was ready for the day in case I get my notification from BeReal.” After all, if you know you’re going to post a picture of yourself, nothing can stop you from doing what you can to put your best foot forward. “But now I’m just going to take it how I look.”

Others still choose to game the system, though. Kaitlin Blackburn, a 21-year-old psychology student from Manchester, recalls someone she knew posting two photos of her laptop on her bed instead of the required selfie. “If you’re lying in bed looking like shit, that’s okay!” Blackburn says. “Just show that you look grim and that you’re in bed watching The Kardashians — you shouldn’t feel worried about showing your face like you have to hide it!” And if you do, just … don’t use BeReal.

Some people have made a habit out of receiving the notification and purposely posting late in order to capture something cooler or more fun. And Chanolian describes how, in her circle, everyone posts one another in their BeReal if they happen to be in the same room when they get the notification. So it’s easy to spot how BeReal can have the opposite of its intended effect by giving people a great way to read into a skipped post or, worse, find out all your friends are hanging out without you.

But Blackburn concedes that “it does feel more authentic than standard social media.” Chanolian agreed: “I absolutely think it’s more real.” But once we dive into exactly what we mean by “real,” we can’t get far past “no filters” and “no influence.” Kim thinks authenticity is a spectrum: “I’m not even 100 percent authentic; I’d be lying if I said that.”

In fact, why on Earth would we offer the social internet a thoroughly accurate and transparent record of who we are? We’re just people, living our messy lives the best we can, sharing what we want to along the way — are we even capable of capturing and sharing the kind of authenticity we’re talking about? In this economy?! Of course, honesty matters, but what does this fixation on authenticity accomplish? Personally, I think our hunger for “authenticity” is a misplaced desire for simple connection. We want to look around us and not see a world that makes us feel angry, alienated, and lonely. Authenticity is too simple a solution for such a monumental problem.

Blackburn thinks authenticity has turned into just another product to sell: “I feel like realness and authenticity are also becoming redesigned on social media, and I think even when we’re talking about someone being real, it’s not the real real, it’s the ‘New Real,’ which is more down-to-earth than what we put on, but it’s still not the actuality.” It’s Real™.

Upon downloading the app, I was prompted by some setup instructions to take a picture of my surroundings with my rear-facing camera and then a selfie with my front-facing camera. I start by taking a picture of my laptop screen when — out of nowhere — I’m assaulted by my phone’s selfie camera when it’s still angled for a photo of something on my lap. The app turned the camera around so I didn’t have to, depriving me of the opportunity to switch angles or adjust, all in the name of authenticity. I thought I’d have a chance to at least find my light, but this moment taught me that “real” is something the app was asking me to perform on its own terms.

In the same App Store that ranks BeReal as an emerging force in social media (currently in 13th place, ahead of Instagram and Twitter), photo-editing apps still own the top spots. Which, fine. I don’t think photo editing, self-editing, artifice, and “fakeness” are really the enemy we imagine. If mega-online-ness has given us anything, it’s the precious knowledge that things we make, things that are mediated, and even things that are fake can also be meaningful.

But still, social media can trigger overwhelming anger, sadness, anxiety, and alienation. The causes of the alienation so many of us feel — on and off social media — are structural, systemic. So it’s weird to assume a series of individual acts of authenticity are going to make all that go away. Maybe the best kind of social media is limited social media. Not the screen-timer self-deprivation kind but social media that doesn’t have the venture-capital ambition of becoming an all-engrossing metaverse with the power to squeeze multiple revenue streams out of our every move. Second to the authenticity sell, this is the appeal of BeReal: It’s not trying to engulf you (at least not yet). Maybe the best kind of social-media platforms are ones we feel we can easily abandon and come back to. Ones that cater to hyperspecific needs like sharing a daily photo with a small circle of friends. Or just your mother.

The Anti-Instagram App Promising to Make Us Feel Good