Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there is a new app to know about. BeReal, touted as the “anti-Instagram”, is currently the No 1 free app on the App Store in the US. It promises, slightly unnervingly, “a new and unique way to discover who your friends really are in their daily life”.
It works by sending an amber-alert-style push notification to all its users at once – one that includes two panic-inducing yellow warning sign emojis and a message that it is “time to BeReal”. Upon receiving this missive, everyone uploads a photo of what they are doing at that exact moment in time, regardless of whether they happen to be dancing in a club with their friends or sitting alone on their sofa and staring at the wall.
It also takes a simultaneous snapshot from both your front and back-facing cameras, which explains why this app is mostly being used by teenagers and not those of us who have matured into multiple chins. Crucially, you can’t see anyone else’s BeReal until you’ve posted your own.
The app has grown faster than its French founders, Alexis Barreyat – who previously worked at GoPro – and Kévin Perreau anticipated when they created it in 2020, with many users complaining that the single photo permitted each day is taking for ever to upload.
After setting up my profile on the app, I am shown possible friends of mine who are already there, being more real than me. They include two friends from university who don’t use Instagram, a cool girl whose couch I stayed on in New York in 2014, the cool girl who’s couch I’m currently staying on in Los Angeles, my editor, and a boy with whom I had a disastrous romantic affair in Denmark many years ago. I add them all, bar the obvious exception. The app also lets you see strangers’ posts in the Discovery tab, and most users appear to be teenagers.
BeReal’s key ethos is authenticity. Its lack of filters and sense of urgency are designed to eliminate any notions of curation or artifice, words that have seemingly become tarnished by Instagram and its glossy influencers. You can’t even see what the front camera is capturing to help you at least pick a flattering angle.
My first BeReal was a slightly meta snap of me watching the TV, reflected in the mirror. My friend Tom, who is in Turin doing a doctorate, posted a photo of himself and his partner preparing asparagus for dinner. My editor posted a photo of a fish in a tank, and his best impersonation of said fish. Having reached the end of my “feed” with these three posts, I clicked back to the “discovery” tab – which is a slew of strangers in mundanity: someone cooking ramen; someone sitting at a train station in London; a blonde woman on a sofa in Illinois watching baseball and drinking wine with a pile of just-wrapped presents on the floor; a young man in Brazil stuck in traffic; five teenage girls hanging out in a green stairwell; a lot of kids doing homework in their bedrooms. It succeeds at its goal of being drab, but why would anyone want an app to un–inspire them?
Annoyingly, for the week-long duration of this experiment, my BeReal notification went off at some time between 4am and 7am. The app moaned that I was “posting late” although it still allowed me to post, somewhat defeating BeReal’s stated purpose. One time I offered it a photo of my morning coffee but pointed the front camera towards the ceiling fan, because I did not want to post a picture of myself from below the chin first thing in the morning. The app patronizingly told me “your friends prefer it when they can see your face!”, which I would have to disagree with.
Personally, I didn’t feel these prosaic images represented my daily life at all. In my mind, my life is all palm trees silhouetted against beautiful sunsets and hummingbirds drinking from blossoms and the feeling of the sun on my skin – which are the things I post on Instagram. Life can be both authentic and beautiful at the same time, and pretending that “real” life is always ugly and trivial seems like a miserablist’s way to understand the world. My Instagram output may be curated rather than created under hostage-like circumstances, but ultimately it feels more authentic to me than a photo of my forehead and a half-eaten salad.