Can BeReal Deliver On Its Promise?
The hot new social media app has been touted as the anti-Instagram - but will the hype last for BeReal?
Every place on the internet has a unique definition of what counts as good content.
Instagram rewards the carefully manufactured, filtered angles.
TikTok rewards the meticulously cut musical performance.
Twitter rewards short-form, witty quips.
But BeReal - one of the hottest apps in the market - is starting to get popular for a different and strange reason: there is no advantage to putting effort into your content.
There’s no editing studio. There’s no content scheduling. There’s no black-box algorithm that drives engagement-based content into the screens of millions.
The concept is simple enough:
You get a notification once a day that it’s time to post your BeReal
You take a picture of whatever you’re doing at the moment (including the front-facing camera)
You publish it, add a caption and add a location
You add friends and react to their pictures
There is no complicated JTBD for BeReal or different product dimensions to learn. Once you know how the core feed works, the experience is the same regardless of whether you’re looking at a friend’s BeReal picture or a more extensive feed of discovery.
In a way, if Instagram’s central premise is to pump out the sweeping highlights of our life, BeReal prides itself on largely the opposite.
Sure, there will be pictures of parties, vacations, delicate food, and sunsets. But a majority of the pictures are simply just expressions of people in their natural state of being. Sitting at a computer. Laying down on a couch. Hanging out in a car. Watching late-night Modern Family.
There is no glitz, glamor, or inherent provocation.
In fact, the more boring the content, the more appropriate it might be for BeReal.
Invented in 2020 by Alexis Barreyat and Kevin Perrau, BeReal took the world by storm in 2022, jumping from only 10,000 users in Jan 2021 to almost 3 million in April 2022 as the 10th most popular app in the app store. With little paid advertising and no clear revenue streams, it’s a standard consumer business model of venture money driving early scale. But what made it hit two million users in the first place?
What makes BeReal popular?
BeReal isn’t the first app I’ve written about that caught my eye because of its simplicity (see piece on Racket micro-podcasts). Still, even Racket required creativity and competition to stand out in a crowded sea of content. BeReal is neither competitive nor particularly creative. There is no incentive to create something magical or even optimize for likes. Clubhouse made a splash with a steady stream of polarization - even BeReal doesn’t seem to have that going for it.
In short, it has started to shift the rules of survival for a social network.
Like TikTok, it’s frictionless to consume content. Unlike TikTok, there is no specific brand or personality you need to exist on BeReal.
Even writing about this to the average person feels... almost dull. What is the allure in watching your friend glossing over a dim-lit excel spreadsheet as they dutifully clock up their BeReal for the day?
For one, it’s one of the few social networks devoid of any advertising apparatus. In her newsletter piece about BeReal, Rachel Karten explores the question of branding within BeReal with the core question: do people even want brands on the app in the first place?
It’s a nice escape from the advertising hegemony of Facebook or Google for consumers - but even if brands wanted to advertise on it, is there even a path to finding the right audience? BeReal collects little to no user data beyond pictures and location. There is no active search categorization or discovery. What is the ceiling of audience research?
Similarly, like Racket or Dispo, there isn’t a Twitter-like follower graph that rewards popular or highly engaged users. On BeReal, you friend people individually, and you lose nothing by missing a day or two of content. For some, the allure could even be the intimacy - that you can’t use it with more than a small group of friends.
Even if intimacy was the largest advantage, BeReal is far from the only app without advertising or a follower graph. But is that enough of a selling point?
My other theory on its popularity is that it’s more psychological.
During the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch became famous for their works of quiet domestic scenes, with their subjects focusing on conversations, chores, and leisure time.
It was - by all intents and purposes - boring.
But these artists found an incredible sense of beauty in the mundane. Trivial activities regularly caught their attention. Writes Rob Marchant:
They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred.
It’s not boredom we’re attracted to. It’s the idea that BeReal almost gives a new sense of meaning to perhaps the most average part of our day. Like Vermeer and De Hooch found they could rewire their brains to find fascination in mediocrity, we’re almost doing the same with BeReal.
Suddenly, being on a laptop in the middle of a work day is an act worthy of someone’s attention. Maybe they’ll see the picture and notice more than just you at work - a decoration in your house, a new haircut, an alarming error in a SQL query you wrote. We’re suddenly funneling attention into the parts of our lives that we would never even journal or tell a partner - and our reward is people finding reasons to make it more than an average moment.
Perhaps there are also self-esteem benefits? Certainly for someone who has a regularly boring life with a newfound aesthetic appeal on BeReal. Or the presence of community? Knowing that others are having equally non-interesting days while you’re fighting to free yourself from the glamor of Instagram?
There’s a quote from Dear Evan Hansen that I love toward the end of the first half: “If you never get around to doing some remarkable thing, that doesn’t mean that you’re not worth remembering.”
That’s what BeReal does. It stamps the non-remarkable thing as content.
Where Does BeReal Go Next?
There is a Danish concept called Hygge (pronounced Hue-gue) used to describe a lifestyle: the pursuit of everyday happiness. Per HyggeHouse:
It literally only requires consciousness, a certain slowness, and the ability to not just be present – but recognize and enjoy the present.
While Hygge is more about physical comforts (like cozy socks on a winter day), I find an interesting parallel between its obsession with the present and BeReal.
There is a manufactured pause, where everyone acts without inhibition to appreciate the present fully and then goes about their day. It’s almost the virtual equivalent of 11:11 with less grandiose dreams.
In the end, most people would probably confess that the length of app use is about 2-3 minutes. After you take your daily picture and scroll for a few minutes, is there any more stickiness to the app?
Competing against the social media giants requires more than a simple daily message. Facebook and Twitter even reel you into a catatonic consumption state that you overlook until hours later. Without a more exhaustive audience discovery, in-product activity, or monetization plan, it certainly has no chance of beating Instagram, Facebook, Snap, or even Clubhouse.
But let’s say you call this a victory. A social app you can use for only five minutes? No lasting addiction or emotional damage? Frictionless content sharing a welcome interruption in the world of highly-judged content? Not bad.
I certainly enjoy it and enjoy following my friends on it.
Evolution from this state is tricky, though. In its app store description, BeReal makes no secret of the fact that it sees Instagram and TikTok as its competition:
But interestingly enough, the challenge is not that BeReal would have to build out features as a necessary evil to compete with TikTok and Instagram. It’s that TikTok and Instagram have all the tools at their disposal to beat BeReal at its own game.
In a piece for the New Yorker, R. E. Hawley argues that Instagram has already pioneered the process of magnifying the non-extraordinary.
One could argue that Instagram has already beat BeReal at its own game. In the past few years, many have remarked on the rise of “casual Instagram,” a philosophy of posting that Mashable recently described as having a “studied carelessness”—natural lighting, less makeup or none at all, and visible clutter abound. This, too, is not so much a shift away from performance as a shift from high to low. Be it on Instagram, TikTok, BeReal, or elsewhere, users cannot help but perform a version of themselves that has been idealized or augmented for public consumption.
BeReal’s threat isn’t so much stunted growth from an underbuilt product as the mere philosophy of its existence becoming more vogue.
On top of that, there is another point above that Hawley calls out: How much of it is actually real?
When I think back to using BeReal this past week, I definitely can remember distinct moments where I retook the picture to hide a double chin, got a better angle of the television, and even on a particularly gloomy day at my downtown office, moved my desk to a view of San Francisco Bay so that my BeReal could capture something more elegant than a traditional office environment.
As much as I tried to “embrace authenticity” and “find beauty in the mundane,” even I was guilty of building an inauthentic present.
This is a tricky problem for BeReal to solve - they’ve basically built an app to escape an Instagram-like enhancement model for photos. The issue is no longer the product itself - it’s how far the product can go before people lose their minds.
Can even influencers who go wild on Instagram force themselves into a container on something like BeReal?
BeReal aspires for you to show your friends who you really are.
But are we ready for even that much?