It’s Sunday afternoon in the dining hall. My fellow college students line long tables for lunch after church. Amid the chatter and laughter, phones chime from multiple corners. Students throughout the hall trade silverware for phones, and pose to snap a selfie.
They're taking pictures for BeReal—my generation’s social media platform of choice, even at a Christian college. BeReal to offer a “new and unique way to discover who your friends really are in their daily life.” Every day at a random time, the app prompts users to take and share a photo, using both the front and back camera. The random photo prompts are supposed to encourage “authenticity” rather than a carefully curated social media presence, which networks like Instagram and Facebook foster.
My generation senses that these older forms of social media have failed to facilitate authenticity; research continues to show that they severely affect young people's mental health. BeReal is Generation Z's response to the polished, perfect “timeline.”
All forms of social media, including BeReal, attempt to satisfy our human desire for genuine contact—that is, our unwitting sense that it is “not good for man to be alone”—through supposed self-expression. We know that discovering the self, as Charles Taylor wrote in Multiculturalism, occurs not in isolation but community: “I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others.” Human habit propels us to plot and narrate our days, selves, and times in hopes of achieving the connection and community God formed us for, but our secular society particularly encourages us to craft our own versions of our selves and display such self-creation far and wide—for our self-creations must, we feel, be negotiated and affirmed. Social media testifies to our inborn intuition that identity is communal, but ultimately twists our communal, dialogical nature toward the end of self-creation.
BeReal’s algorithm, however, purports to take this task of creation and negotiation from its user. At the app’s imperative notification—“Time to BeReal”—reality will come, BeReal promises. We need not craft our selves or our realities; we must only submit the task of self-negotiation to BeReal. Hand narrative authority over to the app's algorithm, and the satisfaction of affirmation will come.
BeReal promotes surrender, and my generation responds in kind. As of this April, BeReal 10 million daily users—compared to 2.93 million daily users at the same time last year. BeReal’s popularity suggests that we recognize that we cannot satisfactorily design our own stories and that we know we must surrender to some force larger than ourselves for expression of reality.
Still, is consigning negotiation of the self and narration of reality to BeReal’s supposedly random algorithm really any better than a self-designed Instagram presence? For one thing, BeReal merely presents different options for negotiation and narration. My friends still choose how to capture their “real” image—what to include and exclude from the frame, whether to obey the app’s nudge at all. Their quick posing at the flash of a notification suggests that the human tendency toward plot-making lingers despite our attempts to give an algorithm authority over our narrative.
Our responses to BeReal prove that we still believe that we can participate in the creation and negotiation of our online selves. But we err in equating such fictions with reality. While Instagram with its propagation of personas only implicitly claims to present reality, BeReal’s entire marketing campaign revolves around the promise that the app will capture reality, though it in fact presents only a snapshot of a moment in which a user highlights what he wishes to be true—or “real”—of himself. Any surrender to BeReal’s insistence that it is “Time to BeReal,” as such, is not a genuine surrender.
Not only does BeReal keep us within the realm of creation and negotiation, but surrender to BeReal’s algorithm is surrender to the wrong authority. Insofar as BeReal and its users see our need to rid ourselves of “influencers” and “timelines,” BeReal spotlights a truth my generation increasingly neglects. But insofar as BeReal claims to replace self-curation with algorithmic authority, BeReal only further shows our willingness to integrate media technologies into our search for identity and community.
The Christian vision of reality requires that we reject both our culture’s false surrender to algorithms and attempts at self-creation, even as such attempts manifest in “fun” social technologies like BeReal. The Christian vision requires that we remember who named Adam and tasked him with keeping the garden, and brought him fellowship and a helpmate in Eve. For, in reality, our lives and selves are ruled by an authority who is not algorithmic but both personal and absolute, who created us and even entered into our reality.
Sarah Soltis writes from Grove City, Pennsylvania.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.