I don't want to BeReal, I want to just Be
Digital performance and the myth of authenticity
This article is part of RADAR’s Signals Series, a semi-regular investigation of an emerging trend space that’s catching our attention.
Signals: #performative-authenticity #co-creation #collective-wisdom #space-making
Curators: @victoriafutures, @keels223, @lauren, @oryzae
Written by @AndreaC, contributor at RADAR
BeReal and performativity fatigue
We get it: There’s no such thing as “being real” on the Internet. When BeReal’s timed reminders to capture realness took over our collective online consciousness this summer, it immediately spawned a number of think pieces - most lamenting the impossibility of online authenticity. Wired sees the app’s popularity as “a product of the zeitgeist: a deep, unrelenting fatigue…toward high levels of performativity and editability across social apps”, but as Vox observes, “the distinction between real and fake isn’t quite that simple.”
Low effort as an authentic aesthetic?
In a digital environment characterized by “intense judgment” (to paraphrase Timothée Chalamet), the social media trends that claim to offer escape from judgment are in fact still deeply plugged into the existing systems of signal and reward. Before BeReal, there was the short-lived BeMe; alongside Instagram photodumps, there was the slow, relentless rise of the “raw” aesthetic interpreted across genres from food to fashion, a trend that generally forgoes polish in favor of a more “lived-in” look. But there’s apparently always a line to be drawn as to how lived-in we want to appear: cross the line into banality, and you’re bound to be judged uninteresting. As Rachel Greenspan observes in Matt Klein’s 3_Trends: “we photo dump… but still meticulously. You can strip the filters, but you can’t purge the posturing.”
The centuries-old race to “out-authentic” the competition
Real Life editor and writer Rob Horning described the posture of authenticity that we pursue as “commercialized nostalgia for that way of life that was articulated by a different set of economic relations: precapitalistic, or pre-massified, or pre-globalized—whatever word you want to use to describe how it seemed when you were nine years old, when things were ‘real.’” Before we got swept up and burned out in a quest for airbrushed perfection. Back when we didn’t have to pretend, and could just be.
But it’s never as simple as just “being”. Toby Shorin points to tourism as the crucible of this myth of authenticity. Anthropological research reveals the cultural mythos that sprung up in the 20th century around “authentically native” objects and experiences - souvenirs from travels to distant lands - viewing them as “something special, something unique, something priceless, not a commodity, not touched by money”. Owning and accessing these “authentic” objects became another way through which a privileged class postured for each other and measured their status, beyond the reach of capitalism. The idea is that you can’t buy your way to this status symbol, you could only access “original” experiences with the right cultural cachet and understanding. As a result, native creators were forced to become complicit in this performance and prove the authenticity of their own “being”.
In some ways, the quest for authenticity has always been about othering, a way to designate someone as an outsider. Romantic thinkers such as Rousseau argued that the socially alienated “savage” lived more authentically than the “social man” who modeled himself according to what those around him wished to see: “the savage lives within himself; the social man lives always outside himself; he knows how to live only in the opinion of others” (“Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men”, 1755)
It’s a neat, easy conclusion to the question of authenticity: as long as we live among and in relation with others, there can never be “true” authenticity. So should we just pack it up and accept things as they are?
The evolutionary urge to form parasocial connections
Not so fast - we’re a social species, after all. The search for connection is baked into our evolutionary imperative. Molding ourselves in relation to each other is a feature, not a bug. When I tie my shoelaces the way my friend taught me to, it doesn’t make me less original or authentic or a copycat - it’s a tangible way our connection shows up in my behavior and identity.
On the speed-scrolling social media content machine, however, the systems are optimized for attention. Instead of molding ourselves in relation to each other, we mold our self-image for ease of consumption - a commodity we can trade for clicks, likes and views. But just because you’ve become privy to the mundane, un-airbrushed details of the lives of distant Internet stars, it hasn’t made them more authentic, nor have you forged a real connection. That’s why we feel betrayed when we experience the collapse of a facade of authenticity on social media. Rather than make us feel empathetic towards the human-ness of trying and failing, we feel hoodwinked, because we’ve formed a parasocial connection to an image meant for consumption.
Giving context space to flourish
It’s evident that these fast-paced, reactive systems depend on surface-level imagery, and by design, they don’t allow for the deep context required for genuine connections. Rather than attempt to apply new behaviors or values on top of broken systems, we see new Internet playgrounds being built - ones that work with the very human desire to forge authentic connections through common beliefs and interests. Fans are the original builders: united by common interests and goals, they create structures in service of their shared fandom. On platforms such as Discord and Circle, DAOs and closed communities such as The Nearness are flourishing as they cultivate spaces for meaningful dialogue over shared values. The Cyberdelic Society’s operating principles affirm the need to move away from “content for consumption”, towards a space where “context can be experienced”, while Rob Hardy’s principle of “non-coercive marketing” eschews scarcity-driven triggers, to allow like-minded people to be drawn into community with each other, at an indeterminate pace.
What’s striking is how the immersive ways of participation in these fora make the question of authenticity irrelevant. Rather than seeking credit, or visibility, these spaces allow for “beingness” on the Internet, without the burden of constructing and proving an identity narrative to be packaged and sold.
The strict physical restrictions brought on by the global pandemic may have fuelled the growth of these new online communities, but what does the future hold as real life kicks back into gear? Will these new ways of connecting spill over with real life impacts?
We’ll be watching…