28.9 C
New York
Wednesday, June 19, 2024

BeReal and the Doomed Quest for Online Authenticity

On its ascent to the coveted top spot in app store charts, BeReal—the French photo-sharing app launched in 2020—has been heralded as the antidote to social media fakery. Staving off canny staging and slick curation, BeReal gives users just two minutes following a prompt to submit a dual front-camera/back-camera image. Only after posting their own BeReal are users able to view their friends’ dual image montages of “the moment and the reaction,” sans filters and FaceTune.

Performativity-shaming is baked into the app’s design: If someone misses the two-minute deadline or retakes a shot, their friends are tipped off that they haven’t been real.

In pitching itself as “not another social network,” BeReal’s rebuff of other platforms is as unabashed as it is irreverent. Its App Store description, for instance, reroutes fame-seeking aspirants to competitors with a faux-taunt: “If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” The ur-narrative is that other platforms are magnets for shallow performativity and inauthenticity—a portrayal which is bolstered by its “No bullshit. No ads” stance.

While BeReal has been lauded for its spontaneity, informality, and provision of “unvarnished glimpses into everyday life,” many are wondering if it will outlive the hype. But perhaps a more important question is whether we, the users, have outgrown the culture of likes-tallying perfectionism associated with mainstream social networks, most notably Instagram. 

By some accounts, we have: Researchers have noted a significant uptick in “social media fatigue,” which they attribute in part to the pandemic. But even the tech-weariest among us find it hard to disregard the mandate to put forward our best (digital) selves. And so, despite the pretense of novelty, BeReal represents the latest iteration in the cycle of social media sites that spring from the push-and-pull tension of authenticity and performance.

The research we’ve conducted on social media and youth cultures has left us skeptical of any glib assurance of “realness” peddled by platforms—or any company, for that matter. After all, the promise of authenticity is deeply, and ambivalently, rooted in brand culture. When in 1971, Coca-Cola resolutely declared its soda “the real thing,” it made a not-so-subtle jab at competitor Pepsi. The result all but usurped Pepsi’s counterculture image of “impudent insurrectionaries [and] sassy upstarts flouting the dull repressive mores of the past.” As media historian Jefferson Pooley has argued, the more earnestly we pursue an “authentic” sense of self, the more marketers try to entice us with products and services that can fulfill that need. But, of course, it’s a Sisyphean endeavor.

As the “Cola Wars'' made abidingly clear, there’s a generational dynamic underpinning the commercial promise of authenticity. In a 2016 essay, Real Life editor and writer Rob Horning described “authenticity” as “commercialized nostalgia for that way of life that was articulated by a different set of economic relations: precapitalistic, or pre-massified, or pre-globalized—whatever word you want to use to describe how it seemed when you were nine years old, when things were ’real.’”

And therein lies a key to BeReal’s marketing gambit: its core focus on Gen Z, the first “digitally native” generation, never knowing a world without social media (literally, or at least conceptually). In Horning’s framing, each generation has its own version of a more authentic world (the one familiar to 9-year-old you). Depending on your age, that could be epitomized by Facebook, askFM, MySpace, or perhaps no social media at all. While Gen Z’s “authentic world” is likely more of a platform cacophony than previous generations’ was, it’s worth noting that Gen Z members have been socialized in the art of strategic self-presentation from as far back as they can remember.

With each new app, Big Tech mouthpieces try to beguile us with a repackaged version of authenticity. But as users and advertisers join the fray, the commercial imperative wins out again and again. And so, we share our spontaneous collages on the “anti-Instagram” until the Next Big App convinces us to abandon the charade. In a 2017 article, researchers Meredith Salisbury and Jefferson Pooley offer the concept of “reactive dynamism” to describe this cyclicality, wherein each new social network defines itself against its precursor’s seeming inauthenticity. They note that then-buzzy platforms like Peach and Beme peddled versions of authenticity that their ad-driven, hyper-conformist competitors like Facebook and Instagram no longer offered. But, crucially, even the latter two promised authenticity in their earlier, scaling-up days.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Though it might seem hard to believe, Instagram—home to the digitally enhanced, esteem-ravaging Instagram Face—originally enticed users with tools for creative agency. As Salisbury and Pooley explain, the early Instagram vibe, customizing your photos with gritty, “Polaroid-esque filters,” offered a particular version of self-expression, what they dub “creative authenticity.” And so, there’s something rhythmic, if not deterministic, to the way so many platforms have dangled the promise of realness to successive generations. But while Casey Neistat’s brainchild, Beme, is all but forgotten in the social media graveyard, others—Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok—have all enjoyed a ride on social media’s authenticity merry-go-round.

Our own research has brought the patterned nature of authenticity appeals into sharp relief. In 2017, when interviewing teens and college students about their bid to “do it for the ’gram,” Emily Hund, author of the forthcoming monograph The Influencer Industry, and I (Brooke) heard about their creative investments in “the grid.” Sure, there was an impulse to accommodate platforms’ push toward artful (read: brand-friendly) aesthetics, but there was also a draw to such curatorial practice that people described as innately self-expressive.

Ysabel’s recent interviews with BeReal participants are markedly similar to those done about Instagram years ago. While some participants agreed that the app provided a welcome reprieve from its more curatorial competitors, others rejected the idea that BeReal furnished anything new, especially with participants’ calculated self-presentation tactics. Seventeen-year-olds Kiana and Ria explained that their friends shun the two-minute time frame to “wait for their day to be interesting.” “I get a bit annoyed when it comes at a bad time and I’m in bed,” says Kiana, “So I don’t post, or I make a blank screen. That’s the way it is; people use it in a way that it wasn’t made to be used.” According to Ria, BeReal “was made to be anti-Instagram, but it’s not really achieved that.”

Despite the tedium of platform companies’ authenticity appeals, the shunning of all things “fake” feels very of-the-moment. It animates everything from influencer policing and celebrity shaming to participation in the “Great Resignation” among those no longer willing to feign job devotion.

And so, while BeReal is emulating a well-trodden marketing strategy, its popularity is a product of the zeitgeist: a deep, unrelenting fatigue, particularly among young people and those just entering the workforce. With their oft-derided “girlboss” and “hustle” cultures, there’s a push toward high levels of performativity and editability across social apps, especially Instagram (hence the coining of the term “Instagram fatigue,” to which BeReal explicitly responds). The sense of disillusionment with social media ideals has been fermenting for years, and the always-on culture of working from home makes any opportunity to be “off” (read: real) especially seductive. But at the same time, much of Gen Z still posts to social media in a curated, or at least strategically calibrated way, because they’ve long been exhorted to do so. BeReal isn’t likely to undo that.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

And Instagram fatigue is about more than crass performativity: Users have also grown tired of platforms’ incessant interchangeability. While Salisbury and Pooley predicted that “new and existing networks will continue to define themselves against their rivals by invoking some notion of the authentic, for as long as the ideal itself maintains its powerful hold,” the tempo seems to be accelerating. Platforms are becoming indistinguishable: Instagram Reels vs. TikTok, Twitter Fleets vs. Instagram Stories, Snapchat vs. Instagram filters, and on it goes. How long, then, will it take for one of the big players to copy BeReal? Instagram’s Duals suggests that BeReal is already a player in the imitation game. As Kaitlynn Tiffany recently wrote, “the app about not getting famous is getting, maybe, too famous.”

In their endless one-upmanship, platform companies would do well to remember that the ideal they are flaunting—authenticity—is a social construct. And this idea well predates social networks. In the 1950s, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote that people want to put forward their best selves in any performative scenario, in-person or otherwise, to avoid social stigma. This means that pinning down your most “authentic” self is always-already elusive. Accordingly, marketers continue to offer it up, and on the cycle goes.

In the end, BeReal is unlikely to deracinate the social media culture of self-presentation, where production of the self is, as Alison Hearn put it, “purposeful and outer directed.” But at least it allows us to feign indifference in two-minute increments.

Related Articles

Latest Articles