How BeReal missed its moment
To become the next big social app, competitors have to move faster
The ongoing collapse of Twitter has lots of folks wondering when an all-consuming new social app will rise up to take its place. This week, I want to talk about how things are going at one such upstart — and what it tells us about how new social products win and lose in 2023.
That upstart is BeReal. In July of last year, the photo-sharing app had a breakout moment when frequent discussions of the app on TikTok pushed it to the top of the app store charts. Like most insurgent social networks, BeReal arrived with a novel creative constraint: a once-a-day window to post, delivered at a different time each day via push notification, that attempts to create a less performative social experience by inviting you to post your life at its most mundane. Crucially, you can’t see your friends’ posts unless you post yourself.
When I wrote about the app, I noted that BeReal faced a ticking clock. “The novelty of that two-minute timer will fade, and will fade sooner than anyone at BeReal will hope,” I wrote. “And so the developers must race to keep shipping — to build out the feature set, and to fix the app’s many bugs — while their extremely fickle users are still paying attention.”
Fast forward to today, and it’s not clear that there’s much sand left in the hourglass.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the app’s novelty had worn off among the app’s core Generation Z demographic, leading to a steep decline in monthly users. “The number of people who use the app daily has dropped 61 percent from its peak, from about 15 million in October to less than six million in March, according to Apptopia, another analytics firm,” wrote the Times’ Callie Holtermann.
This week, the company got around to denying that report, saying in an unsigned blog post that it has 20 million daily users. But even if you take the company at its word, it’s clear that the app’s growth has slowed significantly since last summer, when it was adding hundreds of thousands of users a day. And where once the Twitter timeline was stacked with BeReal jokes and memes, lately the app has seemed to fade from the culture — I wouldn’t expect to see another Saturday Night Live sketch about it any time soon.
The reason for that slow fade should be obvious: the team failed to ship more than a couple of user-facing features over the past nine months: a private archive of your past posts, and the ability to add what song you were playing to your posts.
In an oddly defensive blog post, the company said it had spent most of the past year resolving technical debt. A significant problem for BeReal is its novel usage pattern — most startup products aren’t designed to be used simultaneously by the entire user base. Last year “was focused on the stability of our service,” the company wrote. “The unique nature of how BeReal works means we had to overcome significant technical challenges to keep the service working.”
Users don’t care about your technical problems, though. They want to have fun! And while adding a Spotify link to a photo of your laptop screen might make a BeReal post 0.5 percent more fun than one without, it’s nothing that anyone is going to install BeReal just to try out.
That brings us to the company’s bigger announcement this week, which marks the most significant change to the app’s core mechanic since it launched. A test in the United Kingdom is letting anyone who posts to BeReal within the daily two-minute window post two more BeReals at their leisure throughout the day.
As an engagement hack, I can certainly understand why the company would prioritize what it’s calling “bonus BeReals.” Whatever revenue the company ultimately hopes to generate from the app will depend in part on the amount of time the user base spends in the app.
At the same time, at the risk of being hyperbolic… no one wanted this? Like, the whole fun of BeReal was that it was a dumb thing you did once a day for 30 seconds and and forgot about for 24 hours. Among my handful of friends still using the app, none complained to me that they wanted to post more.
I had hoped BeReal would take its twist on “appointment television” to other mediums — adding a group chat that was only active for a designated period each day, say, or collaborative videos that you could only add to at certain times. That, to me, feels more in the spirit of what the company was trying to build in the first place.
Instead, at least in the United Kingdom, it just looks like a more restrictive version of Instagram stories.
Then again, BeReal has much better data on this subject than I do. If the only path forward it sees is transforming into Instagram stories, that’s what it’s going to do.
It would be a shame, though, because novel viewpoints on social networks are hard to come by. On one hand, with Twitter in flames, this year has seen a precambrian explosion in new social apps: collectively, Mastodon, T2, Post, Nostr, Bluesky, the untitled Meta project, and Artifact represent the biggest new push into Twitter’s old territory than we have seen in a decade.
So far, though, none has identified a truly novel new feature. (Artifact, which is attempting to build a comments layer for the daily news, is the possible exception.) And while apps like these have often succeeded in the past by cloning each other, I can’t help but feel like there’s a basic laziness in the approach that (Artifact aside) these companies have taken.
It’s not enough to promise abstract benefits of running on a decentralized server (as do Bluesky and Nostr) or offer a pipe dream of more “civil” conversations (as Post does). Instead, you have to ship features — the way TikTok is constantly introducing new video effects, or Snapchat adds new augmented reality filters. It’s not enough to invite users in and expect them to create magic. You have to make it seem like you’re trying, too.
That’s much easier said than done, I realize. There are probably a finite number of ways that you can remix text, photos, and videos.
At the same time, it feels like an indictment of the collective creativity of the tech industry that my median group chat feels livelier and more relevant than any so-called social product on the market. Some critics say that feeling reflects a societal change in how people want to use apps — that the era of public social networks was a detour on the road back to smaller private spaces — but I think they’re giving up a little too easily.
Whatever you think, assuming there is a big new social product to build, I can’t imagine that there has been a better time to do it in the past 10 years than right now. At the same time, the opportunity requires a level of ingenuity and product-level execution that no one in the space has yet been able to muster.
Here’s hoping that all of these companies have more tricks up their sleeves. In the meantime, I am sad to report, it is no longer ⚠️Time to BeReal.⚠️
It is time, instead, to go faster.
One more BeReal thing: Perhaps the weirdest thing about BeReal this week was the company’s quiet announcement that it plans to never let reporters attribute any statements made by the company. “We’ll be happy to answer questions,” the company wrote in a blog post, “but irrespective of who answers questions, we’ll require that it always be reported as just from and on behalf of the BeReal Crew, not a single individual :).”
In general, I don’t have a problem attributing statements to companies. Most PR statements are written by a committee, and it doesn’t always feel accurate to me to attribute a sentence to someone who I know most likely didn’t write it.
At the same time, this is a really weird way to say that your CEO (Alexis Barreyrat) plans never to give an interview. And not a great sign for the company overall, I’d say. There’s no shame in keeping your head down and ignoring the press for a long time. But never allowing anyone to speak to the press under their own name is a real sign of weakness.
The Republican National Committee published its first AI-generated political ad attacking President Biden and VP Kamala Harris following the duo’s re-election announcement. The ad uses diffusion tech to create fake imagery of future crises. We can all write our “2024 will be the first AI election” think pieces. (Alex Thompson / Axios)
The EU listed 19 tech companies, five of which are subsidiaries of Google parent Alphabet, as subject to new auditing and data-sharing requirements as part of its Digital Services Act. The companies must comply by August. (Foo Yun Chee / Reuters)
The U.K.’s new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, expected to become law next year, contains steep penalties of up to 10% of global revenue for violations. The legislation seeks to regulate fake reviews and hard-to-cancel subscription services. (Dan Milmo / The Guardian)
TikTok’s lax content moderation and global reach have made it a popular tool for Chinese scammers, some of whom are hawking fake weight-loss products and other fraudulent goods. (Ryan McMorrow, Nian Liu, and Cristina Criddle / Financial Times)
Journalist Timothy B. Lee argues against the prospect of AI-induced mass unemployment in an essay that reexamined Marc Andreessen’s “software is eating the world” proclamation of 2011. (Timothy B. Lee / Understanding AI)
Alphabet reported its third-ever drop in ad sales since going public in 2004, and its second consecutive quarterly drop, due to declining revenues at Google and YouTube. (Miles Kruppa / WSJ)
Microsoft suffered steep declines in hardware revenue from a struggling Xbox business and a continued decline in PC shipments, but both were offset by strong performance in cloud and Office products. (Tom Warren / The Verge)
A Meta ad system bug caused Facebook advertises to overspend between two and four times their daily budgets in the early morning hours last Sunday. James Hercher / AdExchanger)
WhatsApp’s multi-device feature now includes additional smartphones so users can sync accounts across two or more devices. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
An interview with OpenAI CTO Mira Murati sheds light on the company’s approach to safety, the path toward AGI, and its outlook on regulation. (Matt O’Brien / Associated Press)
TikTok is helping fuel younger consumers’ appetite for knockoff products amid rising luxury brand prices and the resurgence of thrift culture. A new EU survey found that one third of people aged 15 to 24 say they’ve bought a fake product in the last year. (Annachiara Biondi / Financial Times)
Spotify posted its best first-quarter growth since going public, with MAUs up 22% to 515 million and paying subscribers up 15% to 210 million. (Anne Steele / WSJ)
An investigation into the Discord communities rallying around generative AI to make make deepfaked music underscores how fast-moving and legally fraught this trend has become almost overnight. (Chloe Xiang / Motherboard)
The phrase “As an AI language model…” is spiking on Twitter and in Amazon product reviews as lazy spammers copy and paste ChatGPT content without editing it. (Matthew Gault / Motherboard)
Twitter alternative BlueSky has amassed more than 245,000 downloads on iOS, with more than half of the downloads occurring this month alone. (Vlad Savov / Bloomberg)
Elon Musk inadvertently confirmed he owns a burner Twitter account when posting a screenshot, and internet sleuths quickly found a likely candidate. The account appears to feature someone role-playing as a young child using a photo of Musk and Grimes’ toddler. (Jordan Pearson and Joseph Cox / Motherboard)
Nearly 25,000 Twitter users are now paying Elon Musk $4 per month for exclusive subscription content on the platform. And we hope they get the help that they need. (Matt Binder / Mashable)
Slack launched its Google Docs-like Canvas, a document editor that’s accessible from within the chat app. (David Pierce / The Verge)
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I'm waiting for a social network that embraces the "seasonality" of a gimmick. So maybe for one summer, it's a BeReal and then in fall, it's a flash mob app, and in winter, it's an AR dress up app or something, and so on. It's like TV network that's constantly rotating shows to keep up interest.
On one hand, this sounds pretty exhausting -- startups would prefer to just build something once and have it print money forever. On the other hand, social media users are inherently fickle do you have to keep iterating anyways. So you might as well embrace it and make it part of your appeal.
An important differentiator for Post (not that I’m here to sling for them but it’s worth pointing out) isn’t just the company’s approach to content moderation. The micro payment and tipping feature is really their biggest differentiator, and an important one. On no other platform can I give someone a dollar or two if I like what they say, and on no other platform can I buy a single article from a news organization.
Again, time will tell if this is really a feature that’s going to land with users, but the company has been improving the service consistently since the beta launch. My suspicion is that at some point, another news-oriented app (Artifact? Notes?) will jump on this tech and buy it maybe? Dunno, but I think that’s an important feature to highlight when discussing them. Thx!