The BeReal Phenomenon in the Age of FoMO

Zsófia Varga


1. Introduction

The achievements of technological development – which include the mobile phone and the Internet -, and the radical change in individual communication practices are transforming and reinterpreting the boundaries between the public and private spheres. The private sphere and the public sphere are now literally just a click away from each other. (Simay & Gáti, 2015) As a result of technological innovations, people seem to be letting the public into their private lives more and more, and slowly everyone develops the compulsion to show as much of their life as possible, be it reality or some exaggeration, because what you do not post about is as if it never happened.

The real charm and power of social media lies in the fact that while before, television, radio and newspapers only gave space to those who had power, who were famous, such as politicians, actors and so on. In contrast, social media addresses the community itself, inviting them to show themselves, giving them a voice and an opportunity for self-expression and self-presentation (Berglund, 2017). With its help, we can get to know and understand each other, and become visible to the whole world (Papacharissi, 2016).

One of the basic human drives is that we all want to belong somewhere: to a community, to a group or even to another person. Among today’s communication arenas, social media platforms stand out (Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook etc.), which slowly interweave as a “parallel reality”. Our daily lives, the development of technology and the appearance of these portals have fundamentally changed our communication habits, with many positive but also negative effects, especially for Generation Z (born between the 1990s and 2010s), who are already growing up in this digital, new world. The phenomenon of FoMO is also connected to them, which is nothing more than a kind of anxiety, a fear of missing out on something (Pásztor & Bak, 2020a).

The topic of my present research is an application called BeReal, which has really started to conquer social media in recent months. Different from other traditional applications, such as Instagram or even Snapchat, this new app itself regulates when we can post there, and as its name suggests, its essence is to present our status and situation, without any filters or settings. This is an interesting and relevant topic now, since this phenomenon is still very new in social media, and it is just starting to become big, and it is practically turning most of the traditional digital media tools of these applications, such as emojis, followers and influencers, upside down.

The question I would like to investigate is related to the phenomenon called FoMO, and to what extent this new application brings a change of heart compared to the positive toxicity of Instagram. Does the application called BeReal satisfy the need for the “boring” reality to finally come to the fore and become more popular compared to the false happiness, or is it just another application for Gen-Z to show themselves from even more sides? Is BeReal really real, or just another compulsion to show off and self-presentation? 

2. Method and theoretical approach

The semiotic approach, which is a special starting point for lifestyle research and is not very often used, is the one, I would like to include in my research. Social media plays a key role in the lives of Generation Z and different posts, pictures, and emojis have different interpretations. Social media shapes and regulates the events, and with the means mentioned above, it sends out symbols to society – in this case even staying with the young generation – thereby influencing them. (Valentini & Kruckeberg, 2016) Digital media platforms confine these symbols and signs, whether it is a post about a meal at a restaurant, a smiling emoji, or a meme and a gif, thereby exerting a strong control over users, both offline and online.

Erving Goffman (1959) proposed the idea of ​​seeing self-presentation through the theatrical concepts of actors and stages. While there is a front where the performing individual or actor is aware of the presence of the audience and the observed state, there is also a private backstage where the actor is not performing. Goffman also presents the idea that individuals have two types of expression. The first is an expression that the individual gives, referring to an expression that the speaker intentionally communicates to the audience. The second is an expression that the individual creates, an impression that is not intended, but still catches the audience (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013). Although researchers have different opinions about how Goffman’s concept can remain relevant in the current media environment, I believe that the parable can help to understand the behaviour of online identities and social media users. One of the reasons for this can be the phenomenon called FoMO itself, that is, if we are not interesting enough, if we do not show ourselves, then we will be left out, they will not care about us, we will be excluded from society.

During my research, I will therefore explain the operation and function of the application called BeReal, then I will cover the various signs and symbols that the application conveys to the users, and I would like to address the question already raised in the introduction, that is, that the application is really only for presenting reality – is there a real need for this at all – or is it just a “new” outgrowth of the phenomenon called FoMO, so that we can show as much of ourselves as possible and never miss anything, not be left out of anything.

3. BeReal and FoMO

The BeReal app was released sometime in 2020 by a French developer, but it has only gained global popularity since this year (Sklencar, 2022). How does this app work? Every day, at a random time, a notification is sent to the phone, and from then on, users have 2 minutes to take photos; two are taken at the same time; one with the back camera and the other with the front one, so you can show your friends where you are, what you are doing, and get a picture of your face. If you decide not to post on that day, you cannot see your friends’ posts either (Holmes, 2022).

But what could be behind BeReal’s popularity? – The uniqueness of this app lies in the fact that users do not strive to capture perfect moments, but rather paint a real picture of their everyday life, regardless of whether they are lying in bed watching a movie, sitting over assignments all day, or traveling on the tram with friends. Emojis also gain a new meaning, as you can react to your friends’ posts with your own face. They can serve as new signs and symbols for users, because despite the fact that the application has kept some standard emojis that you can send to your friends’ posts using your own face, the lightning emoji has appeared, which receives the meaning that the sender and receiver endow it with. By sending the lightning, you can act with the face you want, and the meaning the receiver attributes to it can sometimes be completely different from the original intention. This is also a real innovation in relation to social media reactions, since unlike the usual emojis with one or maybe two contents, users here can freely decide on the meaning of the reactions they send, thereby widening the range, and the “rule” based on which we interpret, we associate something, it is completely overturned.

 Also, you will not even become famous through this application, the point is not about likes and followers, it really shows a real uniqueness compared to Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat or even Facebook, which are slowly following the same scheme, with the same short videos, aesthetics, and trends. The application represents a kind of new need for the younger generation who are bored with TikTok’s and Instagram’s That girl and similar trends, who miss the old Snapchat days, when you shot a picture to your friends regardless of your status to show what you are doing.

The question with social media platforms like this is always who is represented and how? At idle, Gen-Z is the target audience, and the app currently has an average of 10 million daily active users (Dayal, 2022). This is the generation that is the most active part of several other digital platforms, such as TikTok or Instagram. While the essence of the other two applications is content production, in many cases even becoming popular and reaching as many likes and views as possible, presenting the bright, interesting, adventure-filled side of our lives, the BeReal application – due to its name and structures – is much more just designed to show simple, grey everyday life. However, the question is, is there really a need for an application like this? Does anyone really care when you just study, sleep or stare out the window all day?

The thing is, even though we constantly talk about how unhealthy the use of Instagram for young people by seeing ‘perfect’ bodies and lives there every day, the reality is that these standards have been added to our society to such an extent that nowadays everyone has a compulsion to express and present themselves to the world. Especially since – also mainly thanks to the Instagram and TikTok trends – it became popular to show yourself without make-up, with messy hair, in home clothes, the part of the youth who is less representative of the so-called fancy way of life, got the opportunity to take part in self-showing and become a member of the inner layers of social media.

At the same time as the spread of mobile phones, the psychological phenomenon FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) also appeared, which is “a general feeling of restlessness from it due to the fact that others may be engaged in some pleasurable activity while we are away” (Pásztor & Bak, 2020b). So, its essence is the fear of missing out. Although people on it characteristic, according to which they tend to deal with others and other people’s affairs, is well-known and a topic that has been covered in detail, but the tendency to do so and its influencing factors have not yet are fully known. According to Przybylski et al. (2013), people like to know about what others are doing, and this drive leads to experiencing the feeling of FoMO.

In my opinion, this is much more the case with BeReal. The reason behind its great popularity is not that people are bored with perfect Instagram posts or that they are interested in backstage instead of THE stage. Simply, this is really the best option for those who do not have enough or ‘appropriate’ content to create an aesthetic feed or are just shy to share their everyday life with the whole world. The BeReal application serves as an excuse for them, and they can post about their everyday life without explaining or feeling ashamed, since that is exactly what the application is about. It is not necessary about to be real – although there is no doubt that thanks to its working mechanism, users show their truer and more human faces – but to be able to post to friends and strangers, to share even the most insignificant moments, and thus share in them the anxiety that they might miss out on something, that they cannot leave their mark on social media.

4. Conclusions – BeReal, or not?

As Etty Hillesum (1941) states “That fear of missing out things makes you miss out on everything. Keeps you from reality” (p. 59). It is a common disease of the global society of the 21st century – but perhaps it was born even earlier – that we try so hard to meet the expectations, to fit in and to prove to ourselves and others how interesting, great and good we are, that while we are anxious, because we do not want to be left out of everything by chance, it would be enough to lift our head from the screen of our phone to notice that life is passing us by in the midst of our anxieties, and we do not have the opportunity to really enjoy it.

The designers of the BeReal application may have really intended to provide an alternative to the false image of the digital world and encourage users to be truthful, but the truth is that no one is interested in reality. No one cares about boring everyday life, because ultimately the social media sites get so much activity because people try to escape from the grey daily duties. The real goal of the users is self-presentation and the production of a certificate that they too follow trendy boredom, and the fear that if they do not show themselves, post their pictures and share what they are doing, they will slowly be forgotten by others, they will be left out of social relations.

I am a BeReal user myself. And why? Because everyone else is too. And since they are users, I do not want to be left out, I do not want to be the only one who does not follow the latest trend. And I admit, I often do not post when I get a notification either, but I wait for the moment of my day when I am meeting friends or doing something exciting to show it to the world. Nobody really cares what I do, and I do not care either about who is watching what show or what sandwich they are eating. We just do not want to be left out. And am I real? I do not think so. I still use my apps like an actress uses her role and acting – I shape my image and the impression I make on others. Perhaps the biggest problem with us Gen-Z’s is that we have not really learned how to be real, so even we do not know ourselves completely.

Zsófia Varga is a second-year exchange student from Hungary at the University of Helsinki. She is doing her bachelor’s degree in International Relations&European Studies. Her research interests are diverse, in addition to European Union integration and current political issues, she is particularly interested in the relationship between politics and social media, as well as Gen-Z phenomena in the shadow of the media.

“There is so much going on in the world and so many things that interest and preoccupy me that the only thing I can do is to read and learn as much as possible to be able to put into writing my experiences and insights about the noisy world around us.”

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