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Dissecting The App: BeReal

This new social media app wants you to keep it real with yourself and your friends, but is the experience any good?

The dread of social media

Are you tired of keeping up with social media these days? I know I am. Scrolling for hours through seemingly endless feeds of perfectly curated pictures can be inspiring, but paralyzing as well.

I don’t post to social media as often as I used to; it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. I feel like I have to make sure my pictures are well-lit, perfectly framed, and edited to perfection, so I can share my most cherished moments “spontaneously” with friends and family. It’s not that I don’t want to share anything, it’s just that I don’t want to go through the trouble, and fear that my unedited pictures won’t be Instagrammable enough.

Even the currently very popular “photo dump”-format feels more akin to a popularity contest: Who’s been to the most on trend places, who wears the best outfits, who has the best bathroom curation? Trying to keep up is cumbersome to say the least.

That’s where BeReal comes in, the newest social media app on the block allows you to reconnect with your closest friends and family, in an instantaneous yet authentic way. I’ve been test driving the app for about a month now. Let’s have a look at the experience from a product perspective.

Keeping it real

The formula is seemingly simple.

On a daily basis, the app sends all users the same message, always at a different time of day. The message urges the user to share what’s going on in the moment, within the next 2 minutes. When you tap the notification, you are redirected to the app where you take a picture with both front & back camera. Your set of pictures is posted to your app’s feed, and in return you get to see your connections’ picture sets as well.

If you tap the notification outside of the 2 minute window, you get the chance to post a “late BeReal” - but your post will be labeled as such. And if you decide to retake your BeReal, your connections will get to see exactly how many retakes you had to do.

At face value, BeReal wants you to be spontaneous, by quite literally forcing you to share what's going on in your life. But on a deeper level, it encourages you to be more authentic, share what’s going on in the moment and stop overthinking everything. BeReal is looking to shift the mindset of a generation brought up with perfectly curated social feeds and influencer marketing, toward embracing the more mundane aspects of our lives. No small feat indeed.

Here's what I liked

I have to say I’m impressed with how BeReal manages to be ethical and enticing at the same time. In contrast with most social media apps, it's not designed to keep your eyes glued to the screen all day. Hence there's no real point in carefully curating your content or hurting your brain to come up with the perfect caption. There's no endless scrolling through other people’s posts, and there's no need to feel ashamed by the perceived mediocrity of your own life either.

For me, using the app was a confrontation with the slew of negative emotions I didn’t realize I had with regards to my Instagram habit.

BeReal is a daily reminder that we all live equally banal, boring lives and that the “highs” are more of an exception than the rule. With how social media is set up these days, we tend to forget that not everyone is constantly living their Instagram lifestyle. It’s a reminder I look forward to every day. In anticipation of the daily notification, I find myself curious to see what my closest connections are up to.

As for its design, BeReal cleverly manages a few common biases and heuristics. Let’s lift a tip of the veil:

  • When the effort is small, users are more likely to take action. Posting to BeReal takes close to zero effort: the app reminds you when you should post, and a post is created in less than 2 minutes. Easy-peasy. This is called the spark effect.
  • After a while, you really start to look forward to the daily update from your peers: there’s a curiosity gap you’re looking to fill. And because people don't like missing out, you’re pretty motivated to post to BeReal. After all, it’s the only way to access your friends’ posts, which disappear after 24 hours. This is called loss aversion: people prefer to avoid losses more than to earn a gain, even if the gain is equivalent or bigger in size.
  • Furthermore, our brains love an unexpected reward. That’s why slot machines are so addictive. BeReal implements the variable reward mechanism in two ways. Firstly, by having the notification sent out at a different time every day. It’s classic Pavlovian conditioning: You start to get giddy in anticipation of the notification. Second, you never know what you’re going to get in terms of what your friends will be posting. When you post your BeReal, you unlock your friends’ content, which can lead to a small dopamine hit if you like what you see. Both mechanisms fall squarely in the category of reward of the hunt.
  • To top it off, the overall reward for your engagement with the app is social in nature: a sense of connectedness and and belonging, also known as reward of the tribe.
The daily push notification BeReal sends out (left) and a glimpse at my feed after sharing something myself (right).

Here's what could be improved

BeReal was clearly inspired by how Facebook came to be: they try to grow their audience by targeting college students first. They even have a campus ambassador program where student ambassadors promote the app at parties and events.

But with this strategy, BeReal is leaving a huge potential user base up for grabs. There’s an older generation that hungers for the early days of social media, where you connected to your closest friends only and just posted whatever felt right in the moment. Nostalgia is an extremely powerful feeling, and BeReal would be wise to tap into it.

An investment in infrastructure and code quality also seems long overdue; every user I've talked to has the same bug where the notification to post doesn’t always lead to the flow of creating your BeReal. The same happened to me as well. Instead, the notification opens your feed from the previous day or a blurred feed of today, leaving you unable to create your BeReal in time.

The discovery tab also raises some serious concern. Here you get a glimpse of random users’ BeReal of the day. Apart from the low value of this functionality (because why would I want to see a total stranger vegging out on the couch?), this feels like a huge invasion of privacy. You wonder if your BeReals are shared with other users outside of your connections as well, and there doesn’t seem to be a setting in the app to manage your consent. At least not on iOS anyway, Android users do have the option to select who they want to share their photos with. Why this discrepancy, I don't know.

A look at the discovery tab (left) and the bonus privacy features only Android users get for some reason (right).

For reasons unclear to me, BeReal also decided to build the iOS app in Swift while using React Native for Android. Using React Native for both iOS and Android would allow them to build once and ship twice, making it easier to safeguard quality and feature parity between both platforms. This article right here, explains how and why this works.

My recommendations

All in all, BeReal has a good chance of becoming a true habit-forming product if they continue to find ways to ethically apply product psychology principles. Investing in their infrastructure, legal counsel and further UX/UI improvements should be considered no-brainers.

But is BeReal here to stay? They’ll be hard-pressed to find a monetization model as the app isn't catching enough eyeballs for long enough to cash in on advertising, as other social media platforms do.

BeReal could look towards patronage and engage a couple of big names to share candid behind-the-scenes snippets of their daily lives. It would give celebrities a platform to actively and positively contribute to a future generation’s healthier relationship with social media. I don’t know about you, but I’d be happy to pay a couple of dollars a month to get a glimpse of my favorite celebrities unedited, unfiltered day-to-day life. Think Rihanna in slacks, covered in baby puke, A$AP taking a number 2 in the background. In the end we’re all just people, and it ‘d be healthy to be reminded of this on a daily basis.

In any case, I’m curious to see where the Paris-based team takes BeReal next. Until then, you can catch me on the app!

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