Social Network BeReal Takes Over College Campuses. Here’s How It Works.

Gen Z's new favorite platform is an antidote to the pressure to always appear perfect online.
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There's a new social media platform going viral on college campuses across the country.

While other social media apps popular with young people tend to suck users into endless scrolls, this one is designed to be used once a day. While other apps are breeding grounds for performativity, this one pares posts down to random snapshots. And while other apps collect bad press for worsening youth mental health, this one aims for authenticity and simple connection.

The new social media app BeReal does have one thing in common with those other social media apps, though: It first went viral among college students.

With monthly active users on BeReal up 315% since the beginning of the year, according to data from Apptopia, the question is whether the popularity of this purposefully different kind of app will continue spreading beyond spring semester.

A Challenge and an Invitation: "Time to BeReal"

As compared to the self-aggrandizement and self-promotion of Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, BeReal states that it "won't make you famous" and prompts users to post the mundane things in life — riding the bus, walking across campus with a plastic take-out clamshell.

Many college students use the app every day, alongside the likes of Instagram. But for countless hours? Not likely, and not the point. BeReal was purposefully created to be less time-consuming and less addictive.

The app notifies users once per day: "Time to BeReal." Whether it's a Tuesday afternoon or mid-morning Saturday, users take two photos, one of themselves and one of their surroundings, using their phones' front and back cameras.

The unpredictably timed notifications are intended to surprise users into authenticity — to share what they're doing at that moment, no matter what it is.

Photos must be shared within two minutes — still time enough for multiple retakes — or the post is marked as late.

No filters, no followers. There's not even a like button. You add friends from your contact list. Once you join, you can only view friends' posts after posting your own. Once you've shared, you can view and comment on other posts or leave "RealMoji" reactions, choosing from a saved library of miniature selfies.

Since posts are hidden until users have uploaded their own BeReal photos for the day, and everyone is prompted to post at the same time, there's no way to anonymously lurk or to get lost in the scroll.

With BeReal, College Students Once Again Test-pilot Social Media

It's no coincidence that BeReal's first user market is made up of college students. College campuses are breeding grounds for social media start-ups, and college students are not only the perfect, built-in test-pilots, but also the perfect promoters.

There's Facebook's famous origin story as a Harvard student directory rigged up by sophomore Mark Zuckerberg to allow Harvardians to rate the attractiveness of their peers. Snapchat came out of Stanford. Yik Yak, founded by frat bros, not only returned to campuses last fall, but it did so as a central tool in the fight to "Abolish Greek Life."

BeReal, the brainchild of former GoPro video producer Alexis Barreyat, first debuted in Barreyat's native France in 2020. By spring 2021, the app gained momentum among French university students. A year later, the app jumped the pond, then crossed the continent.

One of its first stops stateside: Harvard University, original home of "the Facebook." On a Friday in early February, BeReal sponsored a party at a popular burger joint, the Harvard Crimson reported — admission free to attendees who downloaded the app and added five friends.

BeReal is even building a campus ambassador program. College students get paid to help the app grow its "college presence" by hosting parties to encourage downloads and identifying campus events prime for BeReal involvement. The program will operate through the end of spring term.

Will BeReal itself be around beyond June? While an app's popularity on college campuses can make a new app go viral, such apps are known to rise and fall. BeReal may be just another fad, but the app may also fulfill a need among young people to share online in a way that is authentic and unfiltered.

The growth in school surveillance of students' internet use raises questions about how young people's curiosity and authenticity may be hampered, and what are the other impacts of being raised to accept such surveillance as normal.

There's also the surveillance by parents, and the pressure on students to not stain their college and career prospects by making foolish posts online. College admissions officers and employers are both leveraging social media to vet applicants.

In a world interested in following the internet footprints of young people — whether to protect them, appraise them, or make money off them — uncurated, close-friends-only social media has obvious appeal. It may only give you two minutes to share, but BeReal just might outlive its 15 minutes of fame.