Opinion: You will never ‘BeReal’ on social media

Embrace the facades of social media for what they are


Reinhard Dedecek

Via Reinhard Dedecek/Flickr.

Unbeknownst to those old enough to witness the birth of humanity’s most important invention, the “technological Big Bang,” the internet would go on to redefine human communication in just a few short decades. In the 21st century, for everyday people, this paradigm shift manifested as social media, rising with the old platforms like Myspace and Facebook and persisting with platforms like TikTok and BeReal.

A recent trend has intoxicated large swaths of people, promising them a break from the long-standing norms of social media – a return to “being real.” However, those partaking in this trend are, to quote Alan Watts, “trying to bite their own teeth.”

Although social media platforms differ in format, they all boil down to the same foundational idea. Whether a user is tweeting their hottest take, posting a vacation picture or videoing a scripted skit, that user is broadcasting a message to other users. What kind of message is being sent is entirely up to the poster, even if they don’t realize it.

The message can be purposeful and with an agenda or entirely innocuous. An example of the former is a political hot take laden with fallacies intended to stir anger. An example of the latter is the aforementioned vacation picture. But even the user who posted this picture is sending a message. They’re not just uploading a photo, they’re implicitly saying “Look, I am on vacation and am enjoying it.”

To be clear – there is nothing wrong with this. The point is to establish that everything posted on social media is done through a conscious action resulting in a message. Viewing a person’s social media presence is not like looking at their lives through a transparent screen. It’s like looking through a keyhole and the things visible on the other side are deliberately assembled for viewing.

By virtue of this, social media is fundamentally incompatible with the “authenticity” being toted by recent trends. But one of the biggest advocates, a platform called BeReal (how terribly on the nose), attempts to circumvent the norms established by other platforms by giving users, at random points in the day, two minutes to take a picture of whatever they were doing. More specifically, two photos. One from the phone’s front camera and another from the rear. The reminder is headlined by a message from the app: “Time to BeReal.”

In theory, BeReal is totally antithetical to the model of other platforms. A random two-minute window should make it impossible to manufacture a scene or, as previously described, send a deliberate message. However, the app makes it simple to get around its rules.

For one, the photos can be re-taken countless times, as long as they’re taken within the two-minute window. Secondly, the counter on said window doesn’t actually start until the user interacts with the reminder. Theoretically you can get the notification at 10 a.m. while eating cereal but choose not to open it until, say, you have something eventful happening at 8 p.m.

Although not currently at peak popularity, BeReal trended wildly late 2022, averaging 14 million daily users in October, according to mobile app tracker Apptopia.

The app’s exploitable interface combined with its rapid popularity resulted in its core purpose collapsing and users defaulting back to orchestrated messages of other platforms. Mashable’s Elena Cavender, after testing the app for herself, found that BeReal users began to upload their memorable BeReals to TikTok, generating thousands of likes and copycats. As Cavender put it, “what was marketed as an authentic social media platform is now just another way to commodify your life.”

The fascination with presenting “raw” or “real” images of oneself on social media is not new. For example, “Spam” accounts on Instagram have been used for this purpose. While an ear-to-ear selfie may be posted on a main Instagram account, a spam would be used to post something more candid and less glamorized, sometimes with a caption detailing a random tangent, rant or train of thought. “Private” stories, viewable only by select people, serve the same purpose. The draw with spam accounts and private stories, as the name suggests, is that they’re only intended to be viewed by select people out of an overall following.

The reality is, social media is a permanent part of our social lives but that doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all definition of our identity. The desire to be perceived as authentic on social media is, bluntly, futile. And pointless. And a little bit ironic. A person’s social media presence will always present a shell of themselves and never the real deal. To re-introduce Watts’ quote fully: “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”

The quote’s sentiment is applicable here. It seems as if the desire to be authentic on social media is an effort to express individualism, to define oneself. Which again, is not only okay, but good. Doing so on social media, however, is naught. So instead of trying to curate a profile that makes you look genuine, just go and be genuine in real life. If you commit to that, you won’t need a profile to do your bidding.