Entertainment

BeReal wants close connections. Can it stay that way forever?

BeReal is zeroing in on close friends just as Facebook and Instagram have decided to bury them. Can it hold on to its success by keeping that vision?

The letters "Be" sliding between the words "Real," "Instagram" and "TikTok."

Although BeReal fills a valuable niche now, it will likely need to iterate on its vision for long-term success.

GIF: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When Protocol wrote about BeReal in March, the photo-sharing app was just starting to enter the American mainstream. Now, the app is so popular that it's getting memed across the internet.

Here’s what it would look like if Bella Swan took a BeReal when Edward smells her in “Twilight.” Here’s a girl desperately trying to take her BeReal in the front row of a Harry Styles concert. People are even finding love on this app.

BeReal is the No. 1 social networking app on the Apple App Store, and ninth in “free social apps” on Google Play. Between March and July, BeReal saw 85% of its total lifetime downloads at 20.2 million, according to data from data.ai. The platform has found popularity beyond the college students it originally attracted, following the trajectory of Snapchat, Facebook and others.

But BeReal is zeroing in on close friends just as Facebook and Instagram have decided to bury them. The global success of TikTok, which vehemently calls itself an entertainment app rather than social media, is pulling social media companies away from friends and toward curated content. BeReal doesn’t want to be like any of them. But what if it has to in order to survive?

BeReal declined to comment for this story, so it’s unclear what its plans are. In a response to an interview request, one investor told Protocol that CEO Alexis Barreyat “asked us not to share anything related to the company,” then sent a screenshot of BeReal’s position in the App Store. Another person close to the BeReal team said the company is trying to keep a cool head, staying laser-focused on the product rather than broadcasting its plans too publicly.

With plans obfuscated, it's hard to know what features, if any, BeReal will introduce as it grows. But social media experts told Protocol that although BeReal fills a valuable niche now, it will likely need to iterate on its vision for long-term success.

“In a way, asking what I think will happen with BeReal is kind of like asking how much longevity do I think a certain icebreaker will have at the start of every meeting,” said Coye Cheshire, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Eventually, people are going to get tired of it.”

The future of social media, according to social media

At its core, social media is about connection, and there are endless ways to connect. With BeReal, people connect by posting a front and back photo once a day at a random time chosen by the app, within a two-minute time limit. Users can’t see their friends’ photos until they take one themselves. Cheshire calls it the “gamification of how to be social.” Humans have a genuine need to be social, to share information and form emotional connections. Social media companies serve that need, but they’ve also found ways to make money from it.

“Why are we building social media in the first place?” Cheshire said. “It’s largely because companies, and this is not a nefarious thing, see a financial interest in capitalizing on people's need to be social.”

The future of social media, from the perspective of social media companies, is more about what will keep users coming back to their platforms than about what will help people socialize in better, easier and maybe even more meaningful ways. That’s why Meta, Instagram and Snapchat have pivoted so many times. TikTok, the most downloaded app in the world, is quickly gobbling up users with a highly addictive algorithm full of content from creators they don’t know. Instagram is heading in this direction as well, despite a temporary reduction of recommended posts after pressure from high-profile users like Kylie Jenner. A video from Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri last month shows the company’s dedication to the recommendation algorithm.

“We want to do our best by creators, particularly small creators,” Mosseri said. “We see recommendations as one of the best ways to help them reach a new audience and grow their following.”

Not all social media companies are abandoning close friends in favor of creators and algorithms, however. Clubhouse, though it’s faded in popularity since its 2020 launch, thinks small social communities are its next big thing. Clubhouse is rolling out a new feature called “Houses”: smaller audio rooms that are like “private hallways just for your favorite people.” In a tweet about “Houses,” Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison said the best social experiences are “small and curated.”

Another new social platform, Niche, allows people to connect based on their shared interests. “If you connect people that have some hobbies or interests or something in common, that actually could lead to a better social media experience than just connecting people who went to school together or are family members,” co-founder Zaven Nahapetyan told Protocol in a previous interview.

Where does this leave BeReal?

The arena for a just-close-friends social media platform is wide open, especially if Instagram and TikTok are deserting friends in favor of creator-based algorithmic feeds. BeReal’s next step could offer a clue as to whether sharing with close friends is something users think they want or something they actually want. Herd, for example, bet that users wanted a “less toxic” social media experience. But it’s struggling to get funding and stopped developing its app as a result.

“Where are teens or college students seeing their friends?” asked Nikita Bier, founder of the now-defunct app called tbh and an investor in BeReal. “I think we’re at an inflection point for another app to own that vertical.”

Maybe BeReal doesn’t need to take over the world to remain popular. Lee Rainie, the director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center, said the next generation of social media users aren’t sticking to one platform. They’re adding to the number of platforms they use, and each network tends to take on its own purpose. In that case, BeReal could remain an addition to the list of platforms people use every day.

“Sometimes they draw back from things that they used to do, or just sort of drop things that they used to do,” Rainie said of user habits. “But in more cases than not, they let that stuff stay out there, and they move on or add to their repertoire.”

Adam Blacker, director of content and communications at Apptopia, agreed that BeReal could thrive as part of the usual social media diet. Achieving a TikTok level of success is “insane and requires gaming the human brain,” Blacker said. But BeReal might be satisfied, and still be able to monetize through ads or in-app purchases, with a less-addicted user base.

Sierra Moore, creative director of influencer marketing company Open Influence, said that as BeReal grows and expands beyond college-aged users, the platform will need to adapt accordingly. She said as users’ audiences grow by adding more friends or sharing their BeReal posts to other platforms, they may start to move away from posting “raw and real” content to attract even more eyeballs.

BeReal users are already running out of close friends to add and are starting to add loose acquaintances, Bier said. But he insists that it’s possible to build a sustainable app for close friends. He’s also an investor in Locket, a sort of competitor to BeReal where people send pictures to friends that automatically update in an iPhone widget. It’s primarily meant for couples, but Bier acknowledged that expanding to other kinds of relationships is crucial to attract more engagement and users. He likened it to Snapchat’s launch of Stories: Rather than sending photos directly to close friends, people were able to post updates for their wider social networks.

“I’d be curious to see what is the second act, the ‘Stories’ of BeReal,” Bier said. “Right now, your photos are broadcast to your entire social graph. So perhaps they go the other direction and focus on messaging or sending to individuals or things like that.”

If BeReal ends up going the mega-platform route, it could start attracting big-name brands, too. Open Influence’s Moore said that brands’ attitudes toward BeReal are similar to their initial approach to TikTok: hesitant and wary, then urgent and necessary. Brands had to learn that it’s OK to post unpolished content on TikTok, and they might need to learn the same on BeReal.

“I feel like it could be a similar evolution [on BeReal],” she said. “We're definitely open and hoping that we can find a brand to partner with to try it out.”

BeReal faces the same threats as any fledgling social platform: Its death knell might come from one of the bigger platforms. Instagram has already incorporated BeReal’s signature front-back photo format, and Twitter launched Circle for users to share tweets with a smaller crowd. But Bier, who worked at Facebook after the company acquired (and promptly discontinued) tbh, said he was skeptical of true copycat features appearing anytime soon.

Though users won’t know how BeReal weathers the current landscape for some time, UC Berkeley’s Cheshire encourages people to think bigger when it comes to the future of social media. Platforms are naturally leading the charge by shaping the way people interact on the internet. But really, what that looks like is up to the users themselves.

“Why do we have individual companies or platforms versus, say, a protocol?” Cheshire asked. “We’re constrained in our imagination by the development of the technologies that we already have.”

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