As a joke with some friends on BeReal, I started posting over-intellectualized takes in the comments of all my posts. One of these comments actually hit on something I found interesting about the role of personal curation and “authenticity” in digital spaces, and how that applies to BeReal.
The basic idea is that the ability to curate what we expose online (on e.g. Instagram or Facebook) does two seemingly-contradictory things at once vis-a-vis authenticity. On the one hand, curation can make digital spaces feel more “performative” or “constructed”, since we are all having to repeatedly make decisions about how to represent ourselves online (as discussed by Tolentino). But on the other hand, curation also allows (parts of) our offline lives to be “backstage” and out of the view of publics (and tech platforms), and hence less performative and more authentic.
With this background in mind, it is interesting to think about BeReal and how it relates to previous eras of social media (like Facebook and Instagram). In its branding and name, BeReal poses itself as a more “authentic” form of social media, because it eliminates the ability for users to curate what they post online (to some extent). But, per above, losing the ability to curate our online selves doesn’t actually free us up to be more “authentic” in general. In fact, it is quite the opposite: removing curation is tantamount to getting rid of our unexposed “backstage” space, instead forcing us to perform both online and off.
I also connect this to the widely deployed “panopticon” metaphor for social media1 (from Bentham via Foucault), which I have always found deficient. The whole point of the panopticon is that the prisoners know they are always in view of the prison guard. Even if the guards are not always watching, it is always possible that they are; hence, the prisoners are forced to behave as if they are always being watched. It is the awareness that they could be watched that creates control.
This is not a great model of a platform like Facebook, where platform power arises from surveillance that the user is not aware of. Facebook would prefer that we don’t realize at all that we are being watched and tracked online. This will lead us to behave more normally, making their data more predictive of our future purchasing decisions and hence more powerful for advertisers. This is not to say that Facebook and Instagram do not gain power from surveillance; however, they gain this power in a very different way than the panopticon prison guard.
By contrast, BeReal is arguably much more similar to the panopticon – users are never sure when the platform is going to check in or start watching, but it is always a possibility. Per Foucault’s analysis, it seems to me that this is much more likely to create consequences for how we behave in day-to-day life – forcing us to behave/perform in line with social expectations in situations that could previously be made “backstage”.
There are lots of other intellectual references on these ideas such as Goffman (hence performative/backstage). Also, I always think of Dave Eggers’ The Circle on these themes. Finally, this clearly connects to a lot of ideas about privacy online; I am particularly reminded of this paper from Marthews and Tucker (2014) arguing that people became less willing to search for sensitive search terms on Google following the Snowden surveillance revelations. In other words, the paper claims that people changed behavior when they realized they were being watched.
Anyhow, the original take is written in a jokey polemical style, but I thought was worth preserving, so here it is:
BEREAL, AUTHENTICITY and PANOPTICISM
Through its name and branding, BEREAL poses itself as an AUTHENTIC digital space—in contrast with INAUTHENTIC social platforms of the past (Facebook, Instagram)—to the BENEFIT of users and platform alike.
The logic is as follows. Through strict temporal constraints on posting, BEREAL excludes the possibility of user-driven CURATION.
CURATION is posed as the central source of INAUTHENTICITY online. INAUTHENTICITY, in turn, is posed as harmful to both the user (for it psychological effects) and, indirectly, the platform (for how it limits the platform’s totalizing view of users’ commercial preferences).
Is this logic correct? The answer, perhaps, is NO.
Digital social platforms have long been likened to Bentham’s PANOPTICON, as analyzed by Foucault. However, with our present focus on CURATION, we see that this analogy has never (before) been apt.
If Facebook is a PANOPTICON, it is one that comes equipped with window curtains that the prisoner may draw shut at will. The very antithesis of the idea!
BEREAL, in fact, is the far closer analogue. Like Bentham’s prison guard, the platform may inspect at any moment, without prior notice to the user.
We are lead to ask, then: are BEREAL’s limits on CURATION truly a boon to digital AUTHENTICITY? Let us consider the analogous question: are Bentham’s prisoners able to lead AUTHENTIC lives? Of course not. This is exactly the point. They are “free” and yet wholly controlled by their overseers’ totalizing gaze.
And here we come to the heart of the matter. We must distinguish between AUTHENTICITY and ACCURACY of the digital portrait.
BEREAL may indeed produce more ACCURATE digital portraits, which better match to offline existences. After all, CURATION is no longer allowed.
But this ACCURACY will be achieved NOT by revealing our AUTHENTIC offline lives in digital space, but instead by forcing INAUTHENTICITY into all corners of our now ever-inspectable offline lives.
Alas, the window curtains in our digital PANOPTICON have been removed, and so we must always be on our best behavior.
This arrangement, of course, is a benefit to the PLATFORM who profits from ACCURACY and is indifferent to AUTHENTICITY, and yet still is harmful to the USER who truly seeks AUTHENTICITY and FREEDOM
The panopticon metaphor also dovetails with many other metaphors of vision and seeing that are commonly deployed in critical discussions of social media – e.g. “surveillance” capitalism. ↩