At a seemingly random point every 24 hours, Kevin Lee gets a notification to post a selfie.
“Time to BeReal,” says the alert on his phone, and a two-minute countdown clock begins.
Some mornings, the 27-year-old software engineer from Los Angeles receives the notification before he has gotten out of bed. “I look terrible. But I just do it, ”said Mr. Lee said.
He is one of nearly 6.8 million people who have downloaded BeReal over the past two years, according to data from mobile-market intelligence company Sensor Tower. The app — pitched by its makers as an authentic, unfiltered alternative to the curated posts on Instagram and TikTok — has gained currency among younger people, particularly college students. Most of BeReal’s users, such as Mr. Lee, joined this year, according to Apptopia researcher.
The French app, which is available for iPhones and Android phones, pings users once in 24 hours to snap a photo using their smartphone’s front- and rear-facing cameras. The prompt’s timing is unpredictable for users and changes every day, and no photo filters are allowed. Unlike the most dominant social-media platforms, there are also no ads, and there are no visible follower tallies.
BeReal’s limited approach to posting and perusing is an alternate to apps such as TikTok and Instagram, which count more than a billion active monthly users apiece and plow money and engineers into making products more engrossing for users. BeReal has a different pitch: Post quickly, scroll and go live your life. For some Gen Z users, that is a magnetic idea.
Nathan Carey, a 22-year-old student in Ireland, joined the app three weeks ago after hearing about it from his college friends. The rather mundane posts — people watching TV or cooking dinner — let him see his friends’ lives as they are, rather than through highly curated images, he said.
“You can be more vulnerable,” he said. Carey said.
After receiving an alert to “BeReal,” users have two minutes to snap a photo. If they’re too busy or in a place they shouldn’t be taking selfies — such as the bathroom — BeReal allows users to post outside of that time frame, with a catch: The app tells their friends the photo is late and shows precisely how late they are. That has caused people to snap photos while in class and on the road, but many times, BeReal ends up with images of the photographer looking down at their feet.
BeReal prevents users from lurking: To see anyone’s images, users have to first share their own. If a user posts late, they don’t have as much time to view others’ photos; all posts reset when the next notification goes out. The aim is to share real life, when it’s happening, with friends.
What BeReal has going for it, say users and social-media experts, is its embrace of spontaneity and authenticity. It’s a mix of Wordle (the popular word game that can be played only once a day) and Meta Platforms’ Instagram (minus those filters). And the fleeting lifespan of the posts draws Snapchat comparisons.
The combination is resonating with people who have started to shun the curated photos and videos that dominate feeds on many social networks.
The biggest social-media apps, including TikTok and Instagram, started as ways for people to share updates with their friends. But as those apps evolved to feature more idealistic versions of peoples’ lives, big creator economies have flourished on the platforms, with influencers posting highly curated content to attract followers and sponsors.
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The change means users often see more commercial posts, creating a hole that an app such as BeReal could try to fill, said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif. Yet, she says, BeReal and other new social-media networks will have staying power only if they can keep people and their friends using the app.
“Lots of apps are fun to try, but the point of a social-media app is to connect with others,” said Dr. Rutledge said.
BeReal wants users to portray their lives rather than share images to amass influence, a spokesperson said. “We want to make people feel good about themselves and their lives.”
A One-Hit Wonder or Here to Stay?
To some, BeReal’s rise resembles other once-popular apps such as Yo and Frontback. The latter app let users take photos using the front and rear cameras and then merged the two shots into a single image. It surged in popularity after its 2013 launch but shut down two years later when users moved on to the next big thing.
Though the number of downloads is a good measure of an app’s success, that data doesn’t predict whether the app has staying power, said Niklas Myhr, who teaches social media, digital and global marketing at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Once-hot apps can fail if they rely too heavily on one feature without developing more tools to keep users engaged. Myhr said. That was the case with Yo, which launched in 2014 solely to let users say “Yo” to friends. The app added profiles, links and hashtags, but the updates weren’t enough to save it.
While Mr. Carey likes BeReal’s daily dopamine hit, he wants something more from the app to make it engaging beyond its “RealMoji” button. That feature lets users react to a post by taking a selfie, rather than tapping a heart or thumbs-up icon.
For now, Mr. Carey keeps checking the app since his friends are there.
“This definitely makes me feel like it’s a current trend,” he said.
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