In our 2021 edition of Connecting the dots, our annual trends forecasting report, we predicted social media culture would move from being defined by “glamor, luxury, and ambiguity” to “spontaneity and realness”.
But even we didn’t see BeReal coming.
Founded in January 2020, and catching fire on college campuses from the beginning of 2022 onwards, it’s become the buzziest app around.
But what exactly is it? And does it really represent a new kind of social media?
Here’s what we’ve learned from the world’s first comprehensive study into BeReal users.
1. BeReal is a Gen Z hangout
4% of consumers in France, the UK, and the USA have used BeReal at least once, rising to 12% among Gen Z.
To put that in context, that’s around the same number of Gen Zers who use Tumblr or Telegram.
The vast majority of consumers (76%), though, haven’t even heard of it. So what’s a BeReal, anyway?
For those who don’t know, it’s a social media app where users get a notification to post a photo during the same two-minute window each day. But they don’t know what time that’ll be until it happens. It could be when they’re making breakfast, at work, or on a night out.
This Saturday Night Live skit helps explain.
Thanks to this new system of posting, BeReal is keen to show that it presents a more – well, real version of social media. In the words of its App Store listing:
“BeReal won’t make you famous. If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.”
It also says: “BeReal is life, Real life, and this life is without filters. BeReal doesn’t care if you have millions of followers or if you’re verified.”
But how authentic is it really? And how much do its users care about authenticity in the first place?
2. It’s about fun, friends, and FOMO
In September this year we conducted the first proper study into BeReal users, letting us see exactly why people use the app. And thanks to our recontact methodology, we could also layer it with thousands of existing data points to get unparalleled insight into who BeReal users actually are.
The standout finding? More authentic content was only the 6th most popular reason users log on. Not many BeReal users are bothered about the lack of filters or ads either.
They care more about usability. The fact it’s easy-to-use (and fun) shows how well BeReal has cut through the noise by having one clear feature. This does make it easy to replicate, as other apps have already begun doing. But it also shows where existing apps can be challenged, when they have so many features that they have a less well-defined core purpose.
Being able to see what friends are up to is another big selling point.
Tech and culture writer Rex Woodbury has talked about how social media is moving in two opposite directions, one toward talking to close friends, and another toward interacting with strangers. BeReal has shown there’s still a gap in the market for the former, casually checking in with what friends are doing.
So authenticity isn’t the defining feature of the app. And if we look at its users in more detail, we can see why that might be.
3. BeReal users don’t care about authenticity
Like virtually all viral social media apps, BeReal first grew on college campuses, helped by a paid ambassador program.
Young people have changed a fair bit over the past decade. Among other things, they’re now more conscious of the time they spend online and social media in particular. But they still have a very different set of interests and values compared to the general population. Self-image tends to be much more important to them – and authenticity less so.
Compared to the average consumer in France, the UK, and the USA, BeReal users are:
- 2.7x more likely to say standing out in a crowd is important to them
- 2.1x more likely to describe themselves as fashion-conscious
- 2.3x more likely to want brands help them improve their image
- 2.5x more likely to want brands to be exclusive
This gives us a pretty good picture of what really matters to them.
BeReal users are also less likely to want brands to be authentic than the average consumer.
All social media apps have their own distinctive culture, and there’s already some tension developing between BeReal users who post late in a more flattering setting, and those who feel that’s not in the spirit of the app.
This has happened before. There was a similar dynamic when “photo dumps” took off on Instagram through 2020. The format became very popular, and was used by prominent celebrities, even though many felt they were too perfect in their imperfections.
But that didn’t stop photo dumps becoming more curated.
4. Like other viral apps, it feels exclusive
For an audience interested in exclusivity, standing out, and being plugged into new trends, just having the app signals some kind of status. The content they post on it might have a different feel to other social platforms, but the bottom line is, if you’re the kind of person who’s interested in trending apps, you probably also care what people think about you.
We’ve seen this before with other social apps, sometimes by accident. When it first broke out Clubhouse required an invite to join, while Snapchat was initially iOS-only. Both added to the buzz around them in their early days, and gave those that had the app a feeling of insider status, even if it wasn’t fully intended.
Something often missed in the discussion around BeReal is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
People who log on to the app are active on other social platforms, and BeReal posts can be shared across to them.
So while many posts might be relatively mundane, and limited to an immediate audience of friends, the best ones can be put on platforms with bigger reach.
You can see this with the Twitter account @bestbereals, which has over 800,000 followers at the time of writing, and posts the wildest, funniest, or most interesting posts from BeReal. Similar posts go viral on TikTok too.
5. It’s about sharing photos, not photography
We can learn even more about BeReal by comparing its current user base to the early adopters of Snapchat and Instagram.
Let’s look at Instagram users in 2014, and Snapchat users in 2015, and see how they compare to BeReal users in 2022.
They all have many things in common. Primarily, all three groups:
- Are interested in technology and online services
- Like to stand out and try new things
- Talk about fashion online
- Discover brands through celebrities and influencers
There are one or two really intriguing differences though. BeReal users are less interested in photography. So while they might still be more interested in being exclusive and curated, it may come from a different aesthetic, or not from aesthetics at all.
The most-liked tweet from @bestbereals at the time of writing is a post by hashoomblivin, which shows them looking at a crashed car (presumably their own).
The most distinctive interest BeReal users have compared to the general population is adventure/extreme sports.
And that’s more relevant than you might think. One of the screenshots in BeReal’s App Store listing is of someone posting while they’re snowboarding, its description references crashing bikes, and one of the app’s founders used to work for GoPro. So if a hierarchy of successful BeReal posts does develop, it won’t be about who looks the nicest, but who ends up in the wildest situation.
It won’t be about who has the best-looking face, but who has the best-looking day.
6. Brands may make it feel even more exclusive
BeReal’s distinctive two minute time window for posting has two effects. One is prompting people to (mostly) share content that’s unrehearsed and imperfect, without time to prepare the perfect shot.
But its unpredictability also brings it close to the “drop” culture that’s taken hold in fashion in the last few years. So even though the time window is designed to give a more authentic view into users’ lives, interacting with a brand may lean the opposite way.
Having a limited time window makes it easier to create experiences with a sense of exclusivity, where if you don’t see them in time, you miss out.
Brands are still dipping their toes into the platform, and advertising is currently banned, but Chipotle’s early success (reportedly maxing out its follower count) makes it worth studying.
In particular, the QSR brand’s gambit of offering a limited number of vouchers when posting may offer a clue as to what future brand engagements could look like – using that time window to create a sense of urgency and FOMO.
The other model for brand engagement is closer to Discord. BeReal users are four times more likely to say they buy products to access the community around them. So it’d be a suitable place for brands to nurture close relationships with their most dedicated customers and fans. This is the kind of approach e.l.f Beauty has experimented with, offering sneak peeks behind the scenes. This could leverage the platform’s RealMoji feature, where users react to posts with an image of their own face.
7. The future’s unclear, but brands have to be brought in at some point
It’s always difficult to tell which social apps will stay the course. The last decade has seen many apps get hyped before fizzling out. BeReal isn’t even the first to be defined by a dual camera feature – Frontback first tried it out in the mid-2010s.
Plus, BeReal is at the start of its journey – any platform’s culture changes as more users get on board, as broader circles of friends and relatives join the early adopters. And at some point the app’s owners will have to figure out how to monetize it, which will cause another kind of vibe shift.
But above all it’s important to remember almost all social apps that enter the zeitgeist are used by the same group of people: trendsetting young people who want to stand out, burnish their self-image, and be part of exclusive groups. BeReal is no exception.
If the BeReal user base grows, a hierarchy of content will emerge – even among close friends – which may be less about aesthetics, but rewards those who are seen to be living their best life.