Miranda July has a complicated relationship with private messages. She wants them to somehow also be made public. In the summer of 2013, her art piece We Think Alone gathered the private emails of 20 collaborators, both famous and otherwise, and sent them out for the world to see. If the medium is the message, however, her latest communication project transcends the digital world and gets physical.
Rather than just a film or a performance art experiment, July’s latest work incorporates elements of both into a messaging app. The mobile-friendly "Somebody" allows users to message friends by activating a stranger to serve as avatar. After composing a message, with the bonus option of adding specific emotional and physical directions, users choose a Somebody user in the area to deliver the message like a monologue in an audition. It's a bizarre new way to be heard, which invites one to wonder whether it's more personal for a stranger to deliver a friend's message in the flesh than it is for a friend to deliver it remotely.
"I don’t actually think Somebody is a good replacement for texting, email, or phone calls," July says. "But it’s worth thinking about what exactly are the feelings our phones bring us. I mean, I know I can’t be apart from mine, but does it actually bring me joy? What brings me joy is surprising, fleeting interactions with strangers—like helping a woman who has dropped her pears—that takes me outside myself and gives me a brief high: Humanity!"
The project began months ago, when the artist met programmer Andrew Badr, who offered to develop a digital project for her. Although July came up with several contenders, this app was the one she was most excited about. Unfortunately, Badr was unable to undertake a project of this breadth without a team. It was a speed bump to an idea the artist was increasingly excited about, and it lasted about three weeks. That’s when high-end fashion brand Miu Miu invited July to make a short film on the topic of her choosing. The director pitched the idea of making a movie about this hypothetical app—the film just screened at the Venice Film Festival—with the caveat that Miu Miu support her in making the app no longer hypothetical.
In order to create the app, July teamed with interactive production agency Stinkdigital. The company had to figure out how to make the app compatible with finding a critical mass of users—so people can truly interact with strangers on, say, a college campus, rather than sending messages among friends at a party. The solution was designating Official Hotspots like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The New Museum, and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, where users would know to go, and offering the option for anybody to make their own hotspot. It was not easy to put together.
"Between the notifications system and the messaging services, what we've built is closer to an actual social network in terms of infrastructure," says Mark Pytlik of Stinkdigital. "Because each transaction requires three people, there's a whole series of different user flows and potential journeys that we had to try to anticipate. Now that the app's out, we're finding that people are using it in all sorts of different and crazy ways, so we've been having fun iterating and updating future versions to take those behaviors into account."
The idea of future versions seems highly plausible. In the first day alone, Somebody had upwards of 100,000 downloads and over 20,000 signups. In addition to the jokey idea of surprising a friend with an impromptu singing telegram, the app taps into the human urge to perform—which is what might lead one to sign up as a message-deliverer. No stranger to performance herself, July not only created the app, she also uses it.
"When I deliver the message," the artist says," I try to do it with such naturalistic gravitas that it maybe gets uncomfortable."
Leave it to July to put the awkwardness of a tough phone call back into the playful communication method she dreamed up as an alternative.