In this column, we deliver hot (and cold) takes on pop culture, judging whether a subject is overrated or underrated.
A notification on my phone tells me that it’s time to “be real”. As with every day for the past week, it arrives as I sit on my couch, word document open on my laptop, writing and editing the silly little articles that get me enough money to afford fripperies such as rent, electricity, and sardines for my balding dog.
The app, BeReal, the latest fad in social media, demands that I take an authentic photo of my life immediately, within a two-minute countdown. This is ostensibly as a way of pushing back against the world of highly curated, filter-heavy, social media like Instagram. Instead of deliberately posed, made-up, precisely artificial shots where the light is just right, the makeup took three hours, and your weird-looking left knee is hidden by a carefully placed pot plant, you must quickly snap exactly what you are doing at that moment, in the search for authenticity.
I hurriedly send a photo of my work laptop, with my face up in the corner looking tired, slightly anxious, my hair caught at a bad angle and looking greasy, and the tip of an ugg boot emerging like a depressing iceberg. It joins a timeline of similar photos, my friends and colleagues also showcasing various screens, various back-breaking working from home setups, a couple of exotic office desks and Zoom meetings. Thrilling. A constant reminder of how much time I spend looking at this tiny screen.
Do you really need to see me being this real?
Turns out reality is super depressing. I saw the best minds of my generation, sitting on office chairs, wearing cardigans, toiling endlessly under the yoke of capitalism. I don’t particularly want to be reminded of the drudgery of everyday life. Maybe, just maybe, I don’t want to be real anymore?
BeReal isn’t the only social media striving for authenticity. On TikTok, videos are deliberately made to look candid and non-professional. You not only want to look as though you’re filming on a phone, but you’re punished if you look too contrived and stuffy. On Instagram, the influencer aesthetic is over – the millennial pink, glossy, perfect feed that defined the platform is now seen as cringe, with “unfiltered”, messy, and unedited shots taking place. Where once there were guides to how to edit your photos perfectly and arrange them in an aesthetic grid, with rules around how many times and when to post, now the rule is to aim for authenticity, with off-centre photos, low-res memes, and a chaotic lack of planning.
It’s kinda like the trend of the “messy bun” – spending a lot of time and effort to deliberately look as though you didn’t put in any effort. Studied nonchalance. Ultra-scheduled spontaneity. When authenticity becomes an aesthetic, a vibe, a goal, you have to wonder if it’s any more real than the more curated aesthetic that it’s taking over from.
Being real is overrated. Give me illusion anyway.
I find myself looking nostalgically back at the previous era. Sure, there was something rage-inducing about shuffling through the ice-cold corridors of my Melbourne winter rental, only to scroll Instagram and see all my friends enjoying the beaches of Europe. Did we really need to have three separate carousels of wedding photos? Sir, your baby looks like a wet sweet potato, maybe wait until it’s a little older before it’s immortalised in photography. But at the same time, as jealous as I could be, at least I had something fun to look at. At least I was dazzled by colours and clothes and haircuts. And above all, gosh was it fun to get gossip – that beautiful moment where a handsome stranger, possibly a new boyfriend or girlfriend, is casually caught sipping a drink in an Instagram story, or even better, the quiet deleting of all couple photos that indicate a breakup or a divorce. The weird hobbies that newly divorced men always start doing – I miss that shot of lumpen pottery, that video of the brand new discordant trumpet.
But what BeReal and the authenticity trend fail to understand is that social media is about one thing above all else: making yourself look good for revenge and spite. When people come to my social media, I want a highly curated and intimidating visual essay about all the good things happening in my life. Sure, maybe they’re exaggerated and hyperbolic – maybe for every opening night premiere or cool party or sexy outfit that I have, there are dozens of unrepresented days when I’m just writing Bachelor recaps in a robe in a dank mouldy room, but that doesn’t matter. Only I know about the scattering of red licorice packets and unwashed clothes that I nest in, and the daily pedestrian trauma of eating plain eggs. What my enemies and my friends see is a young attractive go-getter who is enjoying his life and going places (physically and metaphorically).
Give me the filters that soften my crow’s feet, the angles that ignore my widow’s peak, and grant me the capacity to spite my detractors by curating a filtered version of my life. It might not be real, but at least it’s interesting.
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