The premise of countering the stylized, staged, manicured, perfectionist, big-time influencer post is sustainable, but the idea of taking a photo in a random two-minute time slot could get old.Niklas Myhr quote on BeReal in Time, August 4, 2022
The explosive growth of emerging social media platform BeReal has naturally caught media's attention as it tries to understand what the fuzz is all about. In this regard, The Wall Street Journal and Time have reached out to The Social Media Professor for interviews about the essence of BeReal. Our discussions have primarily dealt with three issues:
- What makes BeReal special?
- What makes people leave other platforms?
- Is BeReal here to stay?
What makes BeReal special?
Gen Z (or Generation Z representing the cohort born between 1997 and 2012) is the age demographic that has most enthusiastically adopted BeReal. What seems to attract these young users is that BeReal offers a low-pressure environment where it is okay to share rather mundane pictures of what you are up to at a random time each day, even if nothing exciting is happening in your life at that time.
BeReal chose to include some constraints in the creation process, which has leveled the playing field between casual users and full-time creators. Creators are limited to sharing only one snapshot a day, using both the front and the back camera to capture more of your surroundings. Also, unless you want your post to be flagged as being “late”, you need to share your photo during a specific and randomly assigned 2-minute period.
With this time constraint, BeReal effectively reduces the time creators have at their disposal to set up, take, and share a photo. Users can also not simply upload old photos from their phone as this would defeat the purpose of BeReal which is to capture what is going on at a very specific time.
Other limitations include the lack of editing options, so creators cannot work on filters to create the “perfect” image. This lack of filtering options harkens back to 2013, when the #nofilter hashtag started trending on Instagram as a reaction to the overuse of filters. Even if filters are still available on Instagram, this was perhaps a precursor of apps like BeReal, which speaks to the preference of many users who find it refreshing to share and see pictures in their raw, authentic, and original forms.
One noteworthy aspect of BeReal is that it forces you to share an update yourself before you can see anything of what is going on with others. This ensures that everyone on the platform participates in contrast to other platforms on which many users have become passive observers of what others share.
What makes people leave other platforms?
Is the growth of BeReal connected to the growing dissatisfaction users report on other platforms such as Meta's Facebook and Instagram? Instagram, in particular, has been in the spotlight recently as they have introduced changes to mimic the increasingly dominant TikTok, such as by featuring more video content via so-called Reels and by introducing recommended content by people you are not connected with.
While the simultaneous growth of BeReal could be coincidental, the timing is curious and speaks in favor of this being the perfect storm when a platform like BeReal becomes a refreshing alternative where users, at least for a moment, can stay connected with their friends in a more authentic manner.
Even before the TikTok-inspired changes with Reels, Instagram was beginning to face issues of content feeds being overly saturated with content by professional influencers and ads. Many regular users have become more hesitant to share updates of themselves, self-disqualifying their lives and photos as not sufficiently interesting or good-looking.
As more users become passive lurkers rather than active participants, the user experience on Instagram has become more similar to watching Netflix on your sofa. And by watching an Instagram feed where others present picture-perfect lives, the experience has not always been a happy one. For example, even Instagram's own research show that female teen depression on Instagram is real.
Still, it is essential to remember that people flocking to BeReal for a few minutes each day doesn't necessarily mean they abandon other stalwarts in the business as my Gen Z daughter Selma pointed out. Rather, at least for the time being, BeReal represents a complement to existing offerings rather than as a replacement.
Is BeReal here to stay?
The Business Model of BeReal
What business model can make BeReal sustainable from a business perspective? With increasing investments in the platform, that question will likely become more acute as months go by. Still, the most viable options for monetization are not likely to be implemented in the near future:
- Allowing for advertisements would be risky as many users likely fled to BeReal as other platforms had too many ads whereas BeReal represents a more genuine, authentic experience. That being said, if BeReal would go for advertisements, the best approach would be for them to curate or steer advertising partners toward ads doubling down on “realness”. Less-than-perfect photos and illustrations of a behind-the-scenes nature can show people that companies are human too. Some brands have already begun experimenting with an organic presence on BeReal in the hopes that the authenticity shines through. Yet, this avenue is not necessarily novel as many brands have now done similar work for years trying to be authentic such as via Instagram Stories.
- Charging a subscription fee doesn't sound realistic at this point as the feature set is too limited. Perhaps a subscription for power users could be on the horizon, but the idea of big-time influencers on the platform runs counter to the essence of what BeReal is all about.
- Merchandising could be an option through which BeReal could capitalize on at least some of the traction it currently has, even if the risk is that users feel that BeReal would be selling out if they were to start selling t-shirts on being real.
- Diversification is yet another option where BeReal could serve as a marketing vehicle to promote other products and services. The risk here would be if these offerings would be presented in such a way that these would become just as intrusive to the user experience as ads by other companies. But while they have the momentum, BeReal certainly has the opportunity to try a number of things. For example, I would not be surprised if they managed to host events, conferences, or meetups of “real people” around the world. Or they could host a concert with “real artists” performing unplugged in regular clothing with no makeup. Lady Gaga appearing as Real Gaga, wouldn't that be a thing?
- Looking for mergers & acquisitions is another possibility, as partnering up with someone else or allowing yourself to be acquired could provide the desired combination of the ability to attract an audience with commercialization options. Perhaps Airbnb sees the potential fit of having BeReal help them further enhance its already impressive online community of “real people”?
Is BeReal a fad?
Regardless of the business model implications, another issue is whether BeReal is a fad or a platform that can sustain its momentum and continue its growth for the foreseeable future.
Though the number of downloads is a good measure of an app’s success, that data doesn’t predict whether the app has staying powerNiklas Myhr quoted in The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2022
Whether authenticity online is attainable at scale or even desirable is debatable as other platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have struggled in this regard. A decade ago, you would be hard-pressed to see a single presentation on social media not emphasizing the importance of being “authentic” (and yes, this includes presentations by the author of this article…).
Yet, the core premise of BeReal is that it is supposed to capture people's everyday lives in a more realistic, authentic manner. However, that doesn't necessarily have to be implemented via random, 2-minute windows during which you snap a photo. The novelty of this particular approach is likely to wear off sooner rather than later.
Still, there are other ways in which BeReal can capture the realness of people's lives. After all, it is not called RealPhotos, so obvious extensions to the current model would be to invite people to share real video, audio, or text snippets based on specific prompts. All would serve the purpose of getting the bulk of people sharing what they are up to right now.
Having experimented with BeReal myself, I can identify with the joy of getting that BeReal notification just at the time when you were up to something unusual or fun in some other way. Or, at least I have often been able to find our dog Simona as a go-to participant in my BeReals!
Still, BeReal is supposed to provide a more realistic view of someone's life in that it captures your average moment rather than just the highlight of your day. One can only hope that apps like BeReal can inspire youth to lead more interesting lives in that it gets them outdoors, socializing with other people, finding scenic viewpoints, and engaging in more exciting activities.
Or, perhaps even better, apps like BeReal can make people feel better about themselves as they see that others are not always having the best times of their lives on an everyday basis. Nor are they looking fabulous every day. In this regard, BeReal deserves credit if the platform can serve as an important reminder that you don't necessarily have to look perfect every day. Instead, you can simply be yourself and that is fine enough.
But given that BeReal is beginning to spread to older age brackets, the risk is that many users will find themselves at the very same spot such as at a desk at work during most of the BeReal's random notification times. Pictures over time may become very similar to yesterday's post.
It could also be less than ideal to get a 2-minute countdown notification during inopportune times while you drive, sit in class, or are busy at work. Myself, I had the notification alert go off while proctoring my students' final exam. It quickly became obvious that many of my students recognized BeReal's distinctive notification sound as they smiled at me.