Gen Z wants to find online authenticity in photo apps like BeReal

Dinner at Brown University was chicken and dumplings, and at 5:54 p.m. on a Tuesday in May, the dining room was quiet. Almost every high school student had their head buried deep in the latest TikTok tutorial in their feed, or the latest Twitter update on the status of Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson’s relationship at the time (in simpler times!). But at 5:55 p.m., the cafeteria came alive. It was time be honest.

BeReal is a social media app that encourages users to post a fully unfiltered, authentic photo of themselves prompted by a pop-up notification at a randomly generated time each day. Users have two minutes to show their mutuals what they’re doing, where they are and how they look right now – completely free of any curation.

Except it doesn’t quite work that way.

That night in the Brown University dining hall, BeReal notifications were shooting through people’s phones. The students moved across tables to position themselves in front of their friends and pulled out pocket-sized mascara sticks and an array of books and magazines, which they used as props for their picture-perfect BeReal pose. The allotted two minutes ticked by, and everyone returned to their original places while the great silence – save for the sounds of texting and typing – once again filled the room.

Although this may sound like an excerpt from a black mirror script, this scene is anything but an isolated phenomenon. It’s the result of what Oliver Haimson, a social media researcher at the University of Michigan, has dubbed “the online authenticity paradox,” a ritual cultivated from years of online performance and so far into the Rooted in society’s habits, even a powerful push in authenticity cannot save us.

“If you ask people if they want to be authentic on social media, most will say yes because authenticity is presented as a standard that we should all hold ourselves to,” Haimson told The Daily Beast. “But in reality it is not possible to be completely authentic online. So when you’re confronted with this thing, not only do you have to post a selfie, you also have to post your surroundings, all within the next two minutes. People are confronted with the realization that they don’t always want to be authentic.”

Authenticity is often perceived as a weak point. In a world where social media has become the main stage of behavior, the need to be authentic can create a real sense of terror in people.

“People are confronted with the realization that they don’t always want to be authentic.”

— Oliver Haimson, University of Michigan

“What if you get upset when that BeReal notification goes off?” Hamison said. “What if you eat a messy meal or something you don’t want everyone on your network to see? With all sorts of factors like that, people start to realize that they still want that curated identity.” The stakes are way too high to be truly authentic and to document the not-so-pleasant moments of one’s life.

Hayley Graves, a freshman at the University of North Texas and a longtime BeReal user, agrees. “Every time you post on the internet for others to see, perform,” she told The Daily Beast. “You post what you post for a reason, and that’s usually because you have an audience in mind or a specific online persona that you’re trying to project. I think such apps are nice in theory, but they just don’t work. Our society is far too focused on itself.”

This is especially true for young people who have grown up with social media all their lives and are particularly vulnerable to its effects. Andrew Selepak, a social media researcher at the University of Florida, calls this experience a form of “techno-narcissism” that has conditioned users to project a highlight reel that draws attention only to the best and most interesting controls parts of itself. As long as this continues, attempts to move towards online authenticity are null.

“I think such apps are nice in theory, but they just don’t work. Our society is far too focused on itself.”

— Hayley Graves, University of North Texas

“It’s hard to get society, especially people who have grown up cultivating social media all their lives, to stop projecting this false reality and convince them to post pictures of themselves wearing headscarves, Watching Netflix or not being dressed in nines, although it’s probably their reality 99% of the time,” Selepak said.

Mason Mead, a sophomore at Brown University, ran into this dilemma after trying to use the app Poparazzi, a BeReal competitor that lets users upload candid, uncurated photos directly to other users’ profiles. One night, while out with a friend, Mead snapped a candid photo of her to upload to her poparazzi profile — as the app dictates — and was met with user complaints about her looks, followed by claims that the to remove photo from the profile that she had voluntarily set up for this purpose.

“It’s so bizarre that things have gotten to the point where being real online has become a real fear for so many people my age,” Mead said. “Why even participate in these trends that favor authenticity when you’re doing the exact opposite and trying to pass it off as authenticity?”

According to Isra Ali, a media scholar at New York University, the answer to that question is simple: the attention economy’s iron grip on society.

“What we’re seeing with these apps designed to promote online authenticity is the attention economy’s revenue model and the hunt for social capital that requires performance,” she said. What she means is that users are encouraged to upload content that people enjoy and engage with, even if it undermines the original purpose of the platform.

Selepak believes that the key to addressing this issue and giving social media users a way out of this toxic feedback loop is social media literacy that recognizes online phoniness and bias — starting in elementary school through to colleges and universities.

“We have to make sure [people] understand that every time they use these apps, they get a false reality from others,” he said. “Awareness will always be the first step to finding the ability to change.”

“We have to make sure [people] understand that every time they use these apps they get false reality from others.”

— Andrew Selepak, University of Florida

And if you can’t change the current online dynamics, you can learn to adapt to them. While it may seem like society has been swallowed up by the social media gaze, a slight shift in perspective can help minimize the obsession with how to be real on the web — and be simple instead be.

“If only we could see [authenticity] as unrealistic, rather than upholding it as something we should all strive to emulate,” Haimson said. “People can become more comfortable and healthy about how they perceive themselves online.” Gen Z wants to find online authenticity in photo apps like BeReal


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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