Being Real on Campus

A new social media app encourages students to post authentic snapshots of their lives at a random moment every day. There’s a lot of pressure on students to “be real”—but not too real.

April 8, 2022
BeReal works by asking users at a random moment each day to take a photo of themselves, whatever they’re doing.
(Screenshot of BeReal on the Apple Store)

Georgetown University junior Ben Telerski is no stranger to social media; he has over 28,000 followers on TikTok. When he first heard about the new social media app BeReal last summer, he was skeptical that he needed another online vehicle for expressing himself. But now he and his friends use the app almost every day.

BeReal “seemed a bit sketchy,” Telerski said. “Should we really be putting personal information and taking photos of where we are every single day at the same time?”

He decided that yes, in fact, they should.

BeReal, founded in 2020 in France, calls itself “not another social network” and prides itself on being an app for users who want to show their real selves online. “BeReal won’t make you famous, if you want to become [an] influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram,” the description for the app reads.

The app works by notifying users at a random moment each day to take a photo of themselves, whatever they’re doing, using the front and rear cameras of their smartphone. Users are encouraged to take the photo within two minutes, but they don’t necessarily have to post right away; many retake the image multiple times before sharing it.

BeReal then creates a post with the two images, showing the entire scope of the user’s surroundings at that particular moment. Users can’t see or comment on their friends’ posts until they share their own BeReal photo of the day.

On Thursday, Telerski said he got the notification from BeReal as he was walking to class and posted a photo of himself in a hallway at Georgetown.

“It’s authentic to what I was doing at that moment,” Telerski said. “I feel like it’s interesting to see the mundane things that people are not posting on other places.”

Telerski said most students at Georgetown are familiar with the app.

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“I’ll be with people and the notification will go off and they’ll be like, ‘It’s BeReal time,’” Telerski said. “And even if people aren’t on it, they’ll still know about it.”

The app is making waves on other campuses, too. Students at institutions including Bowdoin College, the University of Alabama, Harvard University, Rice University and others have reported the rise of BeReal on their campuses as well. The app even has a campus ambassador program, in which students host parties to get other students to download the app.

But some students are raising questions about whether BeReal is as authentic as it claims. Telerski compared BeReal to the rise of “casual” Instagram, on which users post uncurated photos, usually without filters, and don’t care if the images are unflattering.

Telerski pointed out that people found a way to make casual Instagram curated anyway—and he suspects the same is happening with BeReal.

“I was reading about casual Instagram coming back, but then it became curating your image to seem casual,” Telerski said. “I feel like BeReal tries to go against that, but how I’ve seen people use it is not really in that sort of spirit, which is disappointing.”

He said some students get the BeReal notification and wait to post until they’re doing something exciting, such as going out with friends, rather than merely watching Netflix or doing homework in bed.

Brooke Erin Duffy, a social media researcher and professor of communication at Cornell University, said often on social media, friends and family members who follow a user’s social media accounts are seen as an “audience” rather than as actual people. That can lead young adults to create a curated account, with posed photos for their audience, as well as something more intimate like a so-called finsta—a portmanteau of “fake” and “Instagram”—which is essentially a second, private Instagram featuring uncurated photos and stories for a limited number of close friends and followers.

“Young people have developed ways to challenge the culture of performativity and wider systems of online surveillance,” Duffy said. “And so, I don’t see this push as fundamentally new, but I do think we’ve witnessed an uptick in calls for authenticity in the wake of the pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, Duffy co-authored a 2019 study that found that young people feel that family, educators and employers are surveilling their public social media accounts, creating pressure from students to be “perfect” online. So alternative accounts, such as finstas—and now newer apps like BeReal—serve as an online space where students can post more authentic elements of their lives for their closest friends, knowing that teachers, bosses and parents won’t have access.

There’s growing pressure on young people to post social media content that isn’t “too fake”—meaning too perfect or curated—but also that isn’t “too real,” such as unflattering photos and comments, Duffy said.

“People often refer to the Instagram aesthetic—it’s highly polished, carefully curated and quite aspirational,” Duffy said. “While there’s been a lot of attention to the potential role of this aesthetic in young people’s mental health, there’s also been a lot of backlash directed at those individuals deemed overly fake. This amounts to a double-edged sword as young people are expected to be real enough but not too real.”

Telerski said he prefers TikTok to BeReal because it allows him to talk about whatever he wants, whenever he wants. His most recent TikToks show him discussing the rainy weather in Washington, D.C., and trying to practice the piano on campus.

“I find that I can put a lot more content and thoughts into a TikTok versus just a picture on BeReal,” Telerski said. “I feel like my TikTok is more authentic to me because it shows a lot more of who I am than what BeReal shows, and I personally am pleased with how I try to keep my TikTok as authentic as possible.”

As for the future of BeReal at Georgetown, Telerski said because the app only allows users to post once a day, it’s not as addictive as Instagram, Twitter or TikTok, which hook users with their endless scrolls.

“I have been seeing it become more popular, but I think it’s going to fade away,” he said. “It feels like a fad. New platforms come and go at an astonishing clip, and there are countless start-ups vying for our time and attention and data at any given time. It remains to be seen whether BeReal will have real staying power, but the publicity it’s gotten recently can’t hurt.”

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