It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m sitting at LACMA’s café, clutching my phone, waiting to be Somebody—well, the somebody Miranda July tells me I can be. That morning, the Los Angeles-based conceptual artist, best known for her films Me, You and Everyone We Know and The Future, launched her new messaging app “Somebody”— a strikingly intimate interpretation of the ubiquitous sharing economy model. Only with July’s app, instead of sharing money or services, you’re sharing interactions and feelings.
Here's how it works: you write a text message to a friend, and then choose a stranger in the vicinity of that friend to verbally deliver the message, along with optional hugs, crying, fist bumps, or orgasms—as demonstrated in July's companion video, a teaser for her newest film, sponsored by the clothing line Miu Miu, which premiered in the Venice (Italy) Film Festival last week. More public art than communication innovation, the idea is to subvert the speed of technology and step into someone else’s shoes for one fleeting moment.
Much of July’s writing and art is about relationships and, particularly, the sticky experience of adolescence—crushes and love triangles and experiments with intimacy. Last year, she attracted more than 100,000 people to subscribe to her weekly email, We Think Alone, a roundup of thematically grouped personal emails a group of celebrities had allowed her to share with the public. Getting a personal email in your inbox intended for Lena Dunham’s boyfriend or Kirsten Dunst’s mom captured that unique blend of voyeurism and inclusion that Somebody is also after. (July refers to the app’s purpose as “Truth or Dare + Charades” in its FAQ page.)
See also: L.A. Weekly's 2011 Miranda July profile
But, as with most other crowdsourcing apps, it only works with a critical mass of users. You need various options for “somebody” to deliver your message. So July has created hotspots where people are more likely to find other somebodies. LACMA is one. Other cities have hot spots at a major museum, including New York, San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Minneapolis and Mexico City. July also encourages users to create their own hotspots at universities, coffee shops, and workplaces.
I biked over to LACMA to see if I could be the somebody who delivers a message to a waiting somebody, or even be the somebody an in-person message alights upon.
Though all the characters in July's companion film find each other instantly and convey deeply important messages of love, heartbreak, and lust… in the real world, the app is incredibly cumbersome and inefficient, its messages more novelty than life changing. Still, Somebody’s quirks and inefficiencies only add to its central purpose—encouraging users to experience something surprising, unexpected, and rife with overblown, awkward emotions. In my five-hour experiment with Somebody on its launch day, in fact, I cycled through all the crucial feelings of being a tween again.
1. First Day of School
The app has a simple interface that feels like a kid’s drawing—all bright colors and bubble letters. The home screen has basically two options—write a message or find a message to deliver. If no one’s picked you to be Somebody, you can click a cloud called “Floating” and scroll through the lost souls of messages that haven’t been delivered.
I made it to LACMA at 1 p.m., and started clicking through nearby floating messages. Most seemed experimental and performative. One prompted, “[SING] Did you ever know that you’re my hero.” The person waiting for it was 0.0 miles away. It was written an hour ago. Too humiliating, I decided. Pass.
Another one simply said, “[HUG].” Too risky. Next. Some were meta (“It’s like texting, but less timely! [FIST BUMP]”), others enticingly awkward: “You’re my favorite creepypasta [LONGINGLY].” But that one was almost three miles away. Not worth the trip.
As I picked through my options, I shot sideways glances at the tourists weaving through the iconic grid of lamp poles and office workers lining up at the cluster of food trucks across Wilshire. Who would I connect with? Which person would I choose, and who would choose me? My heart pumped with excitement. Anything was possible.
2. Passing notes
While I waited for just the right message to float my way, I decided to send one of my own. After crashing a few times, the app finally generated my contacts list—fellow Somebody users already in my phone book. I had one lone contact. She was a fellow writer I’d crossed paths with a few times in Oakland, someone I didn’t really know.
I racked my brain for something to say to her, even scrolled through her Facebook page to try to get some ideas. If I was going to have a whole other person find her and give her this message, it had better be pretty important. I emailed my friend in Brooklyn and asked her to join. She did, but every time I reloaded, the app only found that one Bay Area writer. Finally, I sent her this: “[WHISPER] You’re the only person I know here. [SQUEEZE SHOULDER] That’s pretty special. [NERVOUSLY] I think you’re neat.” Honest and twee and emo, with enough stage directions to make it fun.
I imagined folding it into an airplane or fortune teller and passing it across math class. But my message didn’t make it very far. An alert popped up letting me know they were checking to see if my friend was available and would check back with me later. (Somebody users can choose whether they’d like to receive messages, just as they can choose whether they’d like to be available to deliver them.) I couldn’t help but feel a little rejected.
I decided to cruise deeper into the museum’s grounds, hoping to cull more messages waiting for delivery. At that point, I started to really take stock of the crowd. There were 100,000 people out there besides me who’d subscribed to We Think Alone and therefore gotten the email about Somebody at 9:45 that morning. Who were they? Who were my fellow Miranda July followers? I looked for messy bangs, extreme glasses, and banded hats. Just as I was scoping out the crowd, I felt myself being watched. One girl veered way too close to me, casting a glance at my phone. It occurred to me that somebody might be trying to deliver a message to me, and I felt raw and exposed.
4. School Dances
Finally, I found a floating message I felt up for delivering. “I think your bun is sassy and classy. Let’s be friends [Gently].” I clicked the message’s cloud and came to a map that indicated where I was (a mouth) and where the recipient was (an ear), 0.0 miles away.
Suddenly, my stomach lurched and I twisted around, looking west, then east. Who was it? The security guard standing in the shade of the building? One of the teens feverishly tapping their phones on the bench? That mom wrangling four kids? I wondered if I was really up for this. I paced the pavement with my bike, remembering the feeling of being in the gym at 8 p.m. on a Friday, disco ball spinning, UB40 crooning as kids teetered around be in sweaty embraces. Should I wait out the slow song on the bleachers, or ask that boy from French class to dance? I let long moments pass, my breath shallow, my iPhone hot in my hand. I might not have another chance, I reasoned. And then I just did it. I hit “I’ll deliver this” and watched a lopsided blue orb tell me my decision was loading. My breath quickened with excitement. Something was happening.
5. Waiting by the phone
It didn’t take more than a few seconds for the Somebody app to tell me this person was, also, not available for message delivery. Rejection number two. My standards suddenly lowered, I decided to deliver a fist bump. Also not available. With each try, I got more gutsy, taking on I Love Yous and song and dance numbers. Anything, anything! I was desperate to participate, but no one was available.
By 1:30, I decided to go to the gym across the street. Afterwards, I checked back on the app but still had no activity listed – I was nobody’s Somebody. My phone died, I went home to shower and eat, then headed back to LACMA at 3:30. As I worked on my computer, my phone charging and ready at my side, I got a couple of push notifications that Cindy/Anna/whoever else I’d offered to deliver a message to still wasn’t available. (All names changed here.) I nearly leapt out of my chair every time I heard a desultory woman’s voice say “Ding!”, the app’s notification sound, but, every time, it was a lot more Nobody.
6. First Dates
At 5 p.m., I was ready to throw in the towel. The app had too many bugs and not enough users. I offered to deliver the classy/sassy message a couple more times, but it had been hours since it was sent. Chances were the girl with the bun wasn’t even there anymore.
Then, just as I was packing up my things, I heard one last “Ding!” I swiped in, and my heart raced when I saw the alert. Someone wanted me to deliver a message; was I available to do so right now? Yes, I was! A screen with my mission popped up. Sandra was available to receive my message. She was waiting for me. She was in the LACMA complex. I studied the picture of the girl—long hair, a strong jaw set in a sort of scowl, wayfarer glasses.
As I cruised the patio, I started to feel creepy—stealing glances at every 20 to 40-something woman who passed by. I was circling like a shark. Whenever someone met my gaze, I looked away in a panic. Finally, I thought I’d found her. No glasses, but the right bone structure, right hair. She was taking pictures with her friends in the yellow spaghetti sculpture. I hovered, checked the app one more time and hit “I see Sandra!” The intended message popped up. I took a deep breath and approached. “Um, are you Sandra?” I croaked. The girl’s eyes sliced into me. She twisted her face into a scowl and said, “No.” Oh crap. This was going to be harder than I thought. I hit “I can’t find her” half a dozen times, hoping to get a more exact GPS location, but the museum was too big, and there were to many girls with long hair and strong jawlines there. Finding the intended recipient of my message would be like finding love on Tinder.
7. Scavenger Hunt
After 20 minutes of lurking and a couple more rejections, I decided that I’d come too far to give up. Sandra needed this message, and it was up to me to ferret her out. The museum was closing soon and time was running out. I circled back through the lampposts, cruised past the restaurant and bar and made my way past several fountains. Then, I realized she must work here. The message was sent to her hours ago, but the GPS ear said she was still here at LACMA. I asked girl at the ticket booth if she was Sandra. She said no, but offered to help me find her. I didn’t know if showing her the app would ruin the illusion, but decided I had no choice. “Oh, is this that Somebody app?” she asked. I was getting closer. She didn’t know my Somebody, but suggested I try the bookstore.
I waited for what felt like forever for a couple of tourists to pay, eyeing their jawlines, and then approached the counter. “Oh! I recognize her,” the cashier (who wasn’t Sandra) told me. “I think she works in the theater.” And I was off.
Cool air washed over me as I entered the darkened theater. It was empty and silent. I headed for the stairs. As I neared the top, I saw a rectangle of light coming from a doorway. There, a young woman sat at a desk stacked with papers. She cocked her head and looked at me skeptically.
“Hi, I’m looking for Sandra…” I called out.
The woman’s eyes widened and her face started to flush. She threw her arms onto the desk, cast her head forward, and began to laugh.
“I can’t believe this!” she exclaimed over and over, running her hands over her messy bun and reaching for her glasses.
It was her. I’d found her.
I pulled out my phone, loaded the message and said, gently, taking care with each word, “Sandy, it’s me, Kate. You bun is sassy and classy. Let’s be friends.”
She grinned and nodded and laughed and thanked me. I grinned and nodded and laughed back. And then… we didn’t really know what else to do. We mumbled a few words of small talk, and then I started back down the dark stairway, telling the app the
message was successfully delivered.
I was someone’s somebody! The mouth on the app told me, and asked me to share the news. I was too flustered to notice the P.S.: “M.J. asks you to take a selfie with your somebody and send it to her,” which seemed like a stark contrast to the “unpredictable, undocumented, fleeting interactions with strangers” the app’s FAQ page promised.
I took one last look back and saw Sandra on her phone, probably texting Kate. The moment of frenzied connection shifted back to voyeurism. My moment of being Kate, being Somebody, had passed. I tweeted my results and closed the app, not knowing if I’d be up for going down that path again.