We had suspicions that this man was Natalie’s boyfriend on Day 4 of our observational study. It was a selfie of the two of them driving; the caption read “in a random man’s car.” The next morning, she was in bed with him, and on Day 7, they sat together on a city bus. They took their lunch break together on Day 9, in bed again on Day 13—when we became more confident of their relationship—and when Day 19 came around, he took up the whole frame. This is when we were sure.
We have never met Natalie, or her anonymized lover.
We accessed these daily glimpses of Natalie’s life through BeReal, a platform that, once a day, notifies users that it’s “Time to BeReal.” Users then have two minutes to take their BeReal: a simultaneous photo, from the front and back cameras, of whatever they are doing and whoever they are with. BeReal is advertised as an authentic, refreshing look into the lives of your close friends and family. But another, decidedly secondary tab, the “Discovery” feed, allows users to see what strangers around the world have posted publicly. What was going on here? Who were these users interacting with? Why were they posting publicly, and what would we find if we just tried to add them?
On September 23, we sat down and staged the experiment. This was the plan: every day for twenty days, between September 24, 2022 and October 13, 2022, we would post BeReals and collect brief observations on the strangers on our feed. We would create BeReal accounts with our faces in the profile photos, but we would generate fake names and usernames for relative anonymity: Sara McGuire (saramcguire11) and Matthew Norris (matthewnorris11). We would both add 100 strangers off of the “Discovery” tab. Ideally some strangers would add us back, ideally they would be from around the world, and ideally they would post consistent and interesting content during the twenty days of observation. We hoped that around ten would accept our requests—we would then be able to view the strangers’ daily posts on our “My Friends” feed.
When a user posts a BeReal, they can choose to post it privately to their friends or publicly to both the friend feed and the Discovery feed. Because the home feed is limited to the posts from a user’s friends within that day’s period, BeReal’s Discovery feed is the only place a user can engage with the app beyond their added friends, unlike Instagram’s almost-endless home feed and actually endless Discover feed.
The Discovery feed allegedly selects public users at random from around the world: toggling over to the feed reveals users from Kentucky, Venezuela, and Serbia. This feature has largely been neglected by essays on BeReal published by major media outlets, like the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and Wired Magazine.
Through these strangers, we hoped to understand not just the social media habits of our generation, but also how everyday users pushed against the expected uses of the app. How can we see how alone our generation is in the modern day, through a platform designed to present “authentic” life? How can we show how much the structure of BeReal as a social media platform diverges from that of established platforms, like Instagram and Facebook? And what weirdness could we find by paying close attention to the app for twenty days straight?
Pivoting from using this app as it was designed and advertised—for close friends—to fit the experiment was strange and more difficult than we expected. On our preparatory Day 0, we already knew that we were fighting a losing battle against the platform if we tried to control our BeReals too much. Matthew’s location was on for his first post; Sara’s first two takes had the school crest in them. We had both had personal accounts since January 2022, soon after the app became popular in the United States (though it was started in France in 2020). Most of our close friends used the app, and we would interact with them almost every single day through the platform. But these were our close friends. We knew that when strangers added us back—if they added us back—we would still have to post content from our own lives to be able to see theirs. How would we set boundaries? How was what we could expect of strangers intertwined with our own expectations for posting?
Based on our previous experiences with the app, we set a few guidelines. We would try to post as naturally as possible, with whoever was around and consented to being in the BeReal, as close to on time as possible. We would try not to post anything from our environment too explicitly university-branded or identifiable. And we would not react to or comment on other posts. We did not want our posts to be distracting, and, at the same time, we wanted to maintain the authentic, “real” part of the BeReal user experience.
We hoped that by Day 1 of the experiment, September 24, at least ten people each would have accepted our friend requests, giving us some content on the “Friends” feed. For some reason, strangers added us back in surprising numbers: the Sara and Matthew accounts would have a combined 72 friends by the time the experiment began.
Living with Strangers
On Day 1, Cooper is in a bright blue rain poncho at Niagara Falls—the only data point we have on him until he’s in a cab in Manhattan on Day 2, then at Wicked on Day 3, then eating pizza at a mural on Day 4, and finally, on Day 5, at home in Las Vegas.
Only twenty days before the experiment began, the official BeReal Twitter account posted: “PSA: only add your close friends & family on BeReal.” And over the summer, there were tweets circulating that claimed high schoolers were trying to accumulate as many “RealMoji” reactions as possible on their posts. But while we observed high schooler users, many of the people who added us back were young adults: working at Home Depot, the Port of Los Angeles, and Skooter’s Roadhouse: Bar and Grill.
BeReal is explicit about how they intend users to interact in the app. They expect that users only add close friends and family, so that the intimacy of daily posts is limited to a specific set of individuals. BeReal distinguishes their app from platforms like Instagram and Facebook, by offering a fully authentic, “real” user experience. What we gained from interacting with these strangers was an understanding of the diverse landscape of users today—from middle schoolers to full adults, users were posting intimate glances into their everyday lives.
The BeReal app description warns that the app won’t lead to fame: “If you want to become an influencer, you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” So why were people adding us back?
If we operate under the assumption that teenagers use social media to build social capital and establish social networks, BeReal does not immediately fill this need. When the novelty of the app wears off, it becomes clear that BeReal is for maintaining relationships, not for creating new ones—are the total strangers who added Sara and Matthew back challenging this expectation?
BeReal has no direct message feature, as there is on most social media platforms; you cannot go through and “stalk” old posts; the Discovery tab is the only way to interact with strangers. After the experiment, we reached out for comment by posting a BeReal email address on Sara and Matthew’s accounts and asking people if they wanted to talk. We did not get any responses.
Loneliness, Aloneness, and Presenting it All
It’s Day 19, and Anna Jane is posting for the first time with another person. Her prior BeReals would feature (with surprising consistency) a New Mexican golf course, a smoothie shop, and a leather couch—but never another person. We call that “presentation of aloneness.” In this Day 19 BeReal, she poses with a coworker at Foot Locker, and they are both smiling.
It seemed that, in our brief, initial forays through the Discovery tab, many users were totally alone. They were in bed, watching television, sitting behind screens blacked out by their hands. We first took pilot data of user aloneness by scrolling through ten accounts, then twenty, before realizing that a larger experiment could more clearly illustrate a pattern.
Hypothesis: people our age around the world are alone during a significant portion of their waking hours. And hypothetically, BeReal is the perfect observational device. We could assemble a randomly selected group of observational subjects from across the world. We could automatically receive data points from that group at random times every day. And we could do this all anonymously.
In our day-to-day data collection, we included whether users were alone or in the presence of other people. This preliminary binary of alone/not-alone, however, broke down very early in the observational period.
On Day 3, Paulo posts at a local restaurant in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He is the only person in frame, but here’s the thing: there is also a place setting across from him with half-eaten food. Realistically, Paulo is the only one we can see, but can we infer that Paulo is alone here? What’s the limit of that inference? On the same day, Fernanda takes a picture of her dog. A baby sits on the linoleum floor of Summer’s post. Who is alone?
Quickly, we realized that our working definition of aloneness needed refining. Above all, we wanted to remain empirical. In an effort to avoid these judgment calls, we decided that we could not accurately gauge loneliness, so we opted instead to look at “presentation of aloneness”: if there were another person in the frame, we determined that the user was not presenting loneliness. Also, dogs do not count as people, but babies do. Paulo’s alone. Fernanda’s alone. Summer is not.
Focusing on presentation of aloneness likely deflates our numbers on loneliness. People who post in anonymous spaces—a subway car, a Baskin Robbins, a parking garage—are, likely, lonely, but we can’t measure their aloneness.
Even as the observers, it was hard to tell where we stood with loneliness. We could add friends from all over the world to get a general, working sense of what social media habits looked like, without the limits and biases of interacting just with users we know. But in the end, we might also have just been playing into the disjunction that emerges on every social media platform—in observing the individual, 72 accounts, we were also avoiding understanding the networks that exist within the platform.
It’s Time to Be Real
“Te odio derecho económico”; “caminar para comprar agua”; “Troste troste troste.” Mathias Tiago’s first post with another person is on Day 9, when he eats with a friend at school.
After completing twenty days of observation, we concluded that more often than not, BeReal users presented aloneness. Of accounts that posted each day, an average of 56% of users presented aloneness. Generally, users were most alone on Wednesdays and least alone on Fridays. On Day 14, friends from Matthew’s account displayed their highest rate of aloneness (82%), but friends from Sara’s account displayed their lowest (39%). Data from both accounts floated around this consistent average, but there were often erratic, outlying data points. It is important to note here that realistically, we cannot extrapolate this data to larger user trends. However, this data is useful for understanding a younger generation’s social patterns through BeReal’s purportedly more authentic lens.
BeReal doesn’t have much of an “algorithm,” at least not an explicit one. The platform recommends accounts from among your contacts, but their network-building capacity essentially ends there. This model defies the way many other social media platforms operate.
In the New Yorker, Cal Newport uses the term “legacy platforms” to describe social media institutions like Instagram and Facebook, platforms girded by effective, resilient “social graph” algorithms. These algorithms facilitate the gradual construction of networks of individuals at varying degrees of closeness with the user.
Newport argues that the rapid ascent of TikTok, a platform constructed on a disparate “entertainment” algorithm, has precipitated the collapse of legacy platforms. Instagram and Facebook have adopted some of the core mechanisms of TikTok and, consequently, have eroded the durability of their “social graph” algorithms. Newport is optimistic about this dynamism, writing, “The Internet at its best should be weird, energetic, and exciting.”
BeReal seems symptomatic of this broader Internet shift. The platform is weird and bold, almost to a narcissistic extent. It submits the claim that any moment from any person’s day merits the attention and space of a post. BeReal has been explosive, but decreasing daily user percentages compared to app downloads, in addition to rising anecdotal Twitter exchanges, suggest that the app now struggles to retain dedicated users.
Sophie Haigney introduces her essay “BeReal Captures Our Nostalgia for a Time When Social Media was Boring,” by describing stills from her own feed: “In one, I might see a friend’s face, in miniature, overlaid onto a photo of her laptop, on which I can see her trading Slack messages with colleagues, none of whose names I know, about a situation that doesn’t mean anything to me.” We did not see our friends’ faces. We saw strangers’ faces, and we saw these faces in Midwest City, Oklahoma and Bragança, Portugal. Haigney’s feed does sound “boring,” but the reality is that activity on BeReal extends beyond the corporate offices of the New York Times.
Many of the people that we observed expanded their usage of the platform beyond the ways that BeReal intended. They accepted our unfamiliar friend request readily, and they interacted with our posts through the “RealMoji” feature on more than one occasion. They engaged with us: total strangers. At the same time, they were physically alone, or at least “presenting aloneness,” more often than not.
A new sort of sociality, facilitated by social media, has emerged from this type of relation. And this is the sociality that we inadvertently engaged in during our study.
We were left wondering what the value of the platform is, how we would continue to challenge our consciousness in our own social media usage, and what else. What happens in the world beyond the suggested network of close friends? Adding and regularly interacting with strangers pushes against every way that BeReal wants us to behave, ways that can be experimental, weird, bold—and worth carrying into other means of social media interaction.
Two weeks after the experiment ended, on our final day of writing this article, we each posted one final BeReal from the Sara and Matthew accounts. We felt familiar with our “Friends” and the worlds around them: their schools, their workplaces, their homes. We felt satisfied to bring the project to an end. We felt a little lonely and nostalgic ourselves. Here are some life updates from the friends:
After weeks of watching him watch Better Call Saul, Owen is on Disney+, grappling with “The internal debate of what to watch next.” Noah has dyed his hair. Shawn hasn’t kicked marijuana yet. Drew has gotten the new job he had interviewed for on Day 18—he’s wearing a MEDIC hat inside of an ambulance. The other Drew finally has a coworker at Planet Fitness. Now that football season is over, Mia is cheerleading for the basketball team. And Liam is making a bold launch of a bright blue winter coat.
Disclaimer: all names have been changed for the privacy of the users.