There’s nothing like the invention of a new form of social media to send me into an existential crisis.
This is especially true when the app promises to represent the “real me”, someone I am quite sure I have never encountered nor plan on meeting. In response to the app’s claims, I find myself quoting Peter Sellers in conversation with Kermit the frog, saying “There is no me. I do not exist… There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”
It has been half a year since the iPhone app Beme (pronounced “beam”) launched and five months since I acquired access. But, as the app so fondly reminds me, only “17 people have spent 9 minutes and 4 seconds as you” and I cannot help but feel disappointed.
In the end, my garbled, context-less “bemes” are pretty unwatchable. So can I really blame anyone if they do not want to be (or watch) me?
Beme works using the iPhone’s proximity sensor in place of pressing “Record.” All you have to do is launch the app, cover the sensor, and the filming begins. After four seconds pass, your video goes live and is available to all Beme users, but is only guaranteed to hit your followers’ feeds. If you want to film a longer sequence, you have to build it four seconds at a time.
In the promo video introducing the app, co-founder Casey Neistat describes how the use of the proximity sensor and the blacked out screen encourage users to look at what they’re filming rather than through their phone. This is one step in what Neistat claims to be a more “authentic” version of social media interaction.
Numerous articles have already debunked Beme’s claim to authenticity. Kyle Vanhemert writes on Wired about just how boring “authenticity” actually is: “If we were all Casey Neistat, Beme would be a slam dunk.” But in reality, most Beme users are the boring everyday masses, taking pictures of our food and (if you are me) filming the inside of our bags by accident.
In Counter Punch, Hadley Suter points out how French theorists such as Jacques Derrida debunked the idea of a true and authentic self decades ago. Judith Butler furthered these concepts with her theory of “performativity,” recognizing performing selfhood as a necessary part of communication.
Yet this recognition of “performativity” has not prevented an increased cultural longing for an “authentic” self. We are stuck in a paradox where being “authentic” means resisting the capitalistic branding of self, but only in ways that have been appealingly packaged and defined as resistant and “raw” by other capitalistic brands.
The desirable “authentic” is a lot less about everydayness than it is about the aesthetic of the “raw,” of being carefully crafted, edited, and filtered to feel unedited and “real.” The pursuit of #authenticity becomes the act of performing what we think an authentic self might be.
Beme draws our attention to the cultural desire for something we already know does not exist: authenticity in an increasingly digital world. Like Beme, this trend to #liveauthentic, misses out on the power of “inauthenticity” (perhaps better characterized as constructedness) for self-expression. Authenticity on Beme is sitting down to a performance of Waiting for Godot and trying to imagine the characters as real people, of trying to forget your place in the audience. (Or better yet, watching Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart post selfies as Gogo and Didi on Twitter under the hashtag #gogodididonyc.)
In his promo video, Neistat describes the process of other social media interactions (that encourage editing and filtering) as “sharing a version” of the self. However, even Neistat himself refers to bemes as “beautifully edited aspects” of one’s life, thereby acknowledging the necessity and unavoidability of filters. Neistat and Beme’s version of “authenticity” is uneditable and momentary, a four second fragment of everyday life. However, it is Neistat’s meticulously edited YouTube videos that fans refer to as “raw,” while most bemes are critiqued for being low-res, sloppy, and dull.
His intent for Beme is to “bridge [the] uncanny valley” between the digital and the “real” self. However, it seems impossible to define the offline self as somehow more “real” when apps and interfaces have become such a prominent part of everyday life for most cellphone owners. The “real” experience for most, if not all, of Beme’s users will be one that is constantly between an on- and offline existence.
In an interview with the Tech Insider, Neistat describes Beme as a space of inclusivity: “If you can look around and see how everyone else lives, you can see that everyone else lives the same, regardless of social status, gender identity, sexual preference. By understanding how whole world [sic] lives—understand that we’re all the same—empathy will grow from that.”
This idea that we can transcend our inequalities by watching strangers in four-second clips is just as appealing as it is naïve. For example, while Marlan Franklyn (Neistat’s UPS delivery man turned internet celebrity) credits his success to his Beme account, Marlan’s popularity, crowd-funded iPhone, and access to Beme only became possible because he first appeared in Neistat’s vlogs.
I will be the first to admit that the reason I do not have more followers is largely my own fault. Or at least, that is how Beme makes me feel. In order to be popular on Beme, I need to be a very specific kind of “authentic,” one that requires a lot of work to perfect. If I put more effort into my videos or thought about interesting events in my life in terms of whether they were Beme-able (the way I already do with Instagram or Twitter) then maybe more people would be interested in watching my life. But I am not going to do this, because it is easier to filter, edit, and construct myself to be interesting on platforms other than Beme. The “truth” is, Beme is no more accessible or authentic than any other social media platform, perhaps even less so because it feigns to be otherwise.
In his perfectly edited promo video, after taking a bite out of a shiny, red apple, Neistat claims that Beme removes “the self-awareness or self-consciousness from sharing on social media.” The question is: what is more “authentic”? To pretend that one’s experience on Beme is more “real” because it is filtered and mediated differently than other media, or to start understanding filters and mediation as a necessary way of communicating?