“Bonus point for the smile!”: The directive of happiness on BeReal
Taylor Annabell / King’s College London
As users take their daily BeReal, the app offers feedback on what is being captured. This includes messages such as “Bonus point for the smile!” and “Keep smiling and don’t change a thing”. Whilst these phrases flash up for less than 3 seconds, their presence speaks to an underlying emotional architecture of the platform and what I refer to as the ‘directive of happiness’. By encouraging users to smile, the platform steers users towards making the ‘right feeling’ of happiness visible, which I argue requires critical interrogation given how BeReal explicitly distances their encouragement of authenticity from “social media fakery” and “shallow performativity” (Duffy and Gerrard, 2022, para.1) of cultures of sharing within the social media ecosystem. In this essay, I examine how the directive of happiness is embedded within the platform, seeking to advance our understanding of how constructions of authenticity are entangled with postfeminist feeling rules (Kanai, 2019).
As platform studies has demonstrated, the technical, social and economic dimensions of the platform shape its function, structure and use. The architecture, affordances and algorithms of the platform steer users, enabling and limiting expression and interaction (Gillespie, 2017; van Dijck 2013a). For example, forms of emotional expression are structurally encouraged and limited according to Wahl-Jorgensen (2018). She argues that Facebook facilitates the easy expression of positive and pro-social emotions, which contribute to the drive toward user engagement and so the economic imperative of the platform. I seek to bring together this work on the emotional architecture of platforms with Georgakopoulou’s (2021) concept of directives. Directives, she suggests, are embedded within the design of features and through requesting and encouraging aspects of affordances generate preferential conditions for users to engage in specific practices. Through her empirical work, she argues that the ‘sharing life-in-the-moment’ directive affects the types of stories that are told (Georgakopoulou, 2021) and the authenticity directive shapes self-presentation towards imperfect sharing (Georgakopoulou, 2022).
To uncover directives employed by BeReal, I carry out a walkthrough of the platform (Light et al., 2016) and focus in this essay on two functions: messages sent to users during the capture of a BeReal and Realmoji reactions that can be sent to posts shared by friends. By directly engaging with the interface and documenting the mundane, potentially unnoticed aspects of actions and interactions that are part of using the platform, the method provides a way to critically examine the platform as a mediator of interaction (Light et al., 2016).
I want to begin by noting the value placed on capturing the user’s face. Although it might be expected that users take selfies due to the use of the front camera, this is explicitly encouraged by the platform. When the face is not visible (although their body may be), the following messages may be displayed on the interface:
- Who goes there?
- Umm, anybody here?
- Your friends will definitely prefer to see your face! (see Figure 1)
Within the first two examples, questions are directed toward the user concerning their absence due to the invisibility of the face. It is not enough that the username and profile picture of the user identifies who is there in a shared BeReal, this must be seen. In the third example, the expectation of selfie-taking is declaratively asserted. The platform justifies this nudge by speaking on behalf of the audience of “your friends”. These examples indicate the integration of facial recognition in BeReal that the user is notified when taking a non-selfie BeReal. Furthermore, given BeReal claims to facilitate greater authenticity, the platform puts forward making facial expressions visible as the way to ‘be real’. BeReal becomes another site of intersection between the body, identity and technology, normalising the fixing of identity through the body through biometrics (Ajana and Beer, 2014) and further perpetuating the ideology of having one ‘authentic’ identity on platforms (van Dijck, 2013b).
Additional messages steer the performance of the selfie with some appearing when the user is in the process of capturing their BeReal:
- Smile now, uh I mean now
- Say cheese!
- Wait, wait, wait, now smile (see Figure 2)
What emerges through these imperatives is the need to smile, establishing there is a ‘right feeling’ to make visible on BeReal. This encouragement to smile is of particular relevance for young women. Building on Hochschild’s (2003) theorisation of ‘feeling rules’ as a set of social norms addressing what emotions should be felt and expressed on specific occasions, Kanai (2019) demonstrates how the ‘right feelings’ govern performances of the self in online spaces, allowing young women to enact relatability. The directive to display happiness as part of ‘being real’ then becomes enfolded within the postfeminist sensibility. Postfeminism is characterised by distinctive, interconnected themes and features, which shape subjectivity and the articulation of gender. As feminist scholars have demonstrated, postfeminism operates through affective and psychic registers that call upon women to manage their feelings and regulate their emotional expression. By repeatedly presenting smiling as the right visual expression to make visible ‘now’, BeReal reproduces the expectation that women should display confidence, resilience and a positive mental attitude (Gill, 2017).
Establishing the smile as the ‘right’ selfie and by extension, happiness as the ‘right feeling’ asserts a relationship between feeling rules and authenticity. I am interested in how this becomes situated within BeReal’s construction of authenticity, which diverges slightly from previous research on performances of authenticity on social media. For example, Ross (2019, p.361) described how young women used secondary Instagram accounts (finstas) to “break free” from the gendered expectations on Instagram to share “beautiful, witty, likeable content” and performed ‘realness’ instead through finsta sharing. Similarly, authenticity was performed through the careful disclosure of flaws and weaknesses on MySpace (Dobson, 2015) and the production of negative affect on YouTube (Berryman and Kavka, 2018). Such performances of authenticity responded to the cultural and social mandate for young women to be “perfect” (McRobbie, 2015) and at times, perpetuated an assumption that negativity is ‘unforced’ and ‘real’ compared with ‘forced’ and ‘fake’ display of positivity. The directive to be happy by BeReal is not positioned as incompatible with authenticity, instead speaks Banet-Weiser’s (2021, p.11) proposition that there is a “conflation of authenticity with happiness and positivity”. Notably, the relationship between the visibility of happiness and the performance of authenticity is rendered obscured within the BeReal interface and simultaneously distanced from the assumed negative performance of happiness on other platforms.
The adverb of time (now) in two of the examples above suggests smiling is a performative act that must be carried out, alluding to the labour of performing. Hochschild (2003) refers to smiling as part of the emotional labour performed by flight attendants to cultivate positive emotional responses. A similar dynamic is built into BeReal. Not only do smiling BeReals circulate within the networked environment, but the interface also pre-empts a positive reaction from others. One way the user can interact with a friend’s BeReal is through RealMojis. Users generate RealMojis of themselves reproducing the gesture of specific emojis 👍😄😮😍😂 (see Figures 3 and 4). This selection solidifies the ‘right feelings’ to express in response to a BeReal regardless of its content, going beyond the positivity of Facebook which also includes sad and angry reactions (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2018).
Another set of statements that appear after a BeReal is taken also affirm the value of the smiling selfies:
- Aye what a smiiile!
- Keep smiling and don’t change a thing
- Bonus point for the smile! (see Figure 5)
Within these statements, the user is complimented for their alignment of performance and encouraged to continue smiling. This further suggests the ongoing detection of facial expressions by the platform that smiling can be recognised. In addition, the friendly, casual tone of the statements coupled with the smile imperatives in the earlier examples positions the platform as a helpful interlocuter who assists and affirms the performance of authenticity. It contributes to the development of a particular voice to represent the platform as a character (Gillespie, 2018) echoed in their community guidelines and self-description in job adverts (“We love to have dinner every Wednesday for those in the office!”), which strategically positions BeReal as personable and relatable.
The final example awards a “bonus point” to the user for their smiling selfie. Although this is not quantification in the same way as the ‘like’ (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013), it situates the BeReal in a scheme of acquiring marks and credit, alluding to systems of measurement and metrics. I propose the gamification of happiness sets uncomfortably alongside the ambition espoused by the platform that they are not “tethered to metrics” and their users do not need to be concerned by numbers. It instead reinforces how performances of authenticity on BeReal exist within a framework in which certain performances are endorsed and encouraged.
In conclusion, I propose that BeReal steers users to make themselves visible through smiling selfies as part of their ongoing authentic sharing of daily life and responses to the performances of others. This directive of happiness, I argue, reveals how the construction of authenticity perpetuates postfeminist feeling rules and situates BeReal within sharing cultures of social media platforms, which carry particular implications for young women. Making happiness visible becomes an inescapable expectation that permeates even attempts to be ‘not another social network’.
- Author’s screenshot
- Author’s screenshot
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