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In Defense of BeReal, Officially Apple's Top iPhone App of 2022

One thing Apple and I have in common: We both really love BeReal.

BeReal app on a phone
Posting a BeReal photo.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Well, well well. Apple just announced its App Store Awards for 2022 and, wouldn't you know, a little upstart called BeReal took home the coveted iPhone app of the year title. The award comes after a spring and summer of steady growth for the social media app, which has become a Gen Z favorite. Even SNL got in on the craze this fall, spoofing the daily "Time to BeReal" pings and calling it "the only honest social media" in its season 48 premiere.

Since I've never met an appeal to authenticity I didn't want to impugn, I knew I had to try the app myself. And as it turns out, it's actually kinda... fun? I don't own an iPhone, but I have to agree with Apple -- BeReal is a winner. 

So what exactly is it? The app bills itself as the "anti-Instagram." It takes the basic concept of the 'gram -- an endless-scroll feed of your friends' slice-of-life photos -- and revamps it into something more gamified and (a little) less phony. Since its peak this summer, BeReal has been copied by the likes of Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat alike. 

Here's how it works: Every day, at a random and unpredictable time (in the SNL skit, in the middle of a bank heist), the BeReal app sends you and everyone else on the app a push notification: It's "Time to BeReal." You then have two minutes to take a photo simultaneously using both your front and back camera and post to the feed. 

If you don't post, you can't look at your friends' posts either. If you post late, or retake the shot several times to get the right angle, the app will rat on you to your friends ("So then everyone knows that your BeReal wasn't being real!" the hostages explain). When the next day's notification comes in, everyone's previous photos disappear.  

The gamification comes from BeReal's once-a-day posting restraint; the authenticity comes from the fact that you don't get to pick where or when you post, and you can't use a filter to smooth your skin or correct the color of your avocado toast or whatever.

It actually sounded a lot like Wordle to me: A two-minute break from your day to complete a fun little task on your phone before returning to the grind or the doomscroll or, most likely, one of your other social media apps. And crucially, like Wordle, BeReal can only be "done" once a day. 

What it's like to use BeReal

Three BeReal posts showing the Kentucky Derby on TV, the view from a balcony overlooking a courtyard, and a child in a high chair, with selfies overlaid.

A sampling of my BeReal posts.

Karisa Langlo/CNET

I started recruitment by putting feelers out in a couple of my existing group chats. I had a hunch the app would be more of a fun group activity than a true social feed, for the same reason I sometimes still exchange Wordle (or Worldle, Heardle, or Antiwordle) results over text but can't understand why anyone is still tweeting them.

Not being a member of Gen Z myself, I knew it would be difficult to convince enough friends to join me. My invites had about a 50% success rate. One friend couldn't get past the usual AI-training paranoia around novelty photo-sharing apps. Another friend: "This feels like a trap." My own spouse left me on read.

The friends who did take the bait began posting gamely, often photos of their laptops or cats or protein powder. More often than not, my own BeReal front camera photos were unflattering ones of my weary, grumpy face while my back camera captured my son smearing ketchup around his highchair tray. Once, I posted the same view from my balcony that a dinner guest had Instagrammed the night before (and filtered the heck out of). Hers definitely looked better.

You can't technically win BeReal like you can Wordle, but I soon came to understand the particular satisfaction of achieving the trifecta: capturing an interesting tableau, taking a flattering selfie and posting it all on time. There's an element of luck, too, if you happen to be somewhere cool when it's time to be real and not on your couch or, as one of my friends feared, on the toilet.

"Hoping that I get the notification during my exciting moments and not when I'm pooping," he texted me one day. The daily anticipation around when it would arrive, he added, is "like a Jack in the box."

Phone with 2 minute notification from BeReal app

BeReal notifies you every day at a random time, with only two minutes to post a photo.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I "lost" BeReal several times: when the notification arrived after I'd gone to bed, was presenting during a camera-on Zoom meeting or was driving on the highway. But I totally won on the day the two-minute window coincided with the "greatest two minutes in sports," and I got a snap of my Kentucky Derby fascinator and Rich Strike crossing the finish line on TV.

Read more: After Today's Wordle, Try These 21 Other Puzzle Games

How real is BeReal, really?

Of my BeReal friends, 100% deleted the app after this article published. They all took issue not with the app's spurious claims to authenticity but with its demands on their time.

"Getting the alert, especially during the workday or at night when I wouldn't normally be taking photos or posting anything, was a little stressful," one friend said.

"This app kind of highlights that ideally I want control over social media and not the other way around," another friend told me. 

"I felt a little guilty if I didn't post every day," a third admitted.

If Wordle tried to dictate what time we all solved the puzzle every day, would the masses have turned on it by now? (Look what happened to HQ Trivia.) 

But I'm personally more interested in the "Real" than the "Be."

The vibe on BeReal is actually more nostalgic than authentic. More early-Instagram than anti-Instagram. My favorite part of BeReal was the permission – nay, obligation – to post goofy selfies and capitulate to the adolescent egocentrism that still lurks beneath my now over-orchestrated grid. People don't give a crap what I ate for lunch, but I want them to know, dammit! One of my first Insta posts was just a photo of some Finger Hands finger puppets I found at a joke shop and thought were funny, and I miss posting stuff like that. 

There doesn't seem to be an appetite on Instagram anymore for the detritus of daily life. Instead of Instagramming the places we visit, we now just visit Instagrammable places. Whereas Instagram has been taken over by influencers and "creators" posting Reels and memes, BeReal takes a different tack, as stated in its app store listing: "If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram."

Then again, "casual posting" and photo dumps are enjoying some popularity as the pendulum swings in favor of a rawer aesthetic. And many of the memes clogging my Insta feed are of the behind-the-scenes, "Instagram vs. Reality" persuasion. Plus, maybe the ephemerality and informality of Stories already kind of satiates that desire for the "real." 

When you think of it that way, BeReal seems more of a gimmick than a harbinger of social media change. But that would be a shame, because even if no one on this side of 30 agreed with me, I kinda love it! And I'm glad Apple does, too. Maybe it'll reach critical mass and my friends will all re-download it. Or like Snapchat or TikTok, maybe it'll eventually be subsumed or reproduced within Instagram itself as an optional feature. 

Or like Wordle, maybe it's nothing more than a digital curiosity that we'll one day describe as "fun while it lasted."