BeReal Is the Right Kind of Boring

If social platforms can be said to have had good old days, it’s when people were still signing up to see if their friends were there, and to figure out why — those early moments when their potential was felt but not yet described. That’s what’s happening now on BeReal, a new platform where people post photos for their friends, with a few crucial twists.

Once a day, at an unpredictable time, BeReal notifies its users that they have two minutes to post a pair of pictures, one from each phone camera, taken simultaneously. The only way to see what other people have posted that day is to share your own. You can post after the two-minute window closes, but all your friends will be notified that you were late; you can retake your day’s photo, but your friends will know that, too. Your friends can respond to your posts with something called a “RealMoji” — basically a selfie reaction, visible to all of your connections. All of the photos disappear the next day.

Other platforms experiment with manipulative gamification. BeReal is a game. Though its rules are simple — post, now — the message is mixed. Don’t be too hard on yourself, just post whatever, it suggests, clock ticking. And then in a whisper: But don’t be a try-hard. (BeReal did not respond to email or Twitter requests for comment.)

As a result, the typical BeReal feed features photos taken in class, at work, while driving or getting ready for bed. There are lots of people making funny or bored faces while doing fun or boring activities. It’s nice! Or at least not miserable, which is worth a lot these days.

Right now, BeReal feels more like a group activity than a full-fledged social platform, a low-stakes diversion that, despite its direct demands, doesn’t ask for much. It’s a randomly scheduled social break from your day but also from your other feeds, where scrolling and posting have drifted from leisure to labor or worse, as The Wall Street Journal reported last year in a story about the toll Instagram has taken on teenage mental health.

One of BeReal’s founders is a former GoPro employee, and it markets its experience as a return to rawness and authenticity, but, at least to this user, it can feel more gauzy and nostalgic, like a reproduction of the experience of joining one of the dominant social networks when they all still felt like toys. Look, there are my friends, this is sort of fun, we’re doing this specific thing together. What could go wrong?

Posting Like There’s No Tomorrow

BeReal, which is based in Paris, was founded in 2020, and by April of this year, it had been installed an estimated 7.41 million times, according to Apptopia, an analytics firm. The app has been covered over the last several months in student newspapers, which have noted its aggressive use of paid campus ambassadors; in March, Bloomberg reported that the app was “trending at colleges.”

The company raised about $30 million in venture funding last year, according to Pitchbook, and a recent report from Insider says the next round of funding is expected to be much larger.

Despite its direct demands, the app doesn’t ask for much.Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times

Buzzy new apps pop up all the time. Part of the appeal of using them is never knowing which one will stick. The chance that an app might become something significant makes it enticing; novelty and unpredictability head off the feeling that, Oh no, here we go again. The much higher likelihood that a given platform will explode or pivot out of existence gives you permission not to worry too much about what you’re doing there and where it might lead. It’s the best of all worlds, and it doesn’t last long.

My tender memories of signing up for services that would end up altering the course of history heavily feature desktop computers; I am, for the purposes of this conversation, old. But when it comes to social networks, nostalgia strikes fast and young.

“Posting on Instagram these days, there’s such a process,” said Brenden Koo, an undergraduate at Stanford. His parents follow him on Snapchat, which he suggested had “reached its peak.” He joined BeReal in December after hearing about it from a friend. He appreciates the fact that it’s temporary, low effort and “situational.” It’s less of a replacement for anything else than a social media extracurricular.

“Even college students find it to be a little kitschy,” Mr. Koo, 21, said.

His classmate Oriana Riley, 19, agreed that the app asked less of her than others. “I think the once-a-day aspect of BeReal makes it feel a lot healthier than other social media use,” Ms. Riley said. “It feels less entrapping than other social media does.”

The Comfort of Close Friends

BeReal is absolutely not an anti-social-media project — it’s a commercial social photo-sharing app that is attempting to gain a critical mass of users within a largely familiar paradigm. Most apps expect users to produce revenue eventually, through advertising, commerce and other forms of engagement.

BeReal is currently ad-free, and its terms of use prohibit users from posting their own. But it is a start-up, and one that has raised funds from some of the same firms that invested more than a decade ago in Facebook and Instagram — another app that tapped into hazy nostalgia, only by giving users film-like photo filters instead of taking them away.

What BeReal offers now is a fresh version of an experience that has been tainted or worn out elsewhere. But most social apps want to be the next big thing, not a tribute to the last one. The cozy new app that Ms. Riley describes as helping her feel “close to her friends” is its investors’ next hope for a big payday.

If Instagram or Snapchat notified all of their users daily that they had two minutes to post, it would be understood as desperate spam; if TikTok demanded its users share a video before seeing anything else posted that day, as BeReal does, it wouldn’t feel like a way to foster trust or intimacy, but rather like a violation in service of growth hacking. Randomly timed check-ins are fun between friends; at scale, they’re surveillance.

That’s not to say a larger platform won’t mimic or try to buy BeReal if it continues to grow: Snapchat, Instagram and now Twitter have been encouraging users to post less self-consciously with features like Close Friends and Twitter Circle. They yearn for the good old days, too.

BeReal is blunt but makes its points well: If you spend enough time in spaces that demand you be interesting, you eventually become boring. Expecting to see unexceptional posts from your friends makes users more generous with one another, and with themselves. The photos of keyboards, sidewalks, pets and children, of desks and walls and plenty of screens, all accompanied by poorly framed faces, may not feel totally new or sustainable. But for now, for some, they feel like a relief.

For Context is a column that explores the edges of digital culture.

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