Each day last summer, a black-and-white notification appeared simultaneously on millions of phone screens. As if in a trance, many people paused their conversations or lowered their video game controllers. It was time to BeReal.
BeReal, a French photo-sharing app founded in 2020 that took off on college campuses, prompts users at a different time each day to take shots with their front and rear phone cameras. The app billed itself as an alternative to the artifice of social media: If Instagram had become a catalog of cosmetic enhancements and painstakingly arranged tableaus, BeReal’s feed full of limp salads, messy apartments and unflattering selfies appeared an attractive refuge. By July, BeReal had soared to the top of the iPhone app store.
The spell seems to have broken. Some users have discovered that seeing the monotony of their own lives reflected back at them is compelling for only so long.
When Night Noroña, 17, a high school student in Redding, Calif., downloaded the app in August, he liked seeing that his friends’ lives were less glamorous than the highlight reels they posted to Instagram suggested, he said. But after a few months, he tired of scrolling through nearly identical pictures of their laptop screens and deleted the app. Most of his friends no longer use it either, he said.
“Gen Z hops on trains really fast, but they hop off even faster,” Mr. Noroña said.
The app’s monthly downloads have been slipping since September, according to data from Sensor Tower, a market intelligence firm. The number of people who use the app daily has dropped 61 percent from its peak, from about 15 million in October to less than six million in March, according to Apptopia, another analytics firm.
BeReal declined to comment for this article, and the company does not share its numbers of users. “We want for ourselves what we want for our users — not to chase fame or the spotlight or to be tethered to metrics like the number of followers or number of downloads,” reads a statement posted to the company’s website in November.
The app does not allow users to see friends’ posts until contributing their own. That made it feel collaborative at first, said Oriana Riley, 20, a Stanford University student. In the fall, entire classrooms were whipping out their iPhones in unison, she said.
Ms. Riley still uses the app but said it was well past the point of academic interruption. “It’s something to do, but it’s not the thing to do anymore,” she said.
BeReal faces a dilemma, said Niklas Myhr, an associate professor of marketing at Chapman University. Doubling down on so-called authenticity risks making the app more monotonous.
But doing the opposite — breaking the platform’s rules to generate more interesting pictures — risks turning BeReal into the very platforms it was supposedly a reaction against. BeReal may alienate users if it becomes awash in the kind of highly produced content that influencers and advertisers typically post on Instagram and Facebook, Dr. Myhr said. (BeReal is currently ad-free.)
Some users stretch the app’s rules. Last month Sondra Tarmoedji, 31, a wedding photographer in Sacramento, got a BeReal notification when she was in the Uber on the way to the first show of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour in Glendale, Ariz. She ignored it.
Ms. Tarmoedji resisted until Ms. Swift’s performance of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” to post. “I can be a little bit late on my BeReal for the day, just to show, Hey, I am doing something cool,” she said. (The app lets other users know if you have posted late as well as how many times you retook your photo.)
Oliver Haimson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, calls this phenomenon the online authenticity paradox. We consider authenticity to be important, but often fall short of achieving it in our digital presences for very human reasons. For example, because we want to share exciting moments with others, or we care what our followers think of us.
Those tendencies have made it hard for BeReal to live up to its name. “People were starting to realize that it’s not necessarily this promise of authenticity and realness that they were expecting it to be,” Dr. Haimson said.
Even if BeReal does not retain users, it appears to have made an impression on other social media companies. In July, Instagram introduced a dual camera feature. In September, TikTok introduced “TikTok Now,” which instructs users each day to share a spontaneous photo or video.
And some BeReal users still see value in capturing the mundane — if not for their followers, then for themselves. Sunny Tang, 23, a medical student at New York University, uses BeReal to document artifacts from her daily life, like her class notes on the esophagus. Sure, the images are boring, she said. But that doesn’t mean they are meaningless.
“I’d rather remember these less significant moments, because at the end of the day, those are the moments that will be making up my life,” Ms. Tang said.