Sneak Peeks

New social apps offer only illusory respite from the pressure to perform

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The below was adapted from an earlier Real Life newsletter. Subscribe to weekly installments here.

The app BeReal is not subtle in its marketing. Its to-the-point name attests to what it claims to offer, that its gimmick of having people share a single, purportedly unpremeditated image at some randomly appointed time everyday is in fact a truth procedure that results in a direct recording of a person’s reality — “a new and unique way to discover who your friends really are in their daily life,” as the promotional copy reads. It apparently goes without saying that how your friends choose to present themselves to you is false and that it’s only natural that you should want to penetrate the veil of their mendacity. What are friends for? If you can’t turn yourself into an object of voyeuristic curiosity for them, are they even really your friends?

But then again, who am I to say? I joined BeReal a few days ago, and I don’t have any friends. My engagement with the app is limited to scrolling through its “Discover” tab and seeing some exceedingly mundane photos of mostly young European people, often taken while driving or sitting at a computer. Welcome to the desert of the real, I suppose.

A good way to “be real” with yourself is to rethink who you want to know about your life

It may be that new social apps like BeReal gain traction initially because it is fun to have a pretense for yet again rebooting one’s friends list. It must be reassuring to see who is still willing to add you, to have a low-stakes reason to reconnect. A good way to “be real” with yourself, too, is to rethink who you want to know about your life and fantasize about actually having control over it.

But why do we owe our friends more of our “reality,” as the app presumes? Why would anyone assume that posting with less forethought will make us seem more friendly? It’s clear, of course, why tech companies would like us to think like that, but what is actually in it for us? BeReal’s arbitrary restrictions on what can be shared is framed as unveiling some purer truth, as if it compelled something revealing by denying you the chance of one-upping anyone. The app tries to tap into a quasi-therapeutic fantasy common to lots of “social” apps (and algorithmic feeds), that you can become a better or at least more interesting person simply by getting out of your own way. The mechanics of the app’s interface can take care of the reciprocity and the interpersonal dynamics that would otherwise be necessary to nurture relationships. You just have to do what it tells you without overthinking it.

Much of BeReal’s press coverage tends to take its premise at face value: It’s not just a means of disinhibiting users who’ve perhaps grown weary of submitting their personal data to tech companies; it’s not just a way to habituate them to a new daily routine where they reveal “ordinary” and thus more commercially useful information about themselves — no, it’s a chance for Gen Z to be “authentic” at last. A Wall Street Journal write-up claims that BeReal offers a homeopathic remedy for social media overuse, promising the liberating opportunity to “Post quickly, scroll and go live your life … The aim is to share real life, when it’s happening, with friends.” This somewhat incoherently sets up an opposition between “real life” and the connectivity that makes it possible to share that life “when it’s happening.” The life being shared both is and isn’t the one that you are going off to live; it’s “real life” that’s necessarily tied to the phone. The “reality” that every BeReal user shares ultimately is the fact they are obeying an app and using their phone at an appointed moment. If users can “go live their life” only when they are not thinking about posting, then they can never be said to post “real life” at all.

What is perceived as “real,” then, thanks to the app, is the fact of social coordination itself rather than the particular contingencies of any individual’s contribution. The specifics of what anyone else is doing is incidental; what matters is that they are willing to play the game and follow the rules. Did you do the Wordle yet?

Posting to BeReal is not particularly a departure from what posting selfies has meant on any other app — an On Kawara–esque memo that announces that you still exist. “The selfie is phatic,” art critic Brian Droitcour wrote back in 2013. “It’s an image that establishes immediate contact, by introducing gesture and mimicry — both components of face-to-face interactions — to telecommunications.” Periodically, it seems, new platforms gain traction by clearing away the other layers of content (and the advertising that established platforms require to survive as businesses) to foreground this zero-degree function, that of communicating a will to presence relatively uncorrupted by other information: pure selfies as un-selfies. “BeReal has gained popularity as an antidote to the pressure young users now face to be creative and look perfect online,” Axios reports. Until its novelty wears off, the app can position itself as an anti-Instagram, with the implication that self-expression and self-idealization are ways of falsifying or betraying your true self. Care about me at my most boring, the app allows us to say, and we might even believe that it’s so. BeReal requires users to post in order to see other people’s posts, but it’s not clear in which direction that would incentivize them.

The life being shared is “real life” that’s necessarily tied to the phone

“What BeReal has going for it, say users and social-media experts, is its embrace of spontaneity and authenticity,” the Wall Street Journal reports, as if those two concepts were automatic equivalents. Such equivalence is based on the idea that all forms of representation are distortions of a true “reality” that pre-exists them; mediation and documentation are treated as copies of what is really real and not themselves component aspects of the production of reality. This means that you get closer to reality the more you hamper and suppress the process of representation, or bypass it with a purely mechanical representation that forestalls as much as possible any human tampering.

Adjacent to this ideology is the opposition between mediated experience and genuine performance. A performance, as Peggy Phelan sought to define it in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993), “cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations.” This intuition — that an unmediated performance has ontological substance (true “being”) and mediated performances are derivative — underlies much of the feeling that social media practices are intrinsically fake; they take behavior out of the integrity of its specific moment and turn it into a something tradeable or rhetorical, something that no longer simply is but now serves as a signifier of something else.

BeReal, at least in how it is being marketed, seeks to eliminate the flexibility from that signifying dimension so that a post can mean nothing intentional and therefore will reveal who you actually are. The implication is that methodically catching people off-guard is a surefire way to ascertain their truth, because their conscious will always serves to disguise rather than reveal their character. Who you “really are” can be accessed only by circumventing who you want to be. The authentic self is captured when you are monitored like a subject of an experiment, under controlled conditions; it is only in your observed behavior, as parsed by an outside party. By this logic, an even more real version of BeReal would just give your friends access to your cameras and microphones without you knowing it, so they can peep in on you and see how you act when you think no one is watching. If the panoptic gaze is falsifying us, only voyeurism sets us free.

But as Philip Auslander points out in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (1999), “to understand the relationship between live and mediatized forms, it is necessary to investigate that relationship as historical and contingent, not as ontologically given or technologically determined.” In other words, no gimmick or special trait of a particular medium can make any representation inherently more authentic; what is experienced as “real” or “immediate” is subject to trends, to novelty and familiarity, to the social context in which media is consumed. Authenticity itself is not a transhistorical idea but a reflection of the particular social anxieties regarding identity during a particular cultural moment.

In The Fall of Public Man (1977), sociologist Richard Sennett traced the peculiar notion of authenticity as “the involuntary disclosure of character states” to the 19th century, when the “weighting of public and private life became unbalanced.” Publicity meant vulnerability (a experiential condition that contemporary social media has made acute once again), which meant that defensive measures of concealment were presumed to be widespread. This led to a general suspicion that all public behavior was a façade screening the truth. Sennett writes:

There grew up in Paris and London, and thence in other Western capitals … the notion that strangers had no right to speak to each other, that each man possessed as a public right an invisible shield, a right to be left alone. Public behavior was a matter of observation, of passive participation, of a certain kind of voyeurism … Knowledge was no longer to be produced by social intercourse.

One can’t ask someone who they are because they will dissemble or be influenced by what the asker seems to want. The truth about them needs to be extorted from them against their will, in precisely the aspects of personal presentation that they can’t control. One’s deliberate and consciously chosen conduct in society, the consideration one makes of others, the attention one marshals for it, is negligible, meaningless — phony politeness or secret salesmanship. If we really want to know each other, if we want to reveal our truth, we have to set social intercourse aside altogether.

In the 19th century, this belief manifested in phrenology, which held that who you really are is determined by the shape of your skull. (Hegel memorably recommended that one should debate any phrenologist by bashing their head in.) It persists in behavioristic psychology, which tends to view consciousness as ex post facto rationalization of actions one has already performed rather than the source of will and decision-making. And it is the also the logic underlying all forms of personalization, which use data analysis to try to predict what people want above and beyond what they make the effort to do for themselves. TikTok’s “For You” page can only be touted as “knowing you better than you know yourself” because self-knowledge has been deauthenticated from the start.

To BeReal, who you “really are” can be accessed only by circumventing who you want to be

There is a strong desire to disavow the sort of calculations we have to make in self-presentation, to claim the “real me” is not the self-interested schemer I seem to be but the unpredictable person I am when caught by surprise. Anything I think I know about myself should be understood as a lie I’ve generated to hide the authentic truth about myself from myself: “Thinking” is, from this perspective, not the self. Meanwhile, algorithms reflect objective knowledge produced from behavioral data: “the real me.” Consequently I am only that which I can’t take conscious responsibility for, so in a sense I am always blameless. The more I use apps and algorithms, the more innocent I become.

It follows that apps will help us get in touch with our authentic self the more they prevent us from thinking. BeReal aims to prevent us from thinking about when to post and what to post; it tries to turn posting into a Pavlovian reflex action that can show to the world how well we are trained, how responsive we are to triggers, how ready and susceptible we are programming.

But there is no reason to equate any of this with our “real selves,” or to assume that it automatically translates as “authenticity” to other users, let alone oneself. As Kelsey Weekman explains in this Buzzfeed piece, “the thought of keeping my notifications on and phone within constant reach in order to perform authenticity immediately seems self-defeating.” The app is premised on all your friends noticing whether you were “real” at the appointed time, so the pressure can just as easily seem more intense as less than the presumed stress of having to idealize oneself or compete for attention. The “lack of curation sometimes means finding out news you’d rather not know” about your friends, Weekman notes. Strategically crafting what to post isn’t always about self-promotion; often it is a matter of etiquette.

And there is no reason not to expect that users will eventually establish genres of BeReal posts that are just as predicable and formulaic as anything on Instagram. If its gimmick holds people long enough, they will eventually explore the limits of the format and find clever ways to make it funny or interesting or envy-inducing, and these will be copied. People will find ways to make them go viral, on other platforms if necessary. Eventually users will learn how to game BeReal’s system to present themselves competitively. ‘The spirit of comparison is still present,” Weekman writes. We will stop playing BeReal’s specific game and start playing the larger self-promotional game once again, just like on all the other platforms that blend public and private in an unstable and unbalanced mix. Winning will again seem like the only reality worth imagining.

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.