By now, we all agree that the attention-sucking, focus-destroying, all-consuming might of social media is a bad thing… right? We probably don’t need to get into the concerning rise in mental health issues amongst young people that suspiciously correlate to time spent on social media to know that it’s not great.
Scrolling endlessly on your phone for no reason other than feeding our body’s natural dopamine reward system is exactly what the companies that invented these apps designed them to do. They play on our most basic instincts and make vast profits off of keeping us hooked.
The problem with social media is that it’s not all bad. If it was, we could just regulate it out of our lives. The issue is that it actually brings us a huge number of benefits, from finding niche interests online to helping overthrow tyrannical governments.
But it’s clear that many of us recognise the dangers and want to change our relationship with the all-seeing eye of apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and so on.
This, in part, explains the popularity of the French-developed app, BeReal. Designed to “show your friends who you really are, for once,” the app takes a stab at curating an ‘authentic’ online persona. Users are notified at a random time in the day to “be real,” and are given two minutes to post a selfie and a photo of what they’re doing. Only those who do can see what everyone else has posted. There are no filters and you can’t ‘grow’ a following like you can on Instagram.
The app, launched in 2019, has recently caught on in a big way. It explicitly states that it “won’t make you famous” and it won’t “waste your time”. It claims to simply want to give you an unfiltered way of seeing what your friends are up to – who wouldn’t want that?
Currently, it sits at number one in both Apple and Android app stores and has clocked up 28 million downloads, mostly within the past eight months. Its meteoric rise has not gone unnoticed either, with Instagram apparently trialling a copy of the app’s main function within its own. The ‘IG Candid’ feature is parent-company Meta’s attempt to do to BeReal what they did to Snapchat when they added Instagram stories. The internet has done a collective eye-roll in response.
While BeReal is just one of a host of purposefully ‘smaller’ apps designed to foster community and authenticity in our digitally-mediated relationships, it has two issues. The first is financial. The startup is set to close a funding round that will see the company valued at US$630 million, and yet it has no ads and no financial model to speak of thus far. In that sense, without changing the very nature of the app to monetize its users, it’s unclear exactly how it plans to make money. That will probably have to change if it wants to do so and the gimmick could well run out when that day comes.
The second is the appeal to authenticity itself. As R. E. Hawley has written in The New Yorker, the difference between BeReal and Instagram is not “its relationship to truth but the size and scale of its deceptions.”
“For as much as the company preaches authenticity, what’s actually being transmitted is merely a different kind of performance,” they write, noting that the natural inclination following the app’s alert is to make it look like you’re doing something fun or cool, even when you aren’t.
What’s more, the app is simply another excuse to look at your phone, promoting distraction and probably causing some anxiety about the cool things your friends are doing, especially when you weren’t invited.
It’s not that BeReal is a bad idea, it’s just that it touches upon a wider philosophical problem with social media that it can’t solve. It’s unlikely that any app is going to be able to distil the entire human experience into easily consumable content. In failing to do so, these apps are inevitably going to leave us distracted, isolated, and sad.
If you really want to be real, just do fun things you enjoy, with or without people you love, and don’t post about it. You’ll be happier in the long run not turning your brief experience on this planet into ‘content’ for the benefit of giant tech corporations.