By Lauren Apfel
For my 45th birthday last month, I got a BeReal account. It was a joke at first, the four of us around the table at the fancy chef’s restaurant, friends for a good portion of our adult lives. We’ve seen each other, over the past couple of decades, through more and less profound trials: the births of children, the deaths of parents, the breaks from long-term spouses. Unruly teenagers, cyclical marital problems, lapsed careers, you name it. Our friendship was indeed a patchwork of the “real” moments that comprise a life, but recent outings—when we could muster the resolve to arrange them—had begun to feel different.
That night, E had just started antidepressants. Again. L was suffering from crippling insomnia and thinking about quitting her job. S was simply exhausted. And while nobody was facing a transformative crisis per se, the mood, despite the birthday and the biodynamic wine, was palpably low. Large-scale transitional issues had given way to a more general malaise that seemed to be a distilled manifestation of the post-pandemic world or the touch-down of middle age or the peri-menopause we were all battling to varying degrees. Most likely, a combination of the three.
But then we started talking about BeReal, an app most of us knew thanks to our teenage children. The mood shimmered a little as we decided to try it ourselves, peals of laughter rising at the idea of tapping into this bit of adolescent fun. As a way of what? Not keeping in touch with each other, we were already in touch and heavily connected across social media. But of checking in more regularly, of sharing the intimate snapshots that make up a day—which is how we were spending our lives, as Annie Dillard would say—in a format that was effectively controlled.
The beauty of BeReal is that it’s meant to capture the sweep of humanity in the very same two minutes—no filters, no retakes (though you can), and no warning.
As Twitter begins to implode, Facebook becomes increasingly passé, and Instagram ever more unattainably stylized, this app has provided a much-needed tonic. It works by pinging you with a notification when it’s time to “be real.” You’ve then got 120 seconds to take a picture of whatever is happening—immediately in front of you, but also a freeze-frame of yourself, poised behind the camera.
My first ping after the dinner comes too early. I’m pounding away at the keyboard, having stumbled over to my desk upon waking. I’ve slept on a wet head, I’ve got something of an Edward Scissorhands thing going on. I snap the picture and post it anyway.
A couple of days later, E and I are baking together and opt for a meta BeReal, a shot of a shot she’s taking of her fabled banana chocolate chip muffins. The angle is not the most generous. Oh nooooo, she says, I’m a veritable whale. We snap the picture and post it anyway.
Could I look more like a turnip? my partner says, of her latest picture, perched on the wind-swept corner next to my house. She posts it anyway.
I invite a few more friends, from my closest quiver, to join. One refuses on principle. This morning, when you mentioned it, she says, I was cleaning my crotch after a spat of yeast infections. Do you really want to see that?
You have to smile, because we spend so much of our online time in a state of well-considered curation. For the kids, BeReal is positioned as an antidote to the snare of Instagram Face and the depressing but inevitable slings and arrows of virtual one-upmanship. Their pictures aren’t perfect, but of course they still are. As my mom used to say of me at that age, you could wear a brown paper bag and still look terrific.
For the 40- and 50-year-old sets, the effect is something else. It feels like a confrontation with age itself. A good, firm handshake. I didn’t realize at first that you could make the selfie inset visible, invert it to the bigger screen: how I would appear there, in that small left-hand box, was a mystery every time I hit “send.” Button pressed and there I was, no hiding from the haunting creep of my own changing face. Skin slackening around the mouth, new threads of silver shot through the hair, a general lackluster that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize.
And yet, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so well, the evidence disappears the next day and we start anew, “serene and with too high a spirit to be encumbered” with that old nonsense.
Our kids are, alternately, bemused and mortified by our arrival on this app. The same way they balk at the parents who slink into their Snapchats. Some of them, a tiny swig, want to be included in our feeds—one of my sons granted me “viewer only” privileges. The rest steer clear. Which is exactly the point. BeReal, unlike the other social channels these days, feels like a place where you want to be surrounded by true friends only. Not the 500+ people you’ve accumulated over the 15-odd years Facebook’s been alive, amassed during a time when we didn’t quite know how and why we were using the platform.
After my divorce, I pretty much stopped posting on social media. I was never a huge user to begin with, but still, in the turmoil of that period, I went uncharacteristically quiet. I lost something there, with the politics of my ex-husband being in the same virtual space, amidst the shared community that straddled our Friends’ lists. A sense of freedom, maybe, or even a sense of myself.
I’m finding that person again in the thrill of the BeReal chime. The one who loves to comment wittily on other people’s pictures, the one who cares profoundly about the granular details of her dearest friends’ days. The one who needs, right now, a way to feel a little less alone in the mundanely beautiful trenches of her mid-forties.
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