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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Social media app BeReal promises reality. With food, that’s not easy.

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On BeReal, you will find things Instagram and TikTok won’t show. Empty crawfish shells held by stained fingernails. Hastily made midnight snacks blurred by a shaky camera. Snapshots of that awkward period after ordering at a restaurant, minus the food.

BeReal, which has been called “Gen Z’s new favorite social media app,” launched in January 2020 as a response to the polished, hyper-curated feeds on Instagram and TikTok. In the past year alone, BeReal has amassed more than 7.5 million users, which accounts for 75 percent of the app’s total downloads.

Students — some experiencing campus life for the first time since the pandemic — are especially eager to document their life experiences on BeReal. In early February, the app hosted parties on several American college campuses through its ambassador program and offered free admission to students who downloaded the app and added five friends. Marketing blitzes aimed at college students have helped BeReal climb the App Store’s top charts and into the public eye.

The app is simple to use. Once a day at a random time, BeReal sends you a push notification to post a photo. The BeReal photo — both a selfie and a frontal photo with no filter or edit options — must be taken within two minutes or else the post is tagged as “late.” To scroll on the BeReal feed, you must post once and only once each day. Surprisingly, retakes are allowed. When you first join the app, you can only follow accounts linked to your phone contacts and react to BeReals with a RealMoji, an emoji picture of your face in that moment. You can also swipe through the Discovery feed, a collection of random BeReals from around the world that anyone can post to.

Eitan Bernath, a 20-year-old TikTok food influencer and cookbook author, practically lives on social media. With 2.2 million followers on TikTok, he spends 15 hours a day on his phone filming short food clips and promoting his food content on YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest. Between the hustle of his curated social media work and regular contributions to “The Drew Barrymore Show,” Bernath finds a few hours a day to unwind, which includes catching up with close friends and posting to BeReal. Right now, BeReal is one of his favorite apps.

“I love social platforms in general. For me, I’m like, ‘Oh, cool, let me try this.’” he says. “If it looks like people are using it as a creator platform, I’ll follow suit.” For now, he adds, BeReal “is just kind of a fun thing.”

BeReal advertises itself as an “authentic, spontaneous, and candid” social media platform. And the app isn’t afraid to call out its competitors, and reject performative culture, on the iTunes App Store: “BeReal won’t make you famous, if you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” But in the online food world, where influencers dedicate their day to meticulously arranged food spreads, can the so-called authentic ethos behind BeReal truly reflect their daily grind?

Bernath seems to think so. Whenever he spots the BeReal notification, he captures a photo in the moment to make it seem the most “natural.” Through his BeReal, we zigzag through his busy food influencer life. His posts include a vulnerable moment with his dog Ernie and a shot of a barbecue grill on a New York City rooftop. One BeReal features Bernath’s smiling face alongside a partially made pistachio pastry, crumbs and all. Could it be babka, a rugelach, or a date-smeared pistachio pizza? Without more context from Bernath or the photo, BeReal keeps us guessing.

“Like anything in life, you can curate the look,” he says, acknowledging that some BeReal users post late intentionally. When he posts to it, “I’m literally just whatever I’m doing. If they released the 360 version where you have like a 360 camera, that would be the most real, the BeReal plus.”

Jeremy Scheck, a 22-year-old TikTok influencer specializing in Italian cuisine and a recent graduate from Cornell University, uses BeReal sporadically. When the app first stormed American college campuses back in February, he used to post every day, sometimes in the middle of his TikTok shoots. Nowadays, he opens the app when he wants, where he wants. Occasionally, he ignores the notification entirely.

“Sometimes I get the notification and I’m sitting on a couch watching TV. I’m like, this is not a good picture,” he says. “I don’t do it for vanity reasons. It’s just my friends so I would not be leaking a recipe.”

Judging from BeReal’s college parties and the sea of young faces on its Discovery page, most BeReal users fall into the Gen Z crowd and follow a close circle of friends. Still, this has not stopped certain food brands from migrating to the platform. In May, a Chipotle employee snapped a BeReal with a fork and a reusable promo code for a free entree available to the first 100 users. Within 30 minutes, all promo codes had been claimed. After the success of its first BeReal campaign, Chipotle has more than 2,000 “friends” — the term for followers in BeReal — and appears to be carving out a BeReal social media strategy.

With a consumer base of mostly Gen Z and millennials, it is no surprise that Chipotle has gravitated to one of the hottest new platforms for lighthearted ways to engage users. According to Chipotle’s director of social and influencer, Candice Beck, the company plans to use BeReal to feature employees and in-house experiences not captured on their other social media accounts.

Even with all these attempts to peel back the performative curtain, some BeReal users have picked up habits from Instagram and TikTok. Bernath says he captures his BeReals with an extended arm, selfie-style. Allyssa Boes, a 21-year-old student at the University of Michigan, says when the BeReal notification arrives during a meal, she will move the bowls together to complete the food shot. At the end of the day, BeReal can help capture candid moments, but the user can also determine how authentic they want to be in front of the camera.

Other social media platforms have tried their hand at promoting authentic expression online, but none have achieved the same cult following as BeReal. Casey Neistat launched Beme in 2014 to build the “Snapchat before Snapchat.” Once it was purchased by CNN, the app never took off. Popular apps such as 1 Second Everyday, Snapchat and LiveIn come with similar features, but not BeReal’s full package.

BeReal vows to center authentic and spontaneous experiences, but the company recently raised a $30 million Series A round from venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz. When asked to provide more information about their fundraising and app development, the BeReal public relations team declined to comment. With this additional money and oversight from investors, the app could be pressured to monetize soon and change some of its beloved features.

Then, there are the app’s skeptics. Bettina Makalintal, a 29-year-old writer at Eater that the San Francisco Chronicle called “food media’s biggest bowl shot influencer,” runs the popular Instagram account @crispyegg420 dedicated to daily snaps of her colorful bowls. Makalintal resists the urge to download BeReal because she is unsure whether the app will have longer-term potential. None of her friends have installed the app either, a crucial step to enjoying BeReal.

Even without BeReal, she channels these anti-aesthetic, spontaneous vibes on her vibrant, bowl-filled Instagram account. She curates her bowl posts, often posing them near the window in the warm sunlight, but does not follow a recipe schedule or add recipes to the caption. Nor does she place her bowl on white marble or haphazardly throw a linen towel next to the dish. Every now and then, her blue crocs or kitchen pantry slip into the frame and expose a part of her home life that typically remains unseen. Which makes you wonder: Is @crispyegg420 Makalintal’s real self?

“I know that I’m only showing this tiny portion of myself on social media. So I think that they are real and if you put them all together, you get to some close understanding of me,” she says. “But I don’t think that anything is 100 percent authentic.”

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