BeReal and the Doomed Quest for Online Authenticity

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On its ascent to the coveted top spot in app store charts, BeReal—the French photo-sharing app launched in 2020—has been heralded as the antidote to social media fakery. Staving off canny staging and slick curation, BeReal gives users just two minutes following a prompt to submit a dual front-camera/back-camera image. Only after posting their own BeReal are users able to view their friends’ dual image montages of “the moment and the reaction,” sans filters and FaceTune.

Performativity-shaming is baked into the app’s design: If someone misses the two-minute deadline or retakes a shot, their friends are tipped off that they haven’t been real.

In pitching itself as “not another social network,” BeReal’s rebuff of other platforms is as unabashed as it is irreverent. Its App Store description, for instance, reroutes fame-seeking aspirants to competitors with a faux-taunt: “If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” The ur-narrative is that other platforms are magnets for shallow performativity and inauthenticity—a portrayal which is bolstered by its “No bullshit. No ads” stance.

While BeReal has been lauded for its spontaneity, informality, and provision of “unvarnished glimpses into everyday life,” many are wondering if it will outlive the hype. But perhaps a more important question is whether we, the users, have outgrown the culture of likes-tallying perfectionism associated with mainstream social networks, most notably Instagram. 

By some accounts, we have: Researchers have noted a significant uptick in “social media fatigue,” which they attribute in part to the pandemic. But even the tech-weariest among us find it hard to disregard the mandate to put forward our best (digital) selves. And so, despite the pretense of novelty, BeReal represents the latest iteration in the cycle of social media sites that spring from the push-and-pull tension of authenticity and performance.

The research we’ve conducted on social media and youth cultures has left us skeptical of any glib assurance of “realness” peddled by platforms—or any company, for that matter. After all, the promise of authenticity is deeply, and ambivalently, rooted in brand culture. When in 1971, Coca-Cola resolutely declared its soda “the real thing,” it made a not-so-subtle jab at competitor Pepsi. The result all but usurped Pepsi’s counterculture image of “impudent insurrectionaries [and] sassy upstarts flouting the dull repressive mores of the past.” As media historian Jefferson Pooley has argued, the more earnestly we pursue an “authentic” sense of self, the more marketers try to entice us with products and services that can fulfill that need. But, of course, it’s a Sisyphean endeavor.

As the “Cola Wars” made abidingly clear, there’s a generational dynamic underpinning the commercial promise of authenticity. In a 2016 essay, Real Life editor and writer Rob Horning described “authenticity” as “commercialized nostalgia for that way of life that was articulated by a different set of economic relations: precapitalistic, or pre-massified, or pre-globalized—whatever word you want to use to describe how it seemed when you were nine years old, when things were ’real.’”

And therein lies a key to BeReal’s marketing gambit: its core focus on Gen Z, the first “digitally native” generation, never knowing a world without social media (literally, or at least conceptually). In Horning’s framing, each generation has its own version of a more authentic world (the one familiar to 9-year-old you). Depending on your age, that could be epitomized by Facebook, askFM, MySpace, or perhaps no social media at all. While Gen Z’s “authentic world” is likely more of a platform cacophony than previous generations’ was, it’s worth noting that Gen Z members have been socialized in the art of strategic self-presentation from as far back as they can remember.

With each new app, Big Tech mouthpieces try to beguile us with a repackaged version of authenticity. But as users and advertisers join the fray, the commercial imperative wins out again and again. And so, we share our spontaneous collages on the “anti-Instagram” until the Next Big App convinces us to abandon the charade. In a 2017 article, researchers Meredith Salisbury and Jefferson Pooley offer the concept of “reactive dynamism” to describe this cyclicality, wherein each new social network defines itself against its precursor’s seeming inauthenticity. They note that then-buzzy platforms like Peach and Beme peddled versions of authenticity that their ad-driven, hyper-conformist competitors like Facebook and Instagram no longer offered. But, crucially, even the latter two promised authenticity in their earlier, scaling-up days.

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