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Friday, September 5, 2014

Somebody: Testing the New App From Miranda July

Posted By on Fri, Sep 5, 2014 at 8:49 AM

click to enlarge meet-somebody-miu-mius-new-mobile-app_2.jpg
In our age of instantaneous digital communication, artist Miranda July seeks to reintroduce spontaneity into our daily interactions. In the dreaded parlance of the tech boom, she’s disrupting them. “I get a real high from accidental interactions with strangers,” she says. “It’s weird, it does somehow make me feel better.”

The writer (It Chooses You) and actor/director (Me and You and Everyone We Know) is back with a new genre-bending work that blends audience participation, performance art, and tech into an app called Somebody. Funded by Miuccia Prada’s bold, youthful fashion line, Miu Miu, as part of its “Women’s Stories” series and built by Stinkdigital, Somebody debuted on Aug. 28 with an accompanying short film that explains its use: to send messages to your friends via strangers in a tech-savvy game of telephone.

“When you send your friend a message through Somebody, it goes — not to your friend — but to the Somebody user nearest your friend,” the app’s description explains. This stranger is then responsible for tracking down your friend and reading your message aloud. You can include performance cues for the stranger, like [SCREAM] or [FIST BUMP] or, if you think your friend is up for it, [KISS].

It’s an endearing premise — shake up your routine, meet new people, resolve conflicts creatively, pull your head out of your phone for once — presented in a cute pink-and-green package, where messages float in puffy white clouds and a manicured finger juts across the screen to point out to users when they’ve received a new notification. “It can feel fleeting and undocumented and ephemeral. The app hopes to jiggle the part of the brain that cares about that stuff,” July explains.

Designer Thea Lorentzen, who collaborated with July to create the app, added that she shied away from the traditional, medium blues of Facebook, Twitter, and Skype to give Somebody a more human feeling. “It's purpose is the opposite of digital efficiency, in a sense,” she says. “In terms of color, we were trying to have them richer and thicker, like something you would see in someone's sweater rather than a screen.”

July was inspired to build Somebody in March, when she and some friends jokingly traded app ideas.

“Someone said something about singing valentines in high school and that really clicked,” July recalls. “My heart literally began to pound.”

But does it really work?

I get my first Somebody alert while sitting at my desk at work. “Are you available?” it asks.

Am I? I’m not sure. Is there anywhere near the office I could stand and be conspicuous enough for a stranger to find me? How long would I have to wait? I decline the message. The next alert comes while I’m rushing to help my partner pack for an international flight that leaves in two hours. Am I available? Definitely not.

It is quickly apparent that, if I want Somebody in my life, I have to make time for it. I ask my friend Amy, who’s been posting selfies with her Somebodies since the app’s release, to share her tips for Somebody success.

“You have to be really dedicated,” Amy explains. And even when you commit yourself to trekking around the city knocking on doors — our first successful message delivery is a belated birthday wish to a woman at her home in the Mission — Somebody provides only “a brief detour from conventional messaging,” Amy says. Whenever she receives a message from Somebody, Amy quickly reverts to texting in order to thank her friends.

With Yo (the app that, at its debut, only delivered its eponymous message to users’ contacts) funded to the tune of $1 million and Facebook trying to strongarm its users into its separate Messenger app, July has again demonstrated her knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. Messaging is having its moment — and Somebody taps into that.

But Somebody is reprehensibly glitchy, freezing and generating frequent error messages. And even when it works, users are still reliant on others to be willing to do the legwork of delivering the message, which ultimately proves more frustrating than the glitches. In my test with Amy, we hailed messenger after messenger, only to have our delivery turned down by every last one. Even after traveling to San Francisco’s Somebody hotspot — Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — we were unable to secure a delivery.

July is aware the app has its troubles; she says one of its earliest users, Kirsten Dunst, still emails every time she receives an error message.

“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,” July says. “From the start, it has felt important to invite people in; to not just say, ‘Here’s a great thing I made, admire it,’ but to build space for the viewer and invite in their own world.”

That, ultimately, is Somebody's success: building space for art-goers. With a public art project riding around in one's pocket, any moment can be an opportunity to engage the nearby people in a moment of awkward, exciting, and even strangely compelling theater. Somebody isn't an app that delivers; it's an app that forces you to give — your time, your performance, your iPhone's battery life, and maybe even a [KISS].

Miranda July discusses her new novel, "The First Bad Man," at City Arts & Lectures on Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Nourse (275 Hayes). Tickets are $27; call 392-4400 or visit cityarts.net
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About The Author

Kate Conger

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Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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