The No. 1 social networking app right now on Apple’s U.S. app store is called BeReal, as in being your real self online. No filters, no carefully staged shots.
The concept and format are so popular, TikTok launched its own version — both on its home app and as a standalone — called TikTok Now.
Erica Bailey is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University Business School who studies authenticity and marketing. On BeReal, she said, you can only post once a day and only when you receive an alert, which can come at any time.
The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams.
Erica Bailey: From that notification, you have two minutes to take your phone out. And the phone is going to take a picture — both [using] the front-facing camera and a back-facing camera. So it shows you as a subject, also what you’re looking at or what’s in front of you, at the same time. And as soon as you post your BeReal, you can see the BeReal of those in your social network. If you don’t post, you cannot see what your friends are doing at that exact moment.
Kimberly Adams: BeReal is really selling itself as an app to show authenticity. What does “authenticity” even mean in this context in social media and in the marketing landscape?
Bailey: I think when we talk about authenticity on social media, what people usually mean is that you’re being unedited, you’re being unfiltered, you’re showing some version of reality as you’re experiencing it. And BeReal is capitalizing on this desire that consumers and users of social media have to see what real life looks like, both for influencers and for people that they know.
Adams: How does this authenticity trend play into profitability for social media platforms?
Bailey: Authenticity among influencers is really important, especially if they’re going to be recommending things to their users. There’s a lot of influencers who we rely on to sort of reveal to us what we should be buying, what makeup we should be using, what books we should be reading. And we want to know that we can trust those sources. To the extent they can create this experience of authenticity, or the perception that they’re being authentic, we’re more likely to trust them. Research also shows that we’re more likely to like people who are authentic. We’re more likely to believe what they’re going to tell us, and we’re more likely to sort of follow them — sometimes that is right to their Amazon storefront or to their discount code for a new product.
Adams: How does this authentic approach affect the influencers who’ve kind of made a whole business off of these curated experiences and kind of not showing real life?
Bailey: It seems like in 2022, inauthenticity is really not sustainable. I think the amount of content that influencers have to push out forces them almost to just present their life as it is. And of course, that actual life is very glamorous, full of things that, you know, most of us don’t get, like unboxing all these gift packages. But with the amount of content influencers are forced to produce, they really have no choice but to present their authentic life and their authentic self. And that matches with the demand that people are asking for authenticity among the people that they follow and the people that they see.
Adams: This filter-heavy curated experiences has also been shown to have mental health consequences, especially for younger people. Where does an app like BeReal sit in this larger discussion about what social media does to our brains?
Bailey: Some of my own research, and other research as well, has shown that the way that you use these tools can impact your well-being. And for authenticity scholars, authenticity is one of the most important things for your well-being — to be able to express your real self or your true self, especially to those in your life. It’s really important for your overall mental health and your well-being, and BeReal is showing you that it’s OK. And it’s almost expected. If you’re waiting past the prompt or trying to game the system, people will notice, and so there’s this social currency of authenticity on BeReal, that they’re trying to encourage or incentivize people to be their actual selves, to post their actual face, even if they’re not wearing makeup, even if it’s not the best lighting. And psychology would suggest that that’s actually kind of beneficial for individuals’ well-being.
Adams: TikTok just rolled out a very similar function. Can you talk about that announcement and how it might affect BeReal?
Bailey: I would imagine, even on TikTok, if you’re seeing content like that or, you know, a snap version of someone’s day, you’re most likely going to see that among the influencers that you follow. Most people on TikTok are viewing novel content by people that they don’t know. Whereas BeReal seems to really be embedded in your social network. And in that way, I still think BeReal has something special: They’re showing you this glimpse into your friends’ lives, while TikTok will show you a glimpse into your favorite influencer’s life.
Adams: How much of a chance, though, does a new social media app have in this landscape that is so dominated by Facebook and Instagram and TikTok? Like, can people really edge in there?
Bailey: I think BeReal is offering something unique to what Instagram is showing you, and it might just be a different taste that consumers have. They want to come to Instagram to see that curated beautiful content, from a photography session, and then they want to go to BeReal and see exactly what you were eating that day or what you’re working on or where you were at 11 pm on a Saturday. So it could be that the same consumers migrate over to BeReal or they just add it to their already broad plate of social media that they have and that they go to for different reasons.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
Celebrities are also jumping onto the authenticity trend. Singer Harry Styles, for instance, used a fan’s phone to take a BeReal snapshot mid-concert.
The Washington Post has a piece about BeReal’s rise in popularity and its competition. That includes the TikTok Now app and Snapchat introducing its own dual-camera feature.
And while BeReal has locked up more than 56 million downloads in just the last year, it hasn’t monetized things … yet. The company is looking into instituting paid features rather than ads, according to exclusive reporting from The Financial Times.
Because profitability and authenticity are a tricky balance.
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