“Instagram, please stop trying to be TikTok.” App users including Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner shared this plea last month when Instagram trialled changes that flooded users’ feeds with short-form videos called “reels” and content uploaded by strangers. They were reacting to Instagram’s attempt to wrest Gen Z eyeballs away from TikTok by mimicking some of the app’s signature features.
Early social media platforms such as MySpace and Facebook were built on the quaint notion of “friends”, mirroring your real-life social networks online. But the ruthless dynamics of the attention economy mean that the platforms most popular with young people today, Instagram and TikTok, double as global arenas to launch influencer careers. Content – not connection – is king, and algorithmically optimised virality is the metric that determines what you see.
It’s these app design choices that mean the whole world can follow the evolution of a wildly popular makeup trend, or join a campaign against a 20-year-old furniture designer from Brooklyn who ghosted some girls on Tinder. “TikTok is like my generation’s TV,” says Deborah Mackenzie, 23, from Aberdeen. She and her friends don’t post much themselves; it’s more about browsing other people’s content to pass the time.
As the scale of Instagram and TikTok becomes increasingly impersonal (and, to be fair, the latter has always insisted it’s an entertainment app, rather than social media), a new generation of social media companies including BeReal, Locket Widget, Yubo and Poparazzi have spotted an opportunity to prioritise intimacy over infamy.
“What we’re seeing now is Gen Z’s taste shifting towards deeper, more personalised experiences,” says Matt Moss, the founder of Locket, an app that’s about as stripped-back as it’s possible to be: allowing close friends and family to share photos that appear as an enlarged widget on the other person’s home screen. Moss originally built the app to keep in touch with his long-distance girlfriend when he finished university but says a billion photos had been shared on it by the end of July, after it blew up following a viral moment on TikTok at the end of last year.
Another app clocking up its fair share of viral moments is BeReal, launched in 2019 by the French entrepreneurs Alexis Barreyat and Kévin Perreau. The app prompts users to take a simultaneous front and back camera picture every day at a specific time, within a two-minute window. Users can take it later, too, but can’t see their friends’ content until they’ve posted themselves. This is supposed to ensure that users snap a picture of whatever they’re doing at the time – no matter how unglamorous – paired with a selfie – no matter how unkempt – to promote a way of relating more authentically to friends online.
Currently the No 1 social networking app in the Apple App Store in the US, BeReal is growing rapidly. The vast majority of its lifetime 28m downloads happened this year according to the Business of Apps. Its popularity is radiating out beyond the college students that first jumped on board, thanks, in part, to an ambassador programme and payments for signing up.
With TikTok and Instagram both expanding beyond social media’s original remit, Kristin Merrilees, a 20-year-old New Yorker, says BeReal is capturing that unfulfilled urge to connect with friends throughout the day. “I like to see what my friends are up to, especially during the summer where a lot of us are more spread out because we’re not in the same place or in school,” she says.
In addition to facilitating meaningful connections with friends, the new wave of social media platforms claim to be solving another issue: the increasing pressure to perform, grow a following, and become an influencer on TikTok and Instagram.
Olivia Bamford, 23, from Derbyshire, says she stopped using Instagram because she felt that other people’s content would always be better than her own. Merrilees and Mackenzie say they still use Instagram to share content with friends, but its main purpose is to showcase major events or for photo dumps rounding up the month’s highlights.
Instagram justified its recent changes by saying it wants to help its creators reach a wider audience. By contrast, BeReal says it won’t help people become influencers. “It’s not exactly a platform where you can grow a following, but that’s sort of the point,” says Merrilees. Locket goes so far as to limit the number of people you can add: a proposition that would make Instagram break out in a cold sweat.
Of course, one person’s positive affirmation is another’s self-righteous edict. An inevitable backlash against BeReal’s claims to unvarnished authenticity has swiftly ensued. “The difference between BeReal and the social-media giants isn’t the former’s relationship to truth but the size and scale of its deceptions,” wrote RE Hawley in the New Yorker.
What’s more, will thinking small ever lead to big returns? Most of the apps mentioned say they have opted out of the attention economy entirely, saying they will shun ads for alternative business models. This hasn’t stopped major backers piling in. Locket has just raised a $12.5m funding round led by OpenAI’s Sam Altman; BeReal is reportedly on track to close a funding round that will quadruple its valuation to over $600m.
Whether these apps are tracking a zeitgeisty generational shift, or simply tapping into the self-evident truth that people like to share with friends on the internet, is another question. Right now, most aren’t even aiming to replace Instagram and TikTok. “We love Instagram and TikTok [but] they’re not really competition in our space,” says Poparazzi co-founder Alex Ma.
This reflects a greater fragmentation in the app market for social media, where users visit different apps for different experiences. “Instagram used to be the app for everything,” says Merrilees, but that’s changed now.
It’s tough to predict whether these new social media apps will survive, let alone herald a sea change across the industry. Social apps like Clubhouse attracted a huge number of users to audio chatrooms at the height of the pandemic before fading swiftly back into obscurity. (Incidentally, Clubhouse is pivoting to “small” too, with the launch of its “Houses” feature for close-knit friendship groups.)
Gimmicky features that users find compulsive in the beginning, such as BeReal’s daily nudges to snap a picture, could also be what eventually makes users tire of the app.
But whether these apps live on or not, they may be correct about the gap they aim to plug. Mackenzie has resisted downloading BeReal, despite most of her friends using it. “It’s just another thing to keep reminding you to get on your phone,” she says.
Even so, she sees the appeal. “It’s kind of a modern-day Facebook or something, where people just post their everyday thoughts and the things they’re doing.”