Could this “authentic” photo app be the death of Instagram?

Once a day, randomly, the BeReal app sends a notification to its users. He tells them they have two minutes to take a picture using their phone’s front and back cameras. Only after posting can they see what others have posted. Scroll through the “discovery” feed, and you’ll come across people walking their dog, watching football, reading a book.

BeReal wants to banish the smoke and break the mirrors that accompany social networks. He considers himself “the anti-Instagram”, making bland normality a virtue. “BeReal won’t make you famous,” reads its description on the App Store. “If you want to be an influencer, you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” To sum it all up, BeReal aims to cultivate “authenticity”.

Authenticity. He obsessed Holden Caulfield in The Heart Catcher and now we are obsessed with it. And maybe for good reason: the online world tends to the superficial, and in any case, genuine people are generally more trustworthy, have closer relationships, and are happier and healthier than – to quote Holden – their “phonier” counterparts.

But the word is used so often, and in such diverse contexts, that its meaning is quickly watered down. “Authentic” leadership, “authentic” advertising, “authentic” cuisine… Elon Musk wants Twitter accounts to be “authentic”. (I can’t help but wonder what this means for dissidents in authoritarian states, or for people with good reason to conceal their identity, such as LGBT+ children in deeply conservative families or social environments. )

It makes me wish we could find a neat substitute for the word. I searched through the drawers and cupboards of my mind, turned over all the furniture, hoping to find a word that communicated the same essential harmony between what we say and do and who we are. It’s a useful thing to be able to communicate, not least because there are very legitimate reasons why some people feel they can’t be themselves around others, and discussions about why that’s and what we can do about it are worth taking place.

In most of these cases, authenticity really means something else: transparency or consistency or vulnerability. As for BeReal, as noble as its intentions are, sooner or later it won’t be about promoting authenticity at all, but rather something like authenticity as performance.

It invites users to compare their life, first of all, which rarely ends well; and it will lead some, if not the majority, to compete in candor, to try to appear more raw and unadorned than each other. And more than that, does one insignificant moment captured during your day actually say anything about your authenticity? Does (for example) a photo of yourself eating a mediocre sandwich while you rush to work reveal something about your authenticity?

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Just as Instagram has always been the kind of place where some people feel compelled to portray their lives as brighter or more vibrant and exciting than they realize, BeReal is a world that seems to inspire users, on the other hand, to seem more earthy and understated – even dull. Which is quite boring. And that is always performance. And performance is the opposite of authenticity.

Authenticity is not something you try to be; it’s what happens when you stop trying to be someone other than you are. It is simply the result of ceasing to perform and please others by behaving in a way they deem desirable.

A small irony in all of this is that BeReal’s extraordinary growth this year, attracting over seven million new users, hasn’t been entirely organic. In fact, as a university newspaper reported, the app paid students to download and review it. It doesn’t seem very authentic to me.

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