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Leader: BeReal has the potential to change student social media usage for the better

Clementine Scott reflects on the latest Oxford social media trend.

If there’s anything that defined my teenage years and early adulthood, it’s Instagram. I try as hard as I can to resist the shallow stereotypes associated with people and especially women who avidly use social media, but when the acquisition of Instagram by Facebook coincided neatly with my entry into secondary school, it’s difficult to deny the influence it’s had over the last decade of my life.

We experienced in real time the development of Instagram from place where Year Sevens deposited photos as mundane as a blurry shot of their Starbucks, to the home of the circa-2018 incessant Boomerangs of people’s first legal drinks, to the glorified flea market-with-a-messaging-function it’s become today. For a while, I thought this app would continue to be a protagonist in my life indefinitely, and that I would continue to ask myself whether a given moment worked better as a grid post or a story, but somehow this past term has changed my attitude. I still use social media, but  instead of meticulously planning Instagram story content, I merely wait for the BeReal notification.

On paper, BeReal doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary. There’s the central gimmick of the daily notification at a randomised time (in my experience, anywhere between 10am and 10pm), but beyond that it has the potential to become as homogeneous as Instagram, just in a different way. Instead of posed pre-bop pictures in student kitchens, we get hundreds of pictures of people’s essay crises in the Rad Cam from different angles. 

But the randomly timed notification, at least for me, makes all the difference. BeReal, along with Wordle and other late-pandemic phenomena, only happens once a day and thus has an inherent mechanism to control addictive behaviours, but it is not only parents scaremongering about phone addictions to whom this feature might appeal. When one only feels obligated to post one photo per day, the pressure to document every single second partially disappears and my brain can more easily switch off content-hunting mode. 

Conversely, BeReal places a healthy amount of pressure on that one crucial picture, which deters me from wasting time far better than an impending essay deadline ever could – the app has taught me to be conscious of whatever I’m doing at the present moment just in case that notification happens to strike, and also to see value in smaller moments that aren’t conventionally ‘Instagrammable’. We can also live peacefully in the knowledge that the potential for data breaches is low; the data an app can accumulate from random daily snapshots is surely less than Instagram’s highly curated, consistent displays of its users’ interests.

As well as taking the pressure off of social media, BeReal also helps us have a more healthy relationship with external validation. Even though one can ‘like’ (or rather ‘react to’) a post on BeReal much as they would on Instagram, I understand from the outset that my picture of my laptop screen as I research flights for my summer holiday is not particularly exciting, so my expectations are low and I don’t mind that the only people who regularly react are my boyfriend, parents and a couple of friends. The concept of taking a picture of whatever’s in front of you is worlds away from the agonising process of selecting what to post from an Instagram photoshoot; when the bar is already on the ground for how interesting the content needs to be or how attractive you need to look, then the expectation for people’s effusive reactions are equally low.

Time will tell whether the lessons to be learned from BeReal will stick, or whether it will be remembered as Trinity 2022’s passing fad. But in the meantime, each day I will stay healthily detached from social media until the notification strikes. 

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