Sophie Henry

BeReal is the name of a social media platform, but the word has many uses — as a noun, as a verb and as a command.

Sam Brody ’24 was eating in the dining hall when he had his first encounter with the app, which has swept Yale’s campus in recent weeks. 

“Someone checked their phone and then proceeded to yell,” Brody said. “I thought something bad had happened. I didn’t really know what they were yelling about. Then they pulled out their phone and took a photo of me. I was like, ‘What is happening?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, you’ve never been real?’”

When his friend explained how BeReal worked, Brody said he “immediately fell in love.”

The premise of the app is not complicated. Once a day, all users get a push notification alerting them that it is “time to BeReal.” From then, they have two minutes to take and upload a snapshot — all posts after the interval are marked late. The app uses both the phone’s front and back camera to capture simultaneous images of your face and your surroundings.

The push notification can come at any time. The alerts are not random, but intentionally distributed across different times of the day, representatives of the BeReal staff told me in a collective statement.

The app, representatives said, will never use likes. Instead, users can add comments or “RealMojis” — tiny, circular snapshots of their face  — to their friends’ posts.

BeReal, as its name would suggest, places a premium on authenticity. Sometimes, Brody says, it can even feel like the app is punishing its users when their activity deviates from its stated purpose. Not only does the app mark how many hours late each post is, the amount of times a user retakes a picture is also publicly accessible to their followers.

“On BeReal you post a picture every day,” BeReal representatives wrote. “On other platforms you would usually just post a picture when you’re on vacation or experiencing something extraordinary. With posting a picture every day at a time that you can’t control, it creates authenticity.”

Although the app has only reached widespread popularity in the United States in the past six months, it was founded in France by Alexis Barreyat in 2020. At the time, Barreyat worked as a video producer for GoPro, a job which enabled him to work alongside many professional influencers. 

“The job made him worry about the way people try to show unrealistic images of their lives online,” the staff wrote. “Every time he would open Instagram, it would be filled with ads and influencers and the perfect life of everyone. His life wasn’t as perfect as they were always showcasing. Back then he realized that he wanted to build another platform. The main idea was to stay in touch with his friends and discover what everyone was doing on a regular basis. BeReal brings authenticity back into our lives.”

The app swept French universities last year — “« c’est quoi ton bereal ? » is the new « c’est quoi ton snap  ?»” one user wrote on Twitter in June 2021. The app has received millions of downloads, according to the BeReal staff, with the average user in their twenties. 

Shreya Nuli ’24 first heard about the app over winter break from her friends at home in New Jersey. When she returned to Yale, she said, everyone was starting to use it there, too. 

The app initially struck Nuli as a combination of Instagram and Snapchat, but the daily alert to post and the two-minute window to do so made it feel like something different. 

“It’s almost like a collective comfort when you see that everyone else is also just sitting in their bed, or staring at a computer screen,” Josh Guo ’24 said. “There’s sort of a communal aspect because everyone’s posting at the same time. A lot of college is FOMO — like everyone else is having fun without me. BeReal makes it clear that they’re not and that everyone’s sort of just doing the same thing.” 

There is an intimacy to BeReal that other social media platforms lack, both because the app is interested in highlighting in small moments and because most of the students I talked to still have relatively few followers. 

“It’s a reminder of the beauty and the value of the small things,” Brody said. “You just take a photo and then you can go back a week later and see what you were doing on a given day. Even if it was writing a paper or hanging out with friends, you can look back and enjoy it. It gives you something to look forward to each day— I’ll be like, ‘I wonder when the BeReal will happen. I wonder what I’ll be doing.’ It’s fantastic.”

Each of the four students I spoke to said the app reached them by word of mouth, rather than any other social or news media platforms. This explains, at least partially, why it seems to reach one college at a time, spreading separately to Harvard and Georgetown in the past month. 

On Tuesday, Guo said, he received an influx of friend requests from acquaintances at the University of St. Andrews — BeReal, it seemed, had reached Edinburgh.

I joined BeReal last week, and like Brody, I fell in love. Learning to use BeReal felt like I was 13 and finally allowed to have an Instagram account for the first time. I requested everyone I knew on the app: friends from Yale, from high school, from summer camps. I dutifully went through each of their BeReals and posed for RealMojis. I stood alone in front of my bedroom mirror and twisted my neck into swanlike contortions so I would look good in both the front-facing and reflected perspectives. 

During one of those precious two-minute windows, gazing into the looking glass of my phone, I started to rethink the claim that the app “brings authenticity back into our lives.” 

For me, social media cannot exist without performance. When the camera comes on, my whole being is going to realign to the idea that I am being watched. During the day, I find myself imagining that the call to BeReal will come at just the right time — I’ll be surrounded by friends in a beautiful place, and the light will be hitting me perfectly. Even though anything I post on BeReal could also be posted on Instagram, part of what I like about the app is the absence of choice. Because it instructs me exactly when to post, I don’t feel vulnerable about having to decide what’s worth sharing. 

Other social media platforms, like Instagram or Twitter, expect us to make observations, elevating our takes or our surroundings. On BeReal, where the window into our lives can open at any time, we are not the observers, but the observed. 

I thought of Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century theory of the panopticon, originally developed as a prototype for a prison. In the panopticon, a brightly lit observation tower sits in the center of a circle of prison cells. From the tower, guards can look in on every inmate, but the inmates cannot see if the guards are watching them. 

If the guard can look into your cell at any time, Bentham argues, you will always behave correctly. If the BeReal camera can turn on you at any time, you will always be posing for it. 

Evelyn Chacón ’24, too, feels the pressure for the one moment captured from her day to be perfect. 

“I’ll feel like, ‘Damn, I’m in bed right now, but if the BeReal came a couple hours ago, people would have seen that I was doing stuff, or they would have seen that I have friends or that I’m out and about.’ The fact that it’s random just kind of makes you think about how you’re being perceived by others every day.” 

Although BeReal offers users the opportunity to wait to post, Chacón said that posting hours later means giving up any semblance of spontaneity. 

As he has gained more followers on the app, Brody said, he has begun to find himself waiting to post his BeReal until after the allotted time has passed, especially when he has plans for later. 

Sometimes, Guo said, posting on the app felt like a “performance of spontaneity.” He too sees people wait to post until they’re in the dining hall with friends. Once, he said, he wore the same sweater for two BeReals in a row, and his immediate concern was that “everyone would think I only had one sweater.” 

“We think that people’s behavior’s changed a lot since the beginning of social media,” BeReal representatives told me when I asked them if it was truly possible to present authentically on social media. “More and more people are second guessing their privacy and what an effect social media has on them. With BeReal, there’s finally an alternative.” 

All social media platforms fetishize authenticity — the thesis of Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter is the curation of a public-facing self that never seems curated. If BeReal is different, it is because it lays bare the pursuit of authenticity central to social media, regardless of whether that authenticity can ever be achieved. 

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.