Bex Heimbrock, Opinion Editor

BeReal is a social media app whose stated mission is to allow users to “discover who your friends really are in their real life.” What ‘real life’ is remains to be seen. The way it works: once a day, at a different time each day, all app users receive a notification to take and share a photo within two minutes. Much like a guard tower looming over prisoners, BeReal forces the youngest and hippest of us into a veritable panopticon — exerting social control while we desperately chase the high of being ‘real’ in the metaverse, like tired dogs chasing a bone.

What BeReal is selling users is social media that one can feel good about. Unlike its counterparts which have a negative impact on users’ mental health such as Instagram and TikTok (one in three teen girls who use Instagram say the app worsens their body image), BeReal invites users to shed the self-curated personalities one may find on other apps and simply show the ‘true’ you.

BeReal answers the demands of an extremely socially aware generation who are unable to divorce their material activism from the metaverse. In other words, BeReal gives Gen Zers the opportunity to posture themselves as woke while still uncritically partaking in a culture of surveillance and individualism. Why shirk the grip of social media entirely when one can simply subscribe to an app that does the woke work for you?

Take, for example, the phenomenon of Twitter callout posts or its predecessor, the Tumblr blog “Your Fave Is Problematic.” The purpose of these posts is to determine a problematic behavior — ranging from possessing an uncouth opinion to allegations of sexual assault — and bring it to public attention. When relegated to celebrity critique, this process seems fair. However, in the realm of social media, we are all our own “faves”; we consume each other’s lives as content. The result of this is a virtual culture which demands intimate knowledge of users’ everyday lives. From the Facebook status update to the Instagram story, we are forced to share our whole lives in order to — paradoxically — have a social life.

The demand to BeReal is, in itself, an extension of callout culture. It is an app that claims to solve an ethical problem that we are all committing (being unreal on social media), yet the app itself is merely another rotting garbage disposal of content that we will uncritically consume — because that’s what we always do.

What’s worse, BeReal happens once per day at an undisclosed time that changes from day to day, implicitly demanding that the user be alert at all times. Social media has invaded every aspect of our lives, and, though we often claim to be aware of this invasion, apps like BeReal give us the opportunity to remain in the comfortable chains of social surveillance while feeling as though we are engaging in a rebellious act.

An app, by virtue of its very function, will never save us from our growing dependence on virtual reality. The culture that stems from this unreal reality is completely devoid of empathy and is constantly replicating the very binaries that social media algorithms force us into.

As a refresher, the panopticon is a proposed design for a prison by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In the design, a guard tower is positioned so that the guard can see into every prison cell, but the guards themselves are not visible to the prisoners. The design of the guard tower led the inmates to believe that they could be watched at any moment and was intended to control inmates’ behaviors.

Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology Daniel Schultz provides insight regarding the way in which the panopticon has been imagined in recent centuries thanks to the work of Michel Foucault.

“Foucault is working with the panopticon as a symbol for observed social space or surveilled social space,” Schultz said.

This Foucauldian imagining of a social space shows “a model in the sense of disciplinary power where you don’t need to violently coerce individuals,” Schultz said. “You can simply manage a field of regularity through norms, observation, gentle interventions and so forth.”

As for its application to social media and its culture, the link is strong.

“The more serious surveillance technology that’s at work in BeReal and Instagram is the algorithmic data excavation, which is happening equally with both,” Schultz said.

Our constant consumption of ourselves through social media has made it the nexus of surveillance. This is not necessarily an issue of government surveillance — though that does happen often — rather, we are all constantly in a state of capitalist surveillance towards our peers and ourselves.

“There are consumer norms that are at work in the use of social media,” Schultz said.

Through what he dubs a “data scrape,” or a process of data collection which amasses and absorbs information about our lives in order to sell our own experiences back to us, there is an “individualization process that’s happening, which is also a normalization process.”

In this way, according to Schultz, “The internet in the age of surveillance capitalism is a massive panopticon.”

We do ourselves a disservice by pretending that shiny, new versions of social media are our ticket out of the infernal cesspool that is Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or really any godforsaken social app. So long as our realness is demanded by the metaphorical guard towers of Facebook and Twitter, so long as we — at the same time — give ourselves up to other apps that allow us to feel like ethical social media users, we will continue to be our own best snitches.