Can this photo-sharing app be an alternative to Instagram?

The app has positioned itself as a more truthful rival to the highly stylised Instagram, but that may not be good enough to steal Instagram’s crown

September 24, 2022 02:10 pm | Updated September 30, 2022 05:16 pm IST

BeReal, a photo-sharing app, has positioned itself as a more truthful rival to the highly stylised Instagram

BeReal, a photo-sharing app, has positioned itself as a more truthful rival to the highly stylised Instagram | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

If you are tired of the patterned grids and influencers on Instagram, you may find an option in a new photo-sharing app. The BeReal app, developed by France-based Alexis Barreyat and Kevin Perreau in 2020, has tasted some amount of success as it claims to offer an authentic way to make friends and document life. The app clearly aims at the influencer-dominated Instagram where artificial set-ups, ad posts, and videos recycled from TikTok have become the norm. BeReal says it shows “Your friends for real” and is “not another social network.”

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Concept and design

The app is similar to Instagram, with some quirky restrictions. BeReal members are prompted daily with the notification “Time to BeReal,” asking them to capture a photo of their surroundings within the next two minutes. After snapping a photo using the rear camera, the phone’s front camera automatically captures whatever is in the frame at that time. Done the right way, you have two images: what the user is currently doing, along with a smaller in-set selfie showing the BeReal user. This is a fascinating juxtaposition of the device’s front and rear camera views.

As soon as your BeReal is posted, you can use the app’s discovery mode to see what members across the world are doing at exactly the same moment. However, users can also capture their BeReal hours later if they wish to wait. The app is similar to Instagram as there are plenty of ways to make sure the users present their most aesthetic shot - instead of the “real” one.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves. BeReal has recorded over 50 lakh downloads on the Google Play Store. The store notes that no data is shared with third parties (according to the developers), but that data isn’t encrypted either. On the Apple App Store, BeReal was ranked #1 in the Social Networking category, with over 293,000 ratings. Though the starting months saw digital congestion with thousands of users trying to upload photos at the same time, this hasn’t affected the app’s popularity.

First impressions

BeReal’s user interface is so simple that it isn’t just minimalistic. Rather, it feels closer to the beta version of an app. While this might put off those who are attracted to Instagram’s numerous filters, features and expanding editing options, BeReal is easy for new users to master in just a few minutes.

Users can post their BeReal for everyone on the app to see, or just themselves and friends. Users can also choose to post their rough location or conceal it, based on their phone’s own location settings.

Exploring the discovery mode, one is soon lost in BeReals of complete strangers eating breakfast or dinner, doing college coursework, driving (a hopefully parked car), hiking, jogging, sunbathing, shopping, playing sports, typing at office, cooking, slouching in bed, or watching OTT series. While some users were open to showing their faces, others tilted the front camera away to reveal their ceilings and walls to maintain their privacy. Photographs were organic, gritty, and cluttered with mundane details.

BeReal is unlike Instagram as there are no influencers who recycle make-up trends, hairstyles, sartorial choices, seasonal holiday plans or remix stale reels to entertain their viewers. BeReal’s appeal becomes extra visible when you scroll through hundreds of other users and rank them by popularity, since users do not have “like” counts or follower numbers to impress potential sponsors. When the next BeReal prompt arrives, all previous ones are swept away, but the user alone can see their posts as “memories.” This is another jab at Instagram, where aesthetically designed grids also contribute to an account’s popularity. BeReal is meant to be casual and low-effort.

If you wish to forge a new connection or deepen an existing friendship on the platform, BeReal lets you send a “RealMoji” or a selfie version of yourself mimicking an existing emoji in order to react to another person’s post. Would you be open to receiving a grinning thumbs-up from a complete stranger on the internet in response to a BeReal showing you and your friends at a party?

However, there is no way to send messages to other users, which seems like a barrier for those hoping to develop friendships. Here, Instagram takes the trophy as it serves as a social media platform, an e-commerce platform, a PR platform for celebrities, a messaging channel, and much more.

BeReal’s interface is so minimalistic that it feels closer to the beta version of an app

BeReal’s interface is so minimalistic that it feels closer to the beta version of an app | Photo Credit: Sahana Venugopal

Considering these limited features, it’s clear that BeReal is not conducive to video promotions, ad posts, sponsorships, or scheduled content during high-traffic hours. In short, it wants Instagram influencers to be a part of the common masses - or to stay far away. While this sounds like a great way to break away from Instagram-fueled body image issues (the help center even has an FAQ section for eating disorders), BeReal seems to promote the idea that true authenticity comes from severely limiting the options social media users have at their disposal. Both platforms take their ideals to unsustainable extremes.

A block feature was not available on iOS versions of the BeReal app as of writing this review. This is a point of concern.

User experience

With an app such as BeReal, we have to discuss the elephant in the room: privacy. The BeReal you post can unwittingly betray markers of your lifestyle, socioeconomic background, current health situation, or even provide clues that can lead strangers right to your home or office. If not you, it can do the same to others who are caught in the frame.

What’s more, the surprise BeReal prompts can arrive during highly inconvenient moments; who wants to “BeReal” when the exciting concert they attended is over, and they’re now frantically texting at midnight to make sure their friend got home safely? As time went by, I found myself either responding to the unsolicited notifications with irritation, or ignoring them completely. On the other hand, Instagram is an ever open door where users have greater control over the media they post.

A number of BeReal prompts also tend to come during work/business hours, when it might not be wise for employees (who value their jobs) to share a real time photo of themselves posing for social media. Those who do choose to BeReal at the time risk giving away valuable insights about what they are working on, where they are working - and how easily they get distracted.

For that reason, it’s common to see BeReal posts that come as late 22 hours after the initial prompt. In this case, one feels there isn’t much difference between a carefully timed BeReal post and an Instagram story.

Another frustrating point is the feature that makes it impossible to view other people’s BeReal posts unless you post one of your own. It feels like the app is holding your experience hostage unless you feed it data of your own in exchange. To evade this, many users simply upload BeReals taken in a pitch black room. Instagram has a similar block where only registered users can view multiple posts, but it is far less restrictive than BeReal. On the other hand, Instagram is often a haven for numerous bots and lurkers who contribute little to the platform.

Without a proper search feature, messaging abilities, tags, topics, or other ways of organising the daily stream of media, it’s hard to come up with any practical use cases for the BeReal app. While Instagram can be somewhat tailored to produce a feed reflecting the users’ interests, passions, and skills they want to learn, BeReal does away with this entirely. There’s almost no chance of learning a new recipe or gym technique on BeReal. Unless one is deeply invested in the lives of complete strangers, it’s hard to imagine spending more than a few minutes on the app at a time. This might not be a negative thing.

Instagram vs BeReal: Verdict

BeReal is an intriguing app, both in terms of its concept and the raw data it invites users to share. The French app skillfully leveraged users’ frustration with Instagram as the Meta-owned platform pivots to more video-based content and caters to business-minded creators. In essence, BeReal invites its users to be more careless and to reject the pressure of presenting a carefully planned aesthetic that can be judged by others or monetised by companies.

However, it’s wrong to assume that the BeReal craze will soon die out. In July this year, Instagram introduced the “Dual” feature that uses both front and back cameras to make a post, just like BeReal. On September 16, Tik Tok announced a new update called ‘TikTok Now,’ which invites users to post a photo or video of what they’re currently up to, using both their front and back cameras. Now, the competition to “be real” truly begins.

I, on the other hand, will be deleting the app as soon as this review goes live.

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