I was listening to the podcast Reply All & heard a story based around the Somebody App that writer-artist-filmmaker Miranda July released last summer. The Somebody app allows you to send a text message to someone in your life, but rather than being delivered through the phone, a real person nearby your recipient will find her and deliver the message to her — even using stage directions that you specify.
The app is not necessarily a Ritual Design, but it offers a point of inspiration for our work. July has taken an amazing process that has become routine in our lives — using this little electronic machines to send messages to someone in our lives, that they will receive almost instantaneously — and then twisting one detail of it to make it bizarre, memorable, meaningful, an event.
We can take this same kind of design approach to twist other stale routines in our lives into something more surprising & resonant. Whether it’s through tech or not, we can twist one element of a routine to something else, and end up with something strange and new. It’s a design method for ritual design.
July created a small video of the app in action, to illustrate one use case of Somebody:
Here’s an article from Wired that profiles the app & July’s process:
Miranda July Creates an App That Doubles as a Social Experiment.
Miranda July made an app. This is of note because July—a writer, director and actress—is not exactly an app person. For proof, ask July how she feels about technology, and she’ll explain: “I keep picturing some woman dropping her pears on the street and I help her pick them up and then we go our separate ways,” she says. “And for some reason I have this high feeling like I’m part of humanity, and that’s as good as it gets. My phone isn’t really about that.”
If you’ve watched any of July’s films or read any of her books, this twisty answer makes sense. For July, an app (in this case, her app Somebody) is less about the phone itself and more about using technology to facilitate real-life interaction. Explained briefly, Somebody is a messaging platform that allows one person to deliver a message to another. The catch is instead of sending a direct friend-to-friend text, your message will be delivered verbally, IRL via someone other than yourself. Think of it like a 21st century version of a singing telegram, without all the singing.
The way it works is this: You’ll log onto Somebody and pick a friend to send a message to. But instead of sending that message directly to him or her, you’ll choose an app user who is near the recipient who can deliver the message. Inside the app you determine what you’d like to say, and the human proxy will repeat your message to your friend, as though they’re reading off cue cards. All messages begin by your proxy introducing himself/herself as you. So if I were to send a message to my brother, for example, my messenger would find my brother and say: “Sam? It’s me Liz.” Then she’d go on to repeat whatever message I intended to deliver, guided by a curated set of actions she must perform (they include, but are not limited to: hug, kiss, fist bump and buy a cup of coffee). The goal, of course, is to add a dash of humanity back into the way we interact with our phones and each other. “I can’t be apart from my phone, but that doesn’t mean it’s bringing me the kind of joy I care about most,” July explains. “I guess my thought was, could I maybe push back a little and see if I can have what I personally value from my phone?”
July’s path to the app was fairly straightforward. “This is really embarrassing,” she says. “But I was literally sitting around with friends one night trying to think of apps.” July considered making a collaborative movie-making app, or maybe one that was an extension of her previous project like Learning to Love You More. Then someone mentioned singing telegrams. July wondered if there was a way to leverage technology to connect two people who might not otherwise meet, in the way a singing messenger often has to deliver personal information to a complete stranger. “It was originally called Proxy,” says July. “I think maybe every app is called Proxy at first.”
A Novel Business Model
Miu Miu, the fashion brand, funded its development, as well as the short film that acts as a sort of ad for the app. In the pic, you watch as a waiter proposes to July on behalf of July’s boyfriend, a burly man breaks up with a sweet-faced kid while the original sender sits crying on her bed, an elderly woman patches up a rough relationship between two feuding friends. If you’re a fan of Miranda’s quirky sensibility, it’s all very charming, and touches on the powerful connection two strangers can forge given the right circumstances.
In real life, the app runs a little less smoothly. The value of the app depends entirely on how many people are on it. When a friend and I tried it out over the weekend, we ran into some logistical problems. Attempting to deliver a hug and a kind message to someone’s brother, we wandered around my neighborhood looking for an elusive Christopher. He was only .1 miles away, but there was no way of telling exactly where he was, so we popped into various bars and restaurants to match his photo to a person. We never ended up finding Christopher, and so his message remained in limbo, forever floating until someone else decides to deliver the message.
It’s a little frustrating, but it’s also a pretty accurate representation of most human interactions. Meeting somebody on Somebody takes a little serendipity, a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. For what it’s worth, July doesn’t see Somebody as a mode of communication akin to texting or email, anyway. It’s a massive public art project, an experiment to see how willing people are to don another human’s personality and connect with a stranger. “It’s not about the communication, because it’s a pretty clunky way to communicate,” she admits. “It’s more about an experience.”
You can download Somebody (iPhone) for free.