Entertainment

'You’re not glamorizing anything': Why BeReal is taking over college campuses with an anti-Instagram ethos

“You’re not just showing off the best moments, you’re showing off whatever it is you’re doing at 12:42 on a Tuesday afternoon.”

BeReal

BeReal is steadily gaining momentum among young people, particularly on college campuses.

Image: BeReal

As full-grown adults, we’re allowed to post whatever we want whenever we want on Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. Naturally, we share the best of ourselves — the parties, the beaches, the cocktails — and not watching Netflix on a laptop in bed, our crowded commuter bus, our hangovers. But what if we couldn’t choose when or what to post? What if social media caught us off guard and asked us to share our life at random?

That’s the idea behind BeReal, the latest in a long line of social media photo-sharing apps. Unlike Instagram or VSCO, BeReal allows users to post just once at a random time of day. That time changes each day, but every BeReal user gets the notification at the same time, depending on their time zone (right now, American and European time zones are the only ones available).

Once you get the BeReal notification, you have two minutes to post one picture of yourself and one of your surroundings. (You’re the one pressing the button to take the photo, and you get to decide whether to post it or not.) You can comment on friends’ posts or react with “RealMojis” (selfies imitating emojis), but there are no likes. If you post late so you can share your fancy dinner reservation or cool makeup look, the app punishes you by tagging your photo with a note about how much later you posted. BeReal also discourages lurking. You can’t see anyone else’s BeReal of the day until you post your own.

The idea may sound kind of strange. We’re not used to sharing life’s more mundane or embarrassing moments. Even our Twitter humble brags are still brags. Nevertheless, BeReal is steadily gaining momentum among young people, particularly on college campuses.

“You’re not glamorizing anything like you do on Instagram or Facebook,” said Juliana Cafarella, a 19-year-old student at Northeastern University. “You’re not just showing off the best moments; you’re showing off whatever it is you’re doing at 12:42 on a Tuesday afternoon.”

Founder Alexis Barreyat launched BeReal in 2020. Previously, he was a video producer with GoPro. He spent a lot of time with social media influencers on the job, leading him to think more deeply about social media’s shiny veneer. “Every time he would open Instagram, it would be filled with ads and influencers and the perfect life of everyone,” Elisabeth Schuster, PR at BeReal, wrote in an email to Protocol. “His life wasn’t as perfect as they were always showcasing.”

BeReal’s bid for authenticity resonated with young users — first in France, where it was developed. It became one of the top 10 social media apps in France last March, according to Barreyat’s LinkedIn post. It reached this goal “without spending a single $ in marketing & acquisition,” Barreyat wrote. BeReal started growing exponentially in spring 2021, particularly among French university students. The app raised $30 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Accel and DST in June 2021, after being seeded by Kima Ventures and New Wave. According to Schuster, the app has millions of users, with most coming from Europe. But the U.S. user count is growing every day.

In recent weeks, BeReal has hurtled through American college campuses. Student newspapers, from The Harvard Crimson to the The Daily Iowan, have taken note of the phenomenon. BeReal is actively recruiting students by hosting campus parties and hiring U.S. campus ambassadors.

The move makes sense. College is the perfect breeding ground for social media startups. It consists of a mass of young adults living in close proximity, away from prying parental eyes for the first time. Snapchat emerged in an undergrad dorm at Stanford. Who could forget Yik Yak, the gossip app that rose from the dead this past summer? Perhaps the most infamous example is Facebook, which started as a “hot or not” website for Harvard students. Young people have the power to propel new social media apps to stardom — as long as they stick with the apps long enough for everyone else to hear about them.

Alan Phan, 18, calls BeReal the “better Snapchat.” Phan, a Dallas-based student at Tarrant County College, loved sharing Snapchat stories and adding to streaks back in middle and high school. But as the platform expanded, adding news stories and Snapchat subscribers, he lost interest. Phan likes BeReal’s simplicity. It doesn’t overwhelm users with content.

“It really takes away the competitive component of social media,” Phan said. “With BeReal, there’s a stopping point.”

BeReal screenshot Once you get the BeReal notification, you have two minutes to post one picture of yourself and one of your surroundings. Image: Lizzy Lawrence/Protocol

BeReal’s once-a-day pitch is a little reminiscent of Wordle, the popular daily game that took the internet by storm in January. We all marveled at how a simple little word game could inspire such joy. The game has since spawned dozens of spinoffs. Of course, small, successful ideas always get noticed by the giants. The New York Times bought Wordle after a month, saying it would initially keep the service free.

The same fate often befalls beloved social media apps. Today’s biggest apps started with a similar vision for authentic content, like BeReal. Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel’s first blog post said Snapchat was about “communicating with the full range of human emotion — not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.” Snapchat is an especially apt comparison because it was one of the first apps to introduce disappearing pictures; BeReal’s photos disappear from feeds after a day. No one was talking about influencers, or the creator economy, or app marketplaces. Facebook (now Meta) bought Instagram in 2012. Instagram is far from its early, square photo-sharing days. Now, Instagram has stories like Snapchat, reels like TikTok and retail like Etsy.

As a social platform grows in power and number of users, it’s tempting to add feature upon feature to keep people in the app. BeReal says it’s “working hard to keep the app as simple as possible.” Schuster wrote that users say, “BeReal is the only social media app I have on my phone, because it doesn’t make me depressed.”

“Receiving those kinds of reviews assures us that we’re on the right path,” Schuster told Protocol.

Another, more common fate of social media is dropping out of relevance. So many apps have been hyped and then swiftly forgotten. Remember 2016’s Peach? Breathless coverage of the app pivoted to declarations that it was over within a month. The company behind 2015’s Meerkat pivoted to Houseparty, which had a brief rebirth during lockdown and is now also defunct. People were psyched about voice platform Clubhouse last year before it faded into virtual obscurity (except in Russia). Photo app Dispo faded too, but for different reasons.

Phan is a BeReal super-fan. But he admitted he’s flirted with and then dropped social media apps in the past — for example, Bopdrop, a daily music-sharing app he used last summer. “After a couple of months, it kind of fell off,” Phan said. “My friends and I got kind of bored. But I really did like that app when it was out.”

BeReal feels different to him, though. The “Time to Be Real” notification encourages him to get out of bed sometimes. “I'll get up and run outside of the house and be like, ‘It’s a nice day guys, let’s go outside!’” Phan said. “Then I’ll actually end up starting my day there.” This is exactly what BeReal wants, according to Schuster — though it will be interesting to see whether its leaders change their tune as more people download the app and they begin to monetize beyond the VC money they’re running on now.

“One of our core beliefs is that people should spend as little time as possible on their phone — including BeReal,” Schuster wrote. “The real world is out there and not online.”

The BeReal users who spoke to Protocol — all college students — said they’ll stay on the app as long as their friends are there, as expected. “I’ll keep using it as long as it’s still a trend,” said Tulsi Patel, a 19-year-old student at Penn State. “I’m not going to keep posting on it if I’m not seeing my friends post on it. That’s the whole point.”

But everyone has different tiers of friends, which makes recruiting friends to BeReal more delicate. Instagram feels artificial because most of our followers are acquaintances or strangers. That’s why so many turned to “finstas,” private Instagram accounts, to share more genuine posts with friends. BeReal’s content will only feel genuine if users feel comfortable with their audiences. Cafarella feels conflicted about who to be friends with on BeReal. Part of her wants to friend everyone she knows so she can see what their real lives look like. A larger part of her values the realness that comes with a small audience.

“It’s a nice way to check in with my friends and see what they’re up to,” Cafarella said. “If someone’s been in bed for every BeReal for the past week, I can be like, ‘Hey, are you OK? Do you need anything?’”

BeReal gives the option to share posts publicly or just with friends. It’s currently developing a feature that lets you disconnect your account from your phone number, so everyone who has you in their contacts can’t automatically find you. Schuster said other features to give “users control over what they share and with whom” will be released soon. “We think slowly but surely, people will realise that they don’t have to showcase a perfect life online in order to feel good and complete,” Schuster wrote.

Maybe we are ready for more authentic social media. Instagram now lets users create stories solely for close friends, and Twitter is working on a similar feature. TikTok exploded during the pandemic’s early days, with people bonding over the reality of being stuck at home. Phan said he thinks TikTok and BeReal have a similar feel when it comes to sharing real, everyday life.

But there are still some limits. A few days ago, Cafarella’s phone screen flashed while she was attending her aunt’s funeral. “Time to BeReal. 2 min left to capture a BeReal and see what your friends are up to!” the notification read, cheerily.

Cafarella had worried the day before about the BeReal app going off during the funeral. Now it was actually happening. Thankfully, the service was over and people were lining up to leave. She quickly posted a picture of the chair in front of her with a little Bible on the floor, and a selfie of her face with puffy eyes.

“I was like, OK, well, this is what I’m doing right now,” said Cafarella. “I’m sitting in a chair, crying. The people on BeReal are a bunch of my close friends. If it's my best friends, they can see whatever. It doesn't matter.”

Cafarella knew that posting a BeReal right in the middle of her aunt’s funeral service would be crossing a line. But she’s not opposed to her friends posting one at her own.

“If it was my wake, and someone was like, ‘Oh my god, it's time to BeReal,’ and all my friends came up and got a picture of a single tear falling down and a picture of the casket, that's truly honoring my legacy,” Cafarella said. “They would be completely in the right for that.”

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