How to Talk Without Connecting
Miranda July's latest app rarely functions properly, and when it does, it fails to perform its stated goal: bringing people closer together.
On a Saturday night about a month ago, I was sitting on my friend's couch, drinking red wine, and looking at my phone. I imagine this scenario is a familiar one to many of you. After we finished flipping through Instagram and complaining that no one had invited us to do anything cool, I asked my friend if she'd heard that Miranda July—the artist behind films like You and Me and Everyone We Know and The Future—had released a new app.
July thinks that in this modern age we are isolated from one another by our obsession with and addiction to various technologies. Her app, called Somebody, is meant to reverse that experience by allowing users to send messages to contacts via a human conduit. It's a little tricky to explain, and this video probably does the best job, but the basic idea goes like this: Instead of getting a text from somebody you know, you get that message delivered by a stranger who finds you using GPS and performs the message in the style of the sender.
With nothing else to do, my friend and I both downloaded Somebody. The interface was a little confusing, but after a few tries we managed to get it to import a contact list of friends who were already using the app, about seven or eight people. It had a lot of bugs—it crashed a lot, loaded slowly, and was generally funky to use—but we eventually sent a "hello" and a fist bump to a friend from college who's in grad school in Iowa. She was, as it turns out, at a party with other grad students who had also downloaded the app that day just to see what it was like. We were able to select one of them using geolocation and ask them to deliver our message, which they did.
Each new social network is chance to send out a signal and see what it collides with. Each time acknowledgment comes back—Yes, I'm here too!—there's a small thrill. But the bigger and weirder thrill that Somebody offers is the part where you pick up the signal and convey it, in person, to someone you don't know.
So, not ready to stop playing just yet, we started looking for a user within a mile radius of my friend's house that we could deliver a message to. After a few false starts—messages that disappeared, or people who never answered us—we landed on one. The message was to be sent to someone in a bar about a 10-minute walk down the street, a fancy bar with fancy cocktails, and, usually, a long line. We'd probably have to sneak in, we figured. Sneak into a bar on a Saturday night to tell a stranger named Chris, “You look nice in that Chambray shirt.”
Something about the idea made us giddy, a feeling similar to the high you'd get from, say, sneaking into a bar when you're underage. But the difference here, aside from the fact that we weren't breaking any laws, was that there was someone else playing the game with us, someone at the other end of that digital signal, someone also looking for entertainment on a Saturday night. It felt like playing Truth or Dare and picking dare.
We were lucky—when we got to the bar the hostess had briefly abandoned her post and we were able to walk right in. In the dark, we looked around for a Chris who, from the message, we assumed was wearing a Chambray shirt. We had been searching fruitlessly—it had probably only been five minutes, but the bar was small and dark and it felt like far longer—and were starting to panic when we were intercepted by a waitress.
"We're looking for a friend," we said, and tried not to seem like people who were actually trying to liaise with a stranger from the Internet. In fairness, any happening bar in this day and age has by now been the site of numerous web-based assignations. In fact, there was little difference between what we were doing—trying to spice up a dull night by meeting a stranger from an app—and going on a Tinder date, except Tinder's technology actually works.
Just as we were on the verge of giving up, I spotted Chris out of the corner of my eye. She was looking at a phone and enjoying a cocktail when we approached.
"Hi, Chris?" my friend said.
"You look great in that Chambray shirt," I finished.
"Do you know these people?" asked the waitress who had followed us to the table.
Chris and her tablemate said nothing at first. They seemed genuinely surprised to see us standing before them, even though, as it turned out, the tablemate was the one who sent the message. In fact, they knew we were on our way, because they had sent messages to help us find them. But when we materialized, standing in front of their table, giggling, they somehow seemed shocked. Eventually they said that they'd read about the launch of Somebody and thought it would be fun to try. We told the waitress we'd be leaving, took a photo for Instagram like the app asked us to, and left to meet friends at a bar next door.
Somebody had worked, technically. But had it actually worked? On the one hand, we delivered our message, and we got out of the house and into the world. On the other hand, the message didn't mean anything—it was just a proof of concept. We didn’t connect with our message receiver, or sender. We had left the house, said a few words in a dark bar, and annoyed a waitress. Our "unpredictable, undocumented, fleeting interaction with a stranger," which Somebody promised, was a funny diversion, but it hardly brought "great joy and inspiration" to our evening, which it also promised.
I had never expected Somebody to transcend all prior social experiences, nor did we think an app that was, inherently, anti-technology, was going to function perfectly. But for a moment we'd bought in to what July wanted us to believe—that spontaneous contact with other humans can be pleasurable and, more importantly, deeply meaningful. And when that turned out not to be the case, we were surprisingly disappointed.
About a month later, I read that Somebody was coming to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. When the app launched, the announcement mentioned that there would be exhibitions in which museums around the country were used as "hotspots" for patrons to meet in. The press described an exhibit called Conversation Piece, in which visitors would view interactive, multimedia works and chat with each other.
I went to the MFA expecting to see crowds of people, and to talk to some of them. I brought the same friend in hopes that we could both use the app and see how our experiences differed. Instead, I found a gallery that was more or less a hallway with people walking by, barely noticing they were passing through a curated exhibit.
There were art pieces on display here—a sculpture that looks like conversation bubbles, a curtain, a video that shows an artist's hands covering televisions with tape. But while Conversation Piece wants the audience to believe that art can connect us, and that by driving interaction, art objects can create a transcendent aesthetic and social experience for the viewer, that was not my experience.
The rest of the visit to the MFA, much like my entire experience with Somebody, was disappointing. The app was too broken to use, and even if it wasn't, it didn't seem like anybody much cared. In the entire hour I spent watching people stroll by the exhibit I didn't see a single person stop to download Somebody.
While I watched (sitting on a chair by Andrew Witkin that was, in fact, part of the exhibit) I asked myself why the app had failed so utterly. Why was it possible, for example, for us to use an app like Uber to hire a stranger to drive us to the museum, but not possible to use Somebody? Did there have to be an exchange of capital embedded in the process for the technology to function? Can a technology built for the sake of business be repurposed for art production and still work? And, for that matter, who built Somebody anyway? (As it turns out, a company called, of all things, Stinkdigital.)
In search of further information, I turned to Somebody's iOS App Store customer reviews, which are, on the whole, genuine, frustrated, hopeful, and plaintive. Currently, Somebody has a two-star rating, but it’s also full of reviewers who seem to really want to use the app.
"Somebody is an application that still does not work, so I don't know if this is a proper review," writes user mynameisalsostephenUSAftw. "Importing contacts still doesn't work for me, for seemingly no reason, but I am still mildly optimistic that maybe sometime in the near future this application will work for me, and that I'll be entertained by a stranger showing up at my house, or maybe in a dark alley, to whisper something creepy in my ear and/or do a song and/or dance at a time I least expect it."
Disappointment is a constant theme. "Make it work!" writes user Olga Brilliant. "It's a fantastic idea, but I couldn't set up an account." Nearly everyone who took the time to file a complaint said they did so because of how excited they were by its potential. "I loved this idea," writes user Nan_sea. "But I wish it would work."
"I love this idea," echoes Mmfia. "I wish it worked. Just an imploring outreach to Miranda to fix this app. I have had so many friends download it so that we could create a network of people to try this out within, and there are so many bug issues here that I'm not sure I can keep these people invested long enough to actually see it work. Big supporter of Miranda's art, I hope we get the chance to try this, if that is what's intended."
For these users, there exists a craving for connection that, so far, hasn't been satisfied by Tinder or Uber or Snapchat. A product that aspires to fill that desperate, human gap is tantalizing. But to dangle the possibility that technology could fill the gap it has created and then literally, technically fail to deliver on that promise, leaving those very users frustrated and alone, is deeply ironic.
Somebody is a critique of existing social media, of communication technology, of how we talk to each other. And it’s a critique that many seem ready to agree with. But it’s in building a bridge between critique and solution where Somebody fails, because it simply doesn’t, technically, work.
In their review, Somebody user Mmfia wonders aloud whether perhaps July intended for the app to be broken, and I have to admit, the same question occurred to me. But in an interview with Kate Conger at SF Weekly, July said she absolutely intends for it to work. “Because it’s an art project too, I think people might expect it to be flaky and conceptual, and I just want to put the word out there that it’s not going to be,” she told Conger. But even if July did intend to both delight and confuse her user, the actual experience of using Somebody, which promises spontaneous, joyful connection, only exacerbates the original loneliness by asking us to try and connect with somebody who isn't there.