Recently, the rising popularity of BeReal has me questioning whether social media will ever truly be real. At the end of the day, social media is fundamentally designed for us to share our “highlight reels," and yet I do think the original social media I remember was very authentic, especially when I was a middle schooler in 2015.
All of these experiences are my own and represent what I remember.
This was five years into Instagram’s lifespan, but I remember a much better experience than now. I remember my Instagram feed being very simple: a chronological feed of my friends taking dumb photos with a few ads sprinkled in. Posts in general were natural and organic. I think, in general, mobile editing or people trying to constantly share their best moments wasn’t a thing. Yet even then, reality wasn’t the objective. Even when you’re a middle schooler, at the end of the day you only post when you’re having a good fun day. The intention may not be to flex, but why would I post a low, when I can just wait until I’m having a high and post? And yet, it still felt very authentic to me.
Social media at the time was far more about your own circles, not about content creators. I also think targeted advertising wasn’t what it is today, nor were the platforms as aggressively monetized. This was just a fun way to catch up and see what your friends were up to. It was neither addicting nor checked daily.
End of 2010s
I’m in high school now, and Instagram had evolved as an app. Stories are now a thing: limited 24-hour posts to capture moments. Although stolen from Snapchat, they fit well with Instagram. I remember early stories being a fun way to share something dumb or funny during the day.
Stories from 2018 or 2019 paint a very different story in both my own and my friend’s archive. I remember how early on I used to literally share game screenshots in my stories, but later all I see are photos I used to take on vacation. My archive went from a random assortment to high quality food pics and sharing the same popular article/post that everyone was sharing.
Another aspect that changed was Instagram posts themselves. So many people removed their old posts and replaced them with edited, new photos of themselves. I was guilty too, but slowly I think everyone’s feed started to look more alike. Good pictures on good days, with the same poses and more or less similar captions. You’d make multi-posts now with every pic from your vacation or party and post them.
Also, photo editing apps are crazy good and extremely intuitive. Even my old aunts were touching up photos of family gatherings for the WhatsApp groups.
At the same time, explosive growth meant the platforms had successfully monetized. Ads were getting good, and targeted advertisements were used more than ever. Social Media was now a business with a growing creator economy, where people could monetize their audience and stardom. A new way of connecting with the new “influencers” who now started filling your feed in-between your friend’s photos.
With stories, constantly changing feeds, and apps getting more addicting, social media definitely gained prominence and a greater share of your day.
Arguably, a very dramatic shift happened during the pandemic. I think some of that earlier authenticity returned when everyone was at home. People were a lot more vulnerable and used technology to connect. I think the same fun videos of people making coffee or doing mundane tasks at home during lockdown was refreshing. People were also more real and authentic, maybe because sharing the mundane was all you could do. You did have the occasional acquaintance of mine violating COVID-19 laws to party, but I think that was an exception to the authentic and wholesome feed. I think the resentment of celebrities trying to flaunt during the pandemic was also frowned on, as those fortunate enough to have private jets and vacation spots weren’t getting the validation they sought. This brief spell of authenticity was refreshing.
At the same time, we spent more time on devices than ever before. TikTok blew up, and it brought a new era of Social Media: short form video. TikTok cured thanks to a fantastic algorithm that infinitely served you content from creators you might never have interacted with. Social Media, where it was never about connecting with people, but rather about consuming content made by people they deemed right. TikTok proved to companies that users would gladly choose the content an algorithm chose, and everyone watched TikTok grow explosively,
Social Media was now a profession, and making it in social media was increasingly lucrative.
BeReal tried very hard to be anti-social media. Marketing was all about this new novel concept of a photo a day at a random time. Both front and back cameras. Just your friends chronologically. No algorithmic feed, influencers or forceful video insertions (Instagram Reels).
I think the concept in theory is great, ignoring the future monetization challenges or the fact that their app basically encourages all the user base to login and post at once. I love BeReal, and I love seeing photos from friends across the country every day! Do I question authenticity? Yes, but I think that stems from a tradeoff. You can post a BeReal late. In theory, it is to make sure that you’re not always on your phone or that you can delay if you’re doing something like showering. This does however not apply to people I know that post hours later. If you’re posting 8 hours late, a fun picture of you having fun at night instead of the mundane morning photo for your 10 a.m. BeReal, you’re defeating the purpose of BeReal.
That introduces my problem with BeReal: you share what you want to share. I’m guilty of delaying my BeReal to when I’m outside and ready sometimes instead of when I’m about to get ready in my dorm. You can control what people see, and there’s no correct way for BeReal to ever tackle the problem.
That’s my take. People will always project their best versions and share their highlights. I’ve chosen to accept BeReal and others will never to me be authentic glimpses into people’s lives, nor will any other social media.
At the same time, I think we’re at the point where all the chaos in the world means we seek solace in our phones. TikTok and now Instagram and YouTube have replaced you choosing the content with their algorithms that chose what you see. BeReal doesn’t. It doesn’t try and get you to endlessly scroll their platform, nor are they trying to develop a creator economy around their product. It brought some of the dumb spontaneity I reminisce about, and It is arguably still my favorite social media app.
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Arnav Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and culture editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.