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BeReal: Real evolution or evocative recycling?

The results are in; BeReal is officially the most downloaded app right now. Dubbed the ‘anti-instagram’ it intends to change the way we use social media. Allegedly.

In order to move away from the hyper-curated and crafted profiles we saw peak in the 2010’s, BeReal asks users to take a photo of what they’re doing at a random point of time each day. A photo is taken with both the front and rear camera, and then shared with friends who also posted that day. The suggestion is of course that this mechanic stops people from picking and choosing what they show online, and rather “Be Real” for once.

And although I might question the validity of such a notion (for one, there’s nothing stopping someone from taking multiple photos to pick a favourite, or waiting for something interesting to happen later that day) I have to admit I am impressed that the name is both semi-autological and a play on words for the cinematic term “B-Reel”.

So what makes BeReal so special, and why has it seen such an impressive uptake? Interestingly enough, upon further inspection BeReal doesn't seem that special at all. It’s actually almost identical to how we used to use social media in the late 2000’s and is more a nostalgic throwback than it is a venture into the unknown. To work out why BeReal is seeing such a surge, we need to look back at the historical social media landscape.

Image: Remember MySpace? Remember Tom!? Our first online friend (forget everything your parents taught you about stranger danger, Tom's just a regular, cool 30-year-old guy who does programming in his basement. Nothing to worry about here)

For many of us, social media life started as a profile on MySpace in the early 2000s. And to be honest, not much really happened on MySpace. You talked about what you had for lunch or your new favourite song but that was about it. Joining myspace was the early 2000s equivalent of buying cryptocurrency - we mostly just joined in because we heard it was important, despite not really knowing what the hell it was about or what its actual purpose was.

Soon enough MySpace was ByeSpace and Bebo had emerged as a new competitor - one bristling with novel features that seemed perfectly suited to a younger generation. You could now rank your friends in order of preference - a function that literally split allegiances on and offline. Bebo also introduced luv hearts, where you could gift your favourite 3 people a heart each and every day. I think this well and truly taught many teenagers the real meaning of ‘scarcity’.

Although adding music to your profile had been a big part of the latter years of MySpace, Bebo really pushed the boat out in terms of self-expression. You could now choose a ‘skin’ to paint your profile in whatever imagery suited your mood or aesthetic and you had a personal ‘whiteboard’ ready to take on any sweet nothings or sketches from visitors and digital vagrants alike.

If MySpace was about establishing that you were online, Bebo - for a lot of us - was about establishing who you were online. This individualistic approach resonated with millennials in the middle of their angsty teenage phase.