Don't kid yourself, social media will never really be authentic – iNews

September 9, 2022
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Can anything we post online be truly authentic, when the creator knows it will be perceived differently by different people? This is the question that has dogged many of our digital lives for the better part of the past decade.
After the early 2010s created a boom in posting, malaise set in about the “highlight reel” of social media – supposedly showing only the best parts of people’s lives rather than truly reflecting the complexity of anyone’s real life – which made many reject the overtly manicured digital footprint (both in their own posts and in who they chose to follow).
Now, as this idea has become (unavoidably) pervasive, everything we share online is loaded with meaning. Whether we are uploading images that are highly curated, a caption that has been significantly laboured over, or if we are actively trying to do neither, attempting to subvert the gaze of our audience, the question of authenticity is at the heart of what we share.
Until the past few months, this has always been through the medium of mainstream social media platforms – predominantly Instagram and more recently TikTok – where a certain amount of glossy, heavily considered performance is baked into user expectations and rewarded as such.
But a new generation of platforms are trying to create a truly different space, where authenticity doesn’t have to be grappled for but is instead inherent to the function of the platform, claiming to give the user no choice but to be authentic in what they share.
Apps such as BeReal, which forces all users to post whatever they’re doing within a narrow two-minute window, chosen at random each day; Poparazzi, a feed of images taken only by the user’s friends, which are uploaded by others to an individual’s page; and NGL, an app where the user allows other to send them “honest” anonymous messages, are some of the new spaces that have soared in popularity among younger generations over the last eighteen months. They all focus less on curation and more on taking posts out of the user’s control.
Among these, none has been quite as prevalent as BeReal. Though it originally launched in late 2019 and experienced a first year of up and down user growth, its surge in users comes at a perfect moment in the digital world, when unhappiness with Instagram appears at an all-time high and many people are actively trying to reduce their screen time, rejecting the mindless scroll built into most apps.
These issues, alongside the yearning for authenticity online, has led to more than 28 million BeReal downloads as of April 2022, a 1,000 per cent increase year-on-year (and undoubtedly millions more since with it reaching the number one slot in the US App Store in July of this year). Users typically only add their friends and have private profiles, and many have argued this pared-back, “vintage Instagram” insularity is what has made the app so refreshing.
“BeReal won’t make you famous,” the company said in a statement. “If you want to be an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.”
While perhaps a welcome break from the tired performance typical of Instagram and TikTok, and perhaps more “real” than heritage social media platforms, there remains a question as to whether or not the idea of “authentic social media” is oxymoronic.
On BeReal, though users are given their daily two minute window to post in, they are not actually limited to sharing during this time, meaning they can wait to take their image during a time when they’re doing something more interesting or when they look more put together – the only punishment for which is merely the post being tagged as “late”.
Users are also able to retake their image multiple times, with the number of retakes available for their friends to view – but this information is not brandished on the post and must be actively sought out (I’ve used the app for two months and have never once thought to check this information on someone else’s image). And while the company has said it is not an app to get famous on, it has a “discovery” tab in which people can publicly post their BeReals – a functionality that’s hard to understand beyond the ability to become a micro-BeReal influencer.
And though the company is anti-curation, a TikTok trend has emerged in which users collage their BeReals into a video, many of which will undoubtedly have taken their BeReals with this type of curated content in mind.
This is not a BeReal issue: pseudo-authentic social media behaviour has become a curated trend in and of itself across all platforms. In the past year, there has been a rise in sharing unglamorous and distorted images in the name of authenticity, such as “crying” selfies, blurry pictures, or images caught from unflattering angles. However, this has become its own “cool” aesthetic, described by some as “Y2K indie sleaze” and others as “party girl beauty”.
Crying images have become increasingly popular among celebrities (take this infamous carousel of crying pics uploaded by supermodel Bella Hadid). It feels safe to say that most of us don’t photograph ourselves mid-breakdown, and with most crying selfies still making the subject look attractive, it suggests the reason for taking these pictures is with an interest in posting them to fit a trend, rather than out of an authentic human instinct.
Much like many internet trends, it seems likely that this reach for authenticity may be fleeting. So what does that mean for the longevity of this new generation of apps? Even if they offer something unique within the traditional social media landscape, most new platforms have, at best, experienced a brief surge in popularity before falling into relative obscurity; with many pivoting to something entirely different to their original function or shutting down after losing steam.
Apps such as Clubhouse, Houseparty, YikYak, Vine, and Ello are some that fit this bill: all had major moments in the zeitgeist, but have since mellowed out, changed their function or have simply disappeared completely.
It is true that some platforms, of course, do cut through, capitalising on a trend that moves from being a fad to a permanent social media pillar (for example, most people had never heard of TikTok three years ago, and it’s now on track to becoming the most popular platform in the world). However, it’s important to emphasise how rare something like this is.
TikTok’s success may be down to being “different”, but it’s also aided by being part of one of China’s pre-existing media giants, its hypersensitive algorithm, and its addictive quality. Though BeReal is intentionally rejecting many of these elements and still experiencing success, in order to make money in the future, it may need to sacrifice the serenity of its briefly used, ad-free space, detracting from its USP, even before this lurch towards authenticity falls out of fashion.
But regardless of whether these apps have longevity, their fleeting popularity still begs the question: why do we even feel the need to be authentic on the internet? While social media does have the connotation of only showing “the best bits”, does this mean that we need to expose our full, messy selves to everyone – something our offline lives have rarely demanded?
Though the pursuit of authenticity sounds worthy given the surreal, edited version of reality we see on our screens, it still ultimately feeds the idea that we should be online, always sharing something. Perhaps the most authentic thing to do would not be to find the right app or to completely divorce ourselves from what we post, but to find a way to post less – or really, to stop feeling the urge to post at all.
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