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2 November 2022

BeReal and the authenticity trap

A new social media app claims to reflect the reality of its users – but is it ever possible to be “ourselves” online?

By Emily Bootle

The day before this article was due, I missed the notification on my phone at about 10am telling me that it was “time to BeReal!” because I was busy having an argument with my boyfriend. When I checked my phone a couple of hours later, all was smoothed over and I was ready to show my friends the “real” me. But by the time I posted – in my pyjamas, hair unstyled and laptop screen showing some boring admin – I was slightly less real than I’d have been had I posted in the two-minute window.

BeReal is the latest social media craze: an “anti-Instagram” app that, rather than letting users create a “highlight reel” of curated photos, or bombarding them with videos of people organising their cupboards or making protein-powder lava cakes, gives them daily updates on their friends. During a specific two-minute period, which changes every day, you are invited to post. You cannot see what other people have posted unless you have too. You cannot post more than once a day. And you have to offer two points of view: BeReal takes a picture using the front and back cameras of your phone at the same time, so a post shows both your face and whatever you happen to be looking at. This bastion of gritty realness, founded by the then 25-year-old Alexis Barreyat in Paris in 2020, has soared in popularity in past months. It has now been downloaded 53 million times and is worth $600m.

Perhaps this suggests disaffected social media users are craving an immediacy and intimacy other platforms no longer offer. But BeReal has loopholes. You’re allowed to post late – obviously, otherwise anyone who missed the window because they were using the toilet, in a meeting or, as previously mentioned, having an argument with their boyfriend, wouldn’t get to post. This, of course, also applies in reverse: if the notification comes early enough in the day, you can simply opt not to “be real” and instead wait to post until you’re doing something interesting. You’re also allowed to retake your photo during the two-minute period once you’ve opened the app, should you look a little too real, or perhaps not real enough – with the caveat that your friends are able to view how many times you did so.

[See also: True crime’s legal pay-offs give it a righteous gloss – but it’s still only shallow, manipulative entertainment]

These loopholes demonstrate that any social media is bound to involve curation of some kind. Yet despite knowing this, we still use it to prove we are being our “real selves”. BeReal’s popularity is yet another symptom of our never-ending quest to achieve “authenticity”, online and off.

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The idea of the “authentic self” – a “real me” distinct from external factors that are not the “real me” – is not a universal, unquestionable truth. It arose in the late 18th century as early Romantic thinkers pondered self-expression and the private inner world of individuals, reacting against the idea that the self was defined by societal rules such as class and rank. The Romantic conception of authenticity was an active rejection of those structures: an embrace and subsequent realisation of the inner self – unaffected by your family, gender or wealth – at all costs.

On social media, there is greater scope to “be yourself” than ever. In his Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasised that it was important not only to be yourself but to be seen to be being yourself; likewise, social media provides us with multiple ways of manifesting our “inner selves” in the world for others to witness. It is not only what we post that’s meaningful, but how and why we post it. A selfie exposes someone’s face, and perhaps their clothes, make-up or jewellery, but also their very decision to take it, post it, and add a certain caption to it. Social media offers almost endless revelation, and seemingly limitless levels of analysis.

And yet the edict to be “authentic” online has also arisen because of the fakery that the online world invites. If it weren’t for all the flattering filters, covertly sponsored content, impossibly perfect homes and false identities proliferating on social media, we might have been spared the overly earnest mental health awareness posts and no make-up selfies. If it weren’t for our own competitive impulse to create a version of ourselves that seemed happier, more attractive and more affluent, we might not feel the need to tell the world we are also sometimes lazy, broke and miserable.

Which brings us back to BeReal. The problem with this concept, as with authenticity generally, is that being “real” cannot retain its meaning when it is reduced to an aesthetic. If “realness” is performed by 53 million people every day it becomes parodied, memeified – “inauthentic”. Already, in only six months of widespread use, this has happened on BeReal, where particular kinds of post – deliberately ugly selfies, punny captions, meta encapsulations in which two people post each other posting – have become clichés, easy to mock. On the afternoon of the Queen’s death, one tweet captioned “The Queen’s BeReal” imagined a screenshot of the app showing Her Majesty’s face in the front camera, and Prince Philip and Margaret Thatcher engulfed in the flames of hell in the back.

BeReal invokes authenticity in its temporality: a fleeting moment of realness. But we have tried this spontaneous snapshot model already. In fact, many of the most established platforms began in the same vein: Twitter, with its character limit; Snapchat, with its disappearing content; even Instagram’s brand name once implied immediacy. In whatever capacity you share, you’re still performing, deciding, posing – and, perhaps most importantly, you are still on your phone. Neither capturing fleeting moments nor documenting your whole life yields perfect “authenticity”.

[See also: Elif Batuman and the art of a real life]

BeReal may feel refreshing for its lack of advertising. Branded content on social media is often what ruins it, turning communicating with friends into a non-consensual shopping experience. BeReal is designed to foster organic interaction with a few close friends. Yet the app is a start-up, not a charity. The Financial Times reports that the company is looking into monetisation: it wants to remain ad-free, so is considering paid-for extras. The brands, though, cannot be stopped: they have already realised they can get down with the kids by posting on the app. The fast-food chain Chipotle “maxed out” its followers on the platform after offering a BeReal-only promotion in May, and it encouraged users to engage in the annual #boorito challenge on Halloween by taking a BeReal in costume in one of its branches.

Still, the constant presence of advertising online does not deter many users. Social media offers endless possibilities for self-realisation, and in a world where self is paramount, it can be difficult to disengage. It can feel good to be “authentic”, to show other people something from your inner self – even better when they validate it. But we are never quite sated.

BeReal is the latest format for displaying the authentic self, although not too much of it: show your friends a bit of who you are and then go about your day. But even this process of telling undermines its aim. Could we simply stop? And not in order to fulfil some nobler, offline aim of being authentically authentic, but just to exist? After all, if whatever self we put out into the world is subject to the same analysis, there is little material difference between authenticity and inauthenticity. At the beginning of this article I gave you an insight into my life. How do you know I’m being real? Whatever I do, you’ll only see the words I choose to present on the page.

Emily Bootle’s “This Is Not Who I Am: Our Authenticity Obsession” is published by Ortac Press on 8 November

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[See also: Whatever Mastodon is, it won’t replace Twitter]  

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak