A two-year-old French photo-sharing app is earning the highest form of flattery from Big Tech’s social media titans: imitation.
It’s also inspiring copycats. This week, TikTok became the latest big platform to respond to BeReal’s surge, announcing a new feature called TikTok Now that will give users daily prompts to share impromptu photos or short videos, using the phone’s front and rear cameras. The move comes as Instagram has confirmed it is working on a similar feature, called IG Candid Challenges, and weeks after Snapchat debuted its own dual-camera mode.
BeReal’s success reveals an appetite among social media users for more authentic, intimate forms of expression, and shows that Davids can still shake up a sector dominated by global Goliaths. At the same time, the scramble by those Goliaths to copy core features of an app that doesn’t even have a way to make money yet underscores the uphill battle that upstarts face just to survive.
“The fear of the incumbents is that this becomes the next TikTok,” said Mark Shmulik, an analyst for Bernstein who covers internet platforms. “So they’ve all scrambled to launch their own version” in hopes of heading off a competitor before it goes mainstream.
Buzzy new social apps are not uncommon; many don’t last. But the speed of BeReal’s ascent in recent months puts it in select company.
Launched in January 2020 by French founder Alexis Barreyat, a former GoPro employee, BeReal didn’t take off immediately, accruing just 2 million downloads in its first two years, mostly among French users, according to the analytics firm Apptopia, which uses statistical models to estimate apps’ popularity. This year, however, it has boomed to some 56 million downloads, with the United States becoming its top market. Its iOS app was downloaded an estimated 11 million times in August alone, making it the most-downloaded nongaming app in the world for that month, by Apptopia’s reckoning.
That “hockey-stick” growth trajectory is on par with Snapchat in 2011 and Clubhouse in 2020, Apptopia Vice President Adam Blacker said.
Instagram famously copied Snapchat’s signature Stories feature after Snap refused to sell to parent company Facebook, but Snapchat kept innovating and growing. In contrast, Clubhouse, the social audio app that became a sensation during pandemic lockdowns, lost its momentum as coronavirus restrictions eased and larger rivals including Twitter rolled out similar features.
Like Snapchat before it, BeReal presents itself as a refreshing alternative to the big social media platforms, with their addictive feeds, polished content, and professional influencers.
Users receive a notification on their phones once each day, at an unpredictable time chosen by the app, informing them that it’s “Time to BeReal.” They then have just two minutes to snap a photo, which will show the view from both their phone’s front- and rear-facing cameras. Late posts and retakes are allowed but frowned upon; while the app doesn’t display popularity metrics such as friends or likes, it does show your friends how late your post was and how many times you retook the shot.
The photos that result are, compared to a typical Instagram feed, aggressively mundane. Many show unkempt users cooking, driving, working at their computers, or simply lying in bed looking at their phones. Critics have derided the app as “boring”; it defenders say that’s just the point.
“They’ve certainly caught lightning in a bottle with an idea,” Shmulik, the Bernstein analyst, said of BeReal. Now comes the hard part: continuing to grow amid fierce competition from far larger platforms, who can offer similar features to existing user bases that dwarf BeReal in scale.
Most of BeReal’s features appear relatively easy to duplicate, Shmulik noted. So if its appeal lies primarily in its clever and fun product design, the app may struggle to fend off larger rivals.
TikTok Now looks like nearly a clone of BeReal, copying both the dual-camera mode and the idea of prompting everyone to take a snap simultaneously each day. Instagram hasn’t launched Candid Challenges, but screenshots spotted by a developer suggest that it, too, will work very similarly to BeReal. Snapchat, meanwhile, adopted the dual-camera idea, but not the daily prompt.
On Thursday, the day TikTok announced TikTok Now, BeReal posted the “eyes” emoji on its Twitter account. TikTok and Instagram both declined to comment for this story.
👀— BeReal. (@BeReal_App) September 15, 2022
While BeReal’s default view shows only your friends’ posts, a “Discovery” tab lets you peruse the recent public BeReals of users around the world. Unlike TikTok’s “For You” page, whose vaunted personalization algorithm fills your feed with the videos most likely to keep you hooked, BeReal makes no effort to surface popular or relevant posts. To scroll through it is to be reassured that folks in Norway, Croatia, and the Canary Islands are leading quotidian lives just as unremarkable as yours.
BeReal declined to comment for this story. In a fact sheet for media, the company says its philosophy is “to create a candid and fun place for people to share their lives with friends.” It adds: “We want an alternative to addictive social networks fueling social comparison and portraying life with the goal of amassing influence.”
TikTok, which is owned by deep-pocketed Chinese parent company ByteDance, grew in part by spending heavily on advertisements for its app on rival platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat. BeReal has raised money from major venture capital firms, but so far it seems to be growing more by word of mouth, thanks in part to an “ambassador” program aimed at fueling growth on college campuses.
In a sign of the ballooning interest in BeReal, a popular Twitter account previously known as “Songs that go hard” rebranded on Sept. 8 as “Best BeReals,” tweeting amusing or surprising BeReal posts from public accounts. Within four days, the account’s followers more than doubled, from 125,000 to 325,000, according to the account’s owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On Friday, a fan asked singer Harry Styles to take her BeReal during his concert at Madison Square Garden. He complied, and videos and photos from the encounter went viral on other social platforms — though not on BeReal itself, which has no mechanism for amplifying popular content.
There is one aspect of BeReal that Big Tech can’t replicate: not being part of Big Tech (at least not yet). If people really are using it as an antidote to the addictiveness of TikTok, the impersonality of Facebook, or the performative pressure of Instagram, it may have staying power after all. Perhaps it will even live long enough to see itself become one of the incumbents, scrambling to copy the next hot app that comes along.