By: Teresa Pavia | August 22, 2022
There is little more that distinguishes the 21st century (thus far) than online social media websites. People of our college-aged cohort may only recall MySpace as a subject of our Millennial cousins’ blithe nostalgia, but it dominated the digital stratosphere in the early aughts. Facebook continues to be the world’s favorite social media network, boasting 2.93 billion users today, though most Gen Z-ers hail Instagram as their preferred platform, with 75% of its 1 billion monthly active users between the ages of 18 and 24. This historic transition from one age group’s chosen site to the next indicates that there is likely to be a new most popular network adopted by Gen Alpha. It would be a safe bet to assume that this new site, whatever it is, will place more of an emphasis on reality, or reality as it exists in the virtual space.
The original intention most widely accepted for the creation of these social media sites is the idea of increased connectivity. Social media allows us to keep up with old friends, new acquaintances, celebrities, sports teams, any other interests, and in turn, our job is to update everyone else with the goings-on of our lives.
With many of us having created our first Instagram accounts as early as middle school, we Zoomers are distinctly aware of the adverse effects social media has had on our personal lives and self image. The rise of Instagram has led many to acknowledge social media as nothing more than a “highlight reel” of a person’s life.
The highlight reel shows only the fun and exciting things that happen in our lives. The pictures that get posted usually have a hundred or so copies of it at different angles, different lighting, and different poses. The one that is chosen is the one the chooser believes to be the most flattering to themselves. Beyond that, filters and, increasingly, amateur photoshopping is commonplace on these apps.
BeReal sets out to change all that. The idea behind the new app is for users to take a picture of what they are doing at the exact moment the BeReal notification goes off, which the website claims to be a “new and unique way to discover who your friends really are in their daily life.”
This summer we saw the rise in popularity of the new app in real time --I know more than a few people who have taken to posting their BeReals on Instagram Stories (though notably, never as an Instagram post), and seen memes and TikToks floating around of people lamenting the fact that the BeReal notification only came after they were doing something fun. While catching up with an old friend from highschool one night she had said, more to herself than to me, “let’s take my BeReal.” I asked if the notification had just come in, she said “no,” absentmindedly, and we posed for a picture.
This exchange, about 10 seconds long and in between sips of cheap beer and giggles, piqued my interest enough to where I decided to finally get the app, late to the trend as per usual. I had been aware of it, but held off on downloading mainly because I suffer from chronic FOMO.
So, on a Sunday morning in August, I decided to try BeReal out for myself. After adding only my close friends from a list that seemed to have everyone I knew, I turned on BeReal’s notifications (I do not have Instagram or SnapChat notifications on to try to LIMIT my time on social media). I was immediately prompted to take my first BeReal post: fourteen hours late, just woken up, pre coffee, and with only two minutes to snap a picture of myself. That whole time I was fixing my hair, getting my camera to the right spot to show the Google Doc with the original first draft of this article, and captioned it “for journalism purposes,” just so everyone would know what I was doing here so late. I fashioned an expression like I was stressed out, since that's how I was feeling, and offered my unmade face up for judgment.
Finally able to look at what my friends were posting, I quickly noticed that people did in fact seem to relate to BeReal as more of a low maintenance social media app. Captions, likes, and comments were sparse, and few of my friends seemed compelled to post every day, as we were supposed to. Interestingly, my fifteen-year-old cousin usually averages about 30 likes and comments on her BeReals, leading me to wonder if the younger generations take social media even more seriously than we do.
I noticed that people didn’t really seem to care if they were “on time” or not. Posts were often several hours late, and varied in subject matter. I had a friend that exclusively posted BeReal's while she was using the bathroom (hilarious if profane), and another who posted pictures of herself that weren’t quite Instagrammable, but which she certainly looked beautiful in. I observed that their Instagram profiles very closely mirrored their BeReal posts, if not exactly in content, then in context.
I tried my best to stick with the app’s official instructions, but found myself wavering pretty early on into the experiment. Who cares about my walk to the gym? My view of the subway platform? Besides, most of the time when I was with my friends and the notifications actually did come in, I didn’t notice because I wasn't looking at my phone anyways. Most of my BeReals consisted of me hanging out in my room, and, even though that’s sort of the whole point of the app, I still felt as though I was failing.
Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” compares human interaction to a performance. In other words, the “self” that we present to the world is something that we act out in front of an audience, based on how we should want to be perceived. Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror” applies this idea to social media, and contends that this performance is extended into perpetuity. The very nature of having an online profile exists as a constant performance, and, the basis of every social media platform is the profile.
Social media makes it extremely easy for us to be in full control of our perception. We pick the best angles with the best lighting, and the scenic background, and caption it with the quirkiest quip we can think of. The performance, the presentation of self, is exacerbated because we can pick and choose exactly what we want to show other people, in a way that is entirely unnatural, and yet, has become second nature (full disclosure, I almost never look as good as I do in my profile picture).
These dynamics of social media as a facade is well understood by its users, so much so that it has given way to the #MakeInstagramCasualAgain movement. However, many a TikTok pop culture savant on my For You Page has postulated that this is still a conscious representation of oneself. Posting photo dumps or having a “casual” profile is a serious attempt to appear unserious. Casualness does not exist because a social media post is inherently intentional. It is a strategic step in the presentation of self, online.
Whether BeReal is as much on everyone else’s minds as it is on mine, or if my TikTok algorithm has just lined up with my Google searches, I’ve noticed people questioning the longevity of the app. One person posted a video predicting that Instagram would introduce a feature with the same idea as BeReal, that would be similar to a Close Friends story. Another claimed that BeReal would quickly lose popularity because there was no way to generate ad revenue from it without destroying the integrity of the app. Funny enough my roommate, one of the first people I knew to download and use BeReal, deleted it over the summer to make space on her phone for storage.
Social media, and the philosophical questions that it raises, is indeed a uniquely 21st century perplexity. What comes of it is looked for with much anticipation. For now I’ll keep up with my Instagram and BeReal-- at least until something else comes along.