I have been on BeReal since March – this year’s grooviest, see-and-be-seen social platform. Six months on, I’ve learned that my life is way more dull than I had realised.
BeReal is a photo sharing app in which once a day, at a random time, every user is sent a notification to post a photo of their surroundings within a two-minute time frame. You don’t get to wait for the fun bit of your day, or find a flattering photo on your camera roll. My BeReals are almost invariably of my computer screen, my dog or my fridge. Even being on holiday doesn’t always help: sod’s law demands that the app’s distinctive ping will come while you are buying suncream or at the car hire office, not on the beach.
I am struck each day by not only how pointlessly mortified I am by my own mundanity – when the ping came while I was on the bus home from a chic restaurant, I found myself bristling at the unfairness of the timing, which is patently ridiculous – but how compelling mundanity turns out to be.
On BeReal, you only get to see everyone else’s photos once you’ve posted yours. So if you want to scroll through your friends’ photos – the view out of the window of the 6.04 from Charing Cross, the un-tablescaped kind of family dinner, with kitchen roll for napkins and phones on the table – you need to share yours first. There is a cheering camaraderie to the process: I trust you with my life, warts and all, and you show me yours.
Every BeReal post is in fact two photos, not one, because the reverse camera takes a photo of you as you snap your surroundings. Even if you look presentable, most of the time, that aforementioned sod’s law dictates that you will be captured in your dressing gown, or sweaty-faced in gym gear. Oh, and there are no filters.
But that’s not the worst of it. The angle necessary to take a coherent shot of what is in front of you results in horrendously unflattering selfies. If you adjust the angle of your phone to take a nice selfie, everyone can tell, because the other photo will be of the ceiling. So even after six months’ practice, I count any fewer than three chins as a good day.
But it turns out that that’s OK. Because what BeReal reminds me, as I scroll through the selfies of my friends, sleepy-eyed in the morning or frazzle-haired on the way home from work, of their kids strapped into car seats and their clumsily made beds and heatwave-wilted window boxes, is that beauty is not the same as perfection. Instagram has trained us to aspire to a glossy, idealised fantasy of life; BeReal, by contrast, shows us that beauty exists everywhere: in the joy of the everyday, in the bones of the people we love – whether or not they have mascara on.
BeReal has no influencers. Instead, the app scans your contacts, inviting you to “friend” people whose details are in your phone already – that is, people you know in real life. Unlike an Instagram follow, a BeReal friending is a two-way exchange, harking back to the old days of the internet, when it was connective tissue for friends and family, before social media was cannibalised by the algorithms of marketing. That BeReal has taken off only this year – a full two years after it launched – appears to correlate with changes in the Instagram algorithm. My Instagram feed was once my family, friends and colleagues; now it is mostly made up of witless mini-videos in which anonymous influencers show me how to do mindbendingly obvious things. The algorithms don’t lie, so clearly there is a voracious market for short reels of manically smiley people pointing at words on the screen while demonstrating how to make a sandwich or brush your hair, but it’s not working for me.
As with Wordle, part of the appeal of BeReal is that it is a short daily ritual rather than a voracious black hole swallowing hours of free time. Wordle would never have been so addictive if you had been able to do more than one puzzle a day. Similarly, by allowing just one photo to be shared, BeReal never outstays its welcome. It creates a daily ritual, a gentle heartbeat in the background of real life. The sound of its alert, promising a scattering of esoteric updates from friends and family around the world, is the modern equivalent of what the thump of morning post on the mat used to sound like, in the days when post came every morning and brought letters and postcards rather than just bills.
Authenticity feels like a tarnished word these days, cheapened by strategists and marketeers. But it still matters. The success of BeReal – the most-downloaded free app in the UK, the US and Australia in August – is testament to a yearning for life online that is about connection rather than confection. That the demographic of BeReal skews young – I was introduced to it by my teenage kids, and have watched younger colleagues and friends, twentysomethings and now thirtysomethings, swell the ranks – suggests the way the wind is blowing. As do reports that Meta is testing a feature called Candid Challenges for Instagram Stories: a notification to capture and share a photo within a daily two-minute time frame. Six months on, BeReal has shown me that life is, for the most part, decidedly unglamorous. And that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jess Cartner-Morley is associate editor (fashion) at the Guardian