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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.

Image: I apologise to anyone who sees this Bebo page example and is instantly afflicted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

To have a place where you could truly express yourself unchallenged by parents or principals was a new and exciting world for many. If you weren't allowed to cover your bedroom walls with Nine Inch Nails posters, you could just drape your Bebo in a gloomy skin and show off your true colours (or lack thereof). It was one of the first times we really got to play dress-ups online.

Then came the big one - Facebook. The migration from Bebo, which in 2007 was the most visited website in New Zealand, to Facebook was swift and unrelenting. Although we didn’t particularly know why, Facebook seemed like the next logical step in our social media careers.

Ironically it was more similar to MySpace than it was Bebo, and lacked much of the functionality that we moved to Bebo for in the first place (more on this later). Gone were the bright colours, music and luv hearts; Facebook seemed more grown up, losing much of the individualism in favour of more peer-to-peer interaction.

The Facebook newsfeed became the new shopping mall - a place where you could flaunt what you’re up to, where you’ve been and who you’re with. And in retrospect, the newsfeed feature was much more of a revolution than anyone at the time had realised.

Image: Many of us thought we were all grown up once we started a Facebook account. Many of us were wrong.

For the first time, people could see us online without having to visit us directly. It was no longer up to us what content we saw, it was up to the almighty algorithm. Little did we know this would be the beginning of the end of the social media we once knew.

Despite this massive change, we still hadn’t quite moved into the ‘aesthetic’ phase of the 2010s, the 2000’s Facebook newsfeed was more train of thought than drain of thot. Our pages were still just an ongoing monologue chronicling any and everything that happened to us, occasionally in ALL CAPS if we thought we deserved extra attention. (Editor note: I cant believe aggressive bolding and sarcastic italicising still isn't possible)

Don’t believe me? I dare any of you born before 1999 to go back and check what your Facebook profile looked like when you first started it - my money would be on it mostly explaining how much you despise work/school or what you had for dinner... sound familiar to a certain BeReal?

From here on out the formula for new social media success was relatively clear - do the exact opposite of whatever the status quo was. If Bebo was about the individual, Facebook was about the community. Facebook (at the time) was text-centric, so it’s no surprise that we soon had Instagram snapping up users left right and centre. Our lives were quickly cut into pretty squares saturated in an Amaro filter.

Image: Do you remember when you *had* to have one of these filters, a lens flare AND a vignette, otherwise it didn't count as a real Instagram post?

And then almost entirely as a response to the sudden uptake in perfectly curated ‘grams, Snapchat provided the ‘cure’ with a focus on disposable sharing. Now you could be more reckless and less considered with what you showed the world, knowing your content would only be shown once and then be lost to the abyss.

This was a real turning point though. The typical cycle so far was that a new social platform arrives, and the majority of techno-literate users migrate away from the old platform for greener pastures.

Facebook managed to avoid this for two major reasons - they updated with new features relatively quickly and consistently, and social media was no longer just for kids; every man and their dog was signed up to Facebook by the time a competitor appeared. This meant they had the critical mass and revenue to buy out threats before they got a foothold.

After Facebook bought out Instagram, they tried to buy out Snapchat too, before it ate away at the Instagram user base. And to the shock of everyone, the alleged $3 Billion USD offer was swiftly dismissed. Facebook (now known as umbrella corp Meta) couldn’t buy the safety of Instagram, and instead decided to pivot. Within months, Instagram ‘Stories’ appeared - a day-long disposable version of Instagram’s feed, eerily similar to Snapchat.

Image: The disposable nature of the app, combined with the Draw function made the peak Snapchat era a very unusual - but very creative - time to be alive.

It’s not just Snapchat they seemingly copied either. Once TikTok appeared (standing on the back of the very successful but short-lived Vine) Instagram launched Reels. And now that BeReal is the most downloaded app of 2022, it comes as no surprise to see Instagram launch its very own version in Candid Challenges.

Most trends are cyclic - what was cool last year won’t be next year, but likely will be again soon enough. But unfortunately for Meta, digital technologies don’t fit this mould because they aren’t tangible, they use software not hardware. This means they require ongoing maintenance, so you can’t just go back and use Bebo or MySpace now even if you wanted to. Soon enough things like Instagram and Snapchat are likely to be phased out too, maybe even Facebook. Once an app loses steam and its user base (see also: revenue stream), it's extremely unlikely to make a comeback. In a way, this sort of justifies Instagram’s constant pivoting in order to stay relevant. Meta understands that they have only really have one shot, one opportunity with Instagram. It’s just a shame they are coming off as more ‘vomit on their sweater already’ than ‘calm and ready’ in their approach. It would be nice for them to use their immense tech and investment to present something genuinely new and novel rather than copying what's already been done (I say after gratuitously throwing in an unnecessary pop culture reference for easy likes).

So in conclusion, the success of BeReal isn’t all that surprising. It happened to fill the exact niche the social media landscape needed - something pared back that at least gives the 'impression' of genuine ‘real life’ again. It will be interesting to see how long users find BeReal useful, or whether Meta sees it as enough of a threat for a complete buyout.

In the meantime, we’ll have to put up with an app whose sole purpose is to make you stop living in the moment, so you can photograph and record what’s happening, to prove you are living in the moment. We live in interesting times indeed.

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