The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion BeReal isn’t actually real at all

A woman takes a selfie in front of a fountain in Berlin on July 25. (David Gannon / AFP)
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The rules are simple: One photo of what’s in front of you, one photo of yourself. The catch, though, is that this time there’s really no filter.

BeReal’s name is also an instruction — a mandate not to curate the version of yourself you present to your friends or followers or anyone else in the world, but instead to display your life unadorned. You receive an alert from the new app at a random time of day, and you have a mere two minutes to take your snapshots. That means no time to seek out a seascape, or even a happy hour, and little chance at covering up the errant zit.

The conventional wisdom on this unconventional social media product is that, in many ways, it doesn’t feel like social media at all.

Over the past decade or so, the internet has evolved into a realm where filters are standard practice — both literally and figuratively. We toggle brightness and contrast with the drag of a finger; we overlay doggy ears and noses on our own less adorable features; we Instagram our vacations and our parties and sometimes even our workouts, but we keep the nights we spend eating popcorn in bed to ourselves.

BeReal exists as an intervention. And in the most basic sense, it is one. The randomness does cut out a lot of the fakery that can make the internet unpleasant. Believing that everyone we know is constantly eating a dozen oysters or playing with a litter of kittens or traveling down the Grand Canal on a gondola while we do that popcorn thing feels bad; thinking that a whole lot of them are similarly situated on mattresses or the couch feels better.

Yet zoom out for a moment (also, incidentally, not allowed on BeReal) — and maybe BeReal is asking us to curate just as much as any of the apps it’s trying so hard not to be like.

Just being on BeReal is itself a performative act: an opportunity to tell everyone we know, “I am authentic.” The whole point is to prove that you’re not seduced, like the rest of society, by the appeal of a false persona. BeReal isn’t the only one to realize there’s something attractive about this. It’s even a little late to the party. Plenty of Instagram influencers purport to offer their fans an unvarnished view of their lives: an ugly cry here, a carmine sunburn there. The “photo dump” of several low-quality, seemingly off-the-cuff pictures rather than a single, carefully selected one has become the bread and butter of the everyday user. Yet these photos themselves are stylized; it’s just that the style this time is “casual.” Think, for instance, of a popular hair gel marketed as providing a “messy look.”

We’re already trying to prove we’re capable of showing our “true” selves — fighting desperately against the impulse to pick the best to share, and hold the worst back. Yet pushing back against that all-too-human impulse is, in many ways, less natural than giving in.

The thing is, while spinning up optimized versions of ourselves may seem a hallmark of modern-day social media, it’s also a hallmark of plain old life. Do we show up at work meetings wearing ratty T-shirts and no pants, or do we show up in button-downs and skirts? Do we curse as much when we talk to our parents, or our kids, as when we talk to our friends? When someone asks how our weekend was, do we talk about the eight hours we spent watching the latest season of “Bridgerton” on Netflix, or do we talk about the hike we went on with the dog?

Are we not being authentic as we curate our lives for others? Or is curating actually a part of what real life looks like?

There’s a little trick to BeReal, to which a bona fide Gen Z-er tipped me off. You can choose not to post during those appointed two minutes — with a penalty only of a “late” label appended to your photo. Apparently, no one much cares. It’s all performance anyway.

So dash out to your happy hour. Blot out your chin pimple. You can get the best of both worlds. And you can still tell everyone you’re being very, very real.