Picture this: You’re teaching a group of 32 high school students how to conjugate verbs in Spanish, and then cell phones throughout the room light up like it’s the 4th of July. It’s not an Amber Alert. It’s not an all-school message (we aren’t on a lockdown, thank goodness). No one has air-dropped an NSFW (Not Safe At Work) meme to the class. Nope. The notification we receive is what we’ve secretly been waiting for all day. It’s time to BeReal.
What happens next is a chaotic yet well-organized two-minute free-for-all in which we make our daily post on BeReal, which has become Gen Z’s favorite app, confirmed by my students’ excitement over the chance to BeReal in the community with classmates. Right in the center of it is me: a Geriatric Millennial who researches Gen Z’s social media activity. I’ve written about Dubsmash, Triller, and TikTok. I’ve immersed myself in youth studies and teenage media.
Now I’m trying to understand why teenagers today are obsessed with the platform and the chance to BeReal. Just as I did when my students introduced me to Dubsmash and TikTok in 2018, I had some questions. What better way to get to the bottom of BeReal than to have an impromptu focus group with a group of teenagers?
BeReal was founded in December 2019 by Alexis Barreyat but didn’t find widespread popularity until the spring and summer of 2022, when young people began flocking to the app. BeReal has over 21 million active users per month, making the platform robust but not nearly as big as legacy Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Nevertheless, BeReal’s rapid growth in 2022 should force us to take notice.
BeReal is a photo-sharing app in which users have a chance to show their friends who they “really are, for once.” The app has become a virtual playground for Gen Z (also known as Zoomers), rivaling even the likes of TikTok and Snapchat as the preferred social media site for Zoomers. Of course, BeReal’s numbers pale compared to its competitors, but the app’s exponential growth from April 2022 to the present compels us to pay attention and unpack what makes BeReal so successful with young people.
For Gen Z, BeReal is the opposite of their parents’ social media habits which feel filtered and well-calculated. Because BeReal happens at any random moment throughout the day, it’s impossible to predict, and every day is different. Notably, the two-minute window unlocks the app’s full user experience. If the notification happens late in the day, few users will spend much time on the app beforehand, severely limiting screen time. One student admits, “I love how it doesn’t promote infinite scrolling. It doesn’t make me feel bad about myself. It’s a short amount of hype without being distracting for hours.”
Although most social media sites are marked by abundance and expansiveness, BeReal operates on scarcity. Users can only post once per day during a two-minute window. The post features two pictures: one simultaneous capture from the phone’s front-facing and back-facing cameras. According to one of my students, BeReal is a “status update, a way to show what you’re doing in the moment.” Another claims, “It’s a cool way of seeing what your friends are doing without asking them.” Users can’t see posts—or engage with the platform—until they have posted themselves.
Much like Snapchat, posts disappear after 24 hours, lending certain ephemerality, although users have a calendar archive of their photos. While there’s a record, no one else can see it. The platform is easy to use with no bells and whistles. TikTok can be daunting and complicated, but BeReal is easy. Just download the app, turn on notifications, and capture your BeReal during the random two-minute window.
BeReal users can post late, but according to my students, posting late doesn’t provide the same level of excitement. BeReal’s gamification lies in the almighty two-minute window. While the random notification stresses me out, it’s sometimes the best part of the day for my students. For example, one student said, “If you’re having a bad day, getting the notification can turn it around.” Unlike, say, Instagram’s photoshopping abilities, the antithesis to “keeping it real”, BeReal, according to my students, is appealing for bringing home the every day, the spontaneous, the in-the-moment reality of what your classmate is experiencing. This spontaneity is “so unexpected. I scream on the inside with excitement,” says another student.
Unlike other social media sites, BeReal users won’t find any advertisements. Much like 2021-22’s pop culture darling Wordle, BeReal is shockingly uncommercial in an age when much of our internet experience is driven by commerce. Moreover, the app interface already feels dated. Media studies scholar Jessica Maddox claims, “This app has the interface and feel of Snapchat circa 2013, complete with the ‘novel’ social media twist (ephemerality then; now ‘authenticity’).”
Indeed, BeReal is visually unattractive, glitchy, and clunky at every turn. Maybe the aggressive simplicity and borderline “throwback” appeal are what draws Gen Z to the space. While Gen Z may be re-discovering and relishing in Millennial culture (even if they would never dare to admit it), it makes sense that they would flock en masse to a platform that feels like something I would have been using in college. Well, if I had attended college in an age of smartphones. I can’t complain, though. I survived with my Nokia flip phone and AOL Instant Messenger.
BeReal gives all users equal power. It doesn’t matter if you’re Insta famous or have TikTok clout. BeReal isn’t invested in virality. According to BeReal, the app “won’t make you famous. If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” Verification doesn’t exist, and honestly, there’s little point in being verified on BeReal. This isn’t a platform about high follower counts or sponsored posts (at least not yet). It’s democratized, giving anybody who wants to BeReal an equal chance.
My students love that the number of followers isn’t important. Virality doesn’t matter, and for Gen Z, which sees the commercial viability of TikTok, being in a space free from commerce can feel liberating. By keeping it real, there’s no muss, no fuss, no drama. Nobody cares if your lipstick is smudged and, oh shit, where did that pimple come? There’s a vulnerability and rawness to the platform that promotes a chill, stress-free vibe that young people enjoy.
Interestingly, the rise of BeReal coincided with Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s controversial statement about Instagram no longer being dedicated to photography but rather focused on video content. Mosseri was met with outcry from Instagram users who detest the TikTokification of the platform. Mosseri would eventually walk back the statement, but Instagram users aren’t naive: Instagram has been chasing TikTok for years, and it’s obvious for many Instagram users simply want to see the photos their friends post rather than TikToks recycled as Reels of famous influencers. For those Insta-critics, platforms like BeReal could potentially be the answer.
Although BeReal features a user base far more demographically diverse than TikTok’s early days in the United States, the app’s culture is largely dictated by Zoomers. They relish the authenticity that BeReal supposedly engenders. Digital media scholar Emily Wade sees the allure of authenticity as BeReal’s biggest selling point: “In an age when the Instagram algorithm requires some serious strategy to navigate, and influencer culture is dominant, some young people are searching for a different and more authentic online experience. Tired of finding the perfect light or event for an Instagram post, sharing random daily moments on BeReal can be liberating.”
Media studies scholars Brooke Erin Duffy and Ysabel Gerrard question if social media users “have outgrown the culture of likes-tallying perfectionism associated with mainstream social networks.” According to my students, that’s a definitive yes. They are tired of worrying about going viral, fame, and creating the perfect TikTok feed.
Although my students admitted that it can be difficult to meet people on BeReal despite the suggestions and mutual friends, they see the value in building digital kinship bonds with people they know, be it legitimate friends, acquaintances, or friends of friends. As I’ve come to learn from doing autoethnographic work with my students on various social media platforms, there is indeed a sociality to social media that spills into offline spaces.
Platforms like BeReal engender conversations. In my case, BeReal gives my class something to discuss. It unites us and is our commonality. We regularly chat about the app, comment on people’s posts, and ask questions about what they were doing or watching or where they were. In the rare case that the notification pings during class, we are rewarded with two minutes of perfect chaos. Pausing class for a few minutes to engage in a physically-present digital activity builds community in such a way that allows students to form stronger bonds with each other and with me, as well. In doing so, they come to my class with more buy-in to learn the curriculum. So does BeReal have educational value? It just might.
None of this should be surprising. Whether it has been Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat, TikTok, or BeReal, youth have often been at the forefront of embracing new social media platforms and fashioning cultural expression within and outside of these spaces. Young people today are digital natives who have fully grown up in a digital world. Social media is not a new alternative to analog spaces but is as legitimate a social space as anything offline. As I detailed in Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok, young people approach social media platforms—both photographic and filmic ones—as critical sites to connect, build relationships, shape a wider cultural context, and form community in the same way they might do in traditional offline spaces.
BeReal is all of this and more for Gen Z. It gives them an unfiltered way to perform their identity, connect with their peers, forge generational culture, and convey how young people are still—and will always be—at the cutting edge of societal shifts. Lucky for me, I get to witness this all from my classroom.