Aaron Weiche, a father of four, held off on joining new social media apps because he didn’t need “one more social addiction.”
That changed this year when his 18-year-old daughter went off to college. Begrudgingly, he joined BeReal, a French social media app where users capture a candid photo of themselves within two minutes of being alerted and share it with their friends every day at a different time.
“This seemed like an easy way for me to keep a daily connection with her,” said Weiche, a 48-year-old Minnesotan entrepreneur who is on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. “She was posting every day, so I’d be able to get a small glimpse into her daily world.”
Weiche represented one of BeReal’s 72.1 million app downloads this year through Dec. 15, according to analytics company Sensor Tower. Relatively obscure since its launch in 2020, BeReal exploded in popularity in 2022, with downloads surging from just 1.5 million in the same period last year.
The growth of apps like BeReal and Mastodon underscored a shift in 2022, a year when burgeoning social networks gained ground against the big platforms that have traditionally dominated, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Setting the stage for a more diverse social media landscape next year, new apps are tapping into people’s frustrations with their bigger and better-known rivals. As they grow, the shift may make you think twice about the time you’re spending on other platforms.
“Times of crisis and chaos are also times of opportunity,” said Jasmine Enberg, a principal analyst at Insider Intelligence. “We have seen plenty of crisis and chaos within the social media landscape in 2022, and we’re also seeing a shift in how people use social media.”
Chaos defined Twitter this year more than any other app, as billionaire Elon Musk took over the company and wreaked brash, erratic changes. And Instagram may be social media’s epicenter for aesthetically pleasing, filtered images, but users have complained that the culture forces tiring facades of perfection.
Whether it’s aggravation at Twitter’s volatility or burnout from Instagram’s idealized posts, discontent with the social media’s old guard is prompting users to experiment with the new.
Tapping into desire for closer connection
Gen Z — people between the ages of 10 and 25 — is the nucleus of this change. “Social media isn’t going anywhere. They don’t know a world without it,” Enberg said. “For them, it’s also easy to adopt new apps … and use them for different purposes.”
But Gen Z’s real-life connections outside their peer group — to people like Weiche — are starting to give smaller social apps broader traction.
BeReal, dubbed the “anti-Instagram” app in news stories, attracted new users on college campuses in 2022. The company even launched a program through which it recruited college students to promote the app and host parties. As more teens and people in their 20s used it, they also roped in their friends and relatives to try it out, too.
Once a day, BeReal notifies the app’s users at a different time to snap a photo of what they’re doing within two minutes and share it with their friends. Unlike with Instagram, you can’t add filters or edit your images, so the snapshots aren’t hiding flaws or imperfections.
“BeReal won’t make you famous,” the app’s description states. “If you want to become an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.”
Diverse college students using their phones.
Social media app BeReal became popular on college campuses.
Carrie Emge, a 32-year-old digital marketer in Illinois, said she was at dinner when her friend asked her to pop into a BeReal shot. Curious about the app’s concept, Emge joined roughly a week later.
“I would say BeReal is for the mundane moments of your life like putting away your dishes, walking to work or getting your lunch,” Emge said. Instagram is like a highlight reel of people’s lives, she said, where users post about concerts, an incredible meal or a friend’s birthday. Emge, who works from home, said she often gets a notification from BeReal when she’s not doing anything exciting.
BeReal epitomizes a trend reshaping social media, of users craving more authentic connections between family and friends. This shift toward more private and intimate connections on social media isn’t new, Enberg said, but it’s picking up steam moving into next year.
The desire to connect to close friends and family even caught the attention of celebrities. In May, Instagram started testing a full-screen feed that mimicked short-form video app TikTok, its most threatening competitor. Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, two of Instagram’s most-followed users, vented a collective frustration.
The sisters reshared a post in July that said “Make Instagram Instagram Again (stop trying to be tiktok i just want to see cute photos of my friends). Sincerely, Everyone.”
Instagram got enough backlash that it paused the full-screen test. While it noted the platform needs to evolve, the company said it would take time to make sure it gets the changes right.
BeReal capitalized on the backlash. “Maybe what we all just wanted was an app to see photos of your friends,” BeReal said in a cheeky tweet in July around the time of the uproar.
BeReal wasn’t the only platform leaning into closer connection. Locket Widget, a widget that displays live photos from best friends, and NGL, an app where users receive anonymous questions and answers from friends, also saw millions of new downloads this year, according to Sensor Tower. Less than a year old, Locket Widget generated 32.8 million downloads this year through Dec. 15, and NGL racked up 40 million in the same time period after launching near the end of last year.
Instagram, with more than 2 billion monthly active users, isn’t going anywhere soon. But the popularity of apps like BeReal and others is unnerving the company enough to copy newcomers’ features. Instagram,TikTok and Snapchat all added their own “dual-camera” option, a main feature on BeReal, so users can share an image that includes a selfie and what’s in front of them.
While BeReal grew in 2022, it’s too soon to tell what its ultimate impact will be, Enberg said. But social media’s tide toward more private, intimate connections is likely to keep building next year as more apps lean into this shift.
Twitter users grasp for a lifeline
Wherever they exist on the political spectrum, Twitter users have long expressed frustration over the site’s content moderation. But many appeared to reach their breaking point when Musk became the social network’s new leader and owner.
After he slashed Twitter’s workforce, #RIPTwitter trended worldwide as users posted fears that the service would crash. Musk rolled out a new $8 subscription for a blue check mark, only to pull it back when a mess of impersonators wreaked havoc. Musk kept changing the rules about what warranted an account ban: Former US President Donald Trump’s “permanent” suspension was revoked, but Twitter later kicked off high-profile journalists, only to let them back again after an outcry.
While Mastodon’s feed of short posts looks similar to Twitter’s, the company has tried to set itself apart. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is decentralized: It’s made up of thousands of communities called servers, rather than just one site. This gives users flexibility over what rules they have to follow.
And Twitter’s ongoing disorder has fueled the growth of Mastodon signups. Founder Eugen Rochko wrote in a blog post that Mastodon’s monthly active users grew from 300,000 in October to 2.5 million in November, overlapping Musk’s first weeks in command.
Threatened by the prospect of users fleeing, Twitter temporarily blocked links to Mastodon as well as other burgeoning rivals. Rochko said the blocks, as well as the suspension of Mastodon’s own Twitter account, were “a stark reminder that centralized platforms can impose arbitrary and unfair limits on what you can and can’t say while holding your social graph hostage.”
Twitter blocked links to other alternatives too, including Truth Social, Tribel, Nostr and Post. According to Post’s CEO Noam Bardin, the fledgling app has seen its wait list balloon to more than 610,000 people in its first 30 days since launching, which coincided closely with Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
Both Emge and Weiche said they haven’t joined Mastodon yet despite seeing Twitter users urging others to do so.
“I’m holding out hope that Twitter doesn’t crash and burn even further,” Weiche said.
But even if Twitter does shut down, he’ll have plenty of other platforms to choose from.