Downtime

Some 20-Year-Olds Explain the “Honest Instagram” App That’s Sweeping the Youths

A phone displaying a slide from BeReal that features a photo of a dog and an inset photo of a person's face
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

It takes a lot to make me feel old at 23. But every now and then, I’ll encounter something that leaves me feeling out of touch with the youth, the group to which I allegedly belong. Over this past Easter weekend, I sat in the back seat of my parents’ car questioning my mortality, all because my 20-year-old sister showed me a new social media app.

We were on a drive to Montreal to visit family, a hand-me-down TV set for our grandparents wedged between my sister and me. From the other side of the television I heard her squeal, “Oh, BeReal!” This string of words sounded like it could either be berating someone or giving directions in a photo shoot. I leaned over to her side of the car and demanded an explanation.

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I’ve since learned some things. Founded in January 2020, BeReal is advertised as “an authentic, spontaneous, and candid social network.” It’s an app that sends all users a notification at a seemingly random time in the day and gives them two minutes to post a photo from their front- and back-facing cameras, capturing the scene around them right at that moment. Users can always post late—though the app will then tell on them—but they can’t see what their friends have posted until they do.

BeReal co-founder Alexis Barreyat’s professed goal in creating the app was to foster “genuine” interactions online, the company said in marketing materials, “in response to a feeling that current social apps are doing everything else but connecting us with our friends and family.” But the real conceit here is that most of the time, you’re probably doing something incredibly mundane like studying or running errands, so the app deglamorizes our lives as seen on Instagram.

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“It’s stupid and fun,” my sister said of its appeal. “You know what, I like to keep tabs on people. I don’t use Snapchat because it stresses me out and it’s just way too much. This way, when people are posting what they’re doing, I get to keep tabs on people without being invasive and creepy.”

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Though it’s been around for two years, BeReal has seen a huge increase in users over the past four months, especially in North America. Since January, the number of monthly users has increased by 315 percent, and as of April, it was clocking around 100,000 daily downloads worldwide. But whereas TikTok is essentially a content farm that has reached a universal permeability online, there’s been scant talk of BeReal until recently. For better or for worse, I consider myself “extremely online,” so the fact that this app somehow blew up without my knowledge startled me.

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As others explained the app to me, I figured out why. My sister distinctly remembered seeing an ad for BeReal online; before long, her friends were sending her requests inviting her to download the app. Reilly Kennedy, a 22-year-old college student, told me his first serious introduction to the app was when another student exclaimed that she received the time-to-post notification in the middle of an English lecture, interrupting the professor. Since the lecture was already derailed by the student’s outburst, she was asked to explain the app to the class, providing some context.

Aliki Karanikas, a 20-year-old student, told me she had a similar experience, having heard about the app more and more frequently from March through April until she finally downloaded it for herself. BeReal gets real for people when they can’t escape their flailing peers responding to the two-minute window—and targeted marketing in college bubbles has been the app’s key growth strategy.

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Asked how many friends she’s added to the daily glimpse of her life, Karanikas said, “I have too many. I have 50 people. I want fewer.” Compared with Instagram, BeReal has a sense of exclusivity. “Instagram came very much so at a time when people were trying to get a lot of followers. It was a popularity contest,” she said. That wouldn’t appeal on BeReal: “I’m sorry, I don’t care about seeing what 1,000 people are doing.”

On BeReal, selfies are considered “cringe,” according to Karanikas. But while the app moves away from ultra-curated posts, there’s still some requisite artifice. “You’re still having that aspect of, OK, things in my life are going really well and I’m enjoying myself,” she said. (My sister revealed that the best BeReals are when you’re “doing something casual, but you’re with other people—it just looks fun and you wish you were there.”) Indeed, people are already cheating: Kennedy recounted a TikTok he saw of a group of friends waiting in front of the Eiffel Tower so that they’d be somewhere glamorous and cool when it was time to post their BeReal. The TikTok was made in jest, but Kennedy argued most users get that this betrays the spirit of the app. “If you look at it as something more for yourself and less about what you’re presenting to other people, then it does become more fun,” he said.

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In other words, if you read about what Instagram is doing to teen minds, my young guides said BeReal is encouraging something like the opposite. Authenticity is valued more than content or glamour. Most of the time, you’ll be caught sitting at a desk doing work or shuttling yourself between tedious chores, and there’s something comforting about seeing everyone stuck at work or grinding out an essay. “If you’re not looking your finest today and you post your BeReal, that’s what it is. I think people are looking for a bit of an escape from those standards and assumptions. I find it refreshing when I post photos. I’m like, OK, could have been better, but this is what I’m looking like right now,” Karanikas said.

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You’re also not being sucked in by an onslaught of content. BeReal demands just a two-minute window a day, and there’s no expectation to spend hours scrolling—how many times can you look at photos of a friend at their desk, watching Netflix, or at the grocery store? Once you’ve run out of your limited supply, there isn’t much to look at unless you scroll through the Discovery page, where you can see a random selection of BeReals globally. And as Kennedy pointed out, that too gets old quickly: “There is something impersonal about it unless you actually know that person.”

In my conversations, I did detect that BeReal won’t get a pass with its clever conceit forever. “I always wonder about how social media companies are trying to trick you into making money,” Kennedy said. “I was like, wait a second. This is a social media company that I just voluntarily signed up for that’s harvesting my data in another way where I’m taking a photo of what I’m doing every single day at whatever time they tell me.” Alas, you start to realize some things as you get older.

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