The Brilliant Failure of Miranda July's Social Media App, 'Somebody'

On its web site, the social media app, Somebody, is described as the "antithesis of the utilitarian efficiency that tech promises".

If you haven't heard, last summer, the performance artist Miranda July published a mobile app called Somebody. Somebody is a messaging app with a twist. As the app's website describes it:

When you send your friend a message through Somebody, it goes -- not to your friend -- but to the Somebody user nearest your friend. This person (likely a stranger) delivers the message verbally, acting as your stand-in.

In the aughts, the English zoologist Desmond Morris hosted a popular show on BBC called The Human Animal. The show explored the often comical ways that people behave in accordance with their animal natures. In one episode, Morris ran an informal experiment to probe the different tacts that residents of cities and towns took to strangers in need of assistance. He had an actor -- looking respectably middle-class -- lie down in the middle of a busy street, pretending to be unconscious. As you can probably guess, in the urban jungle, people generally ignored him. In the idyll of the village, it only took a few minutes for some concerned citizen, whether a pedestrian or local shop owner, to check to see if our passed-out mensch was alright.

This little demonstration captured elegantly a key contrast between a cosmopolitan and provincial mindset. But Morris wasn't judgmental about it. He didn't deride urbanites for their cruel indifference to humanity, nor chastise the bumpkins for their naiveté. Like a good zoologist, Morris hypothesized a rationale for both responses. For villagers, generally speaking, the tribe is small. Everyone knows each other. Everyone looks out for each other. And it's fairly easy to accommodate newcomers to the tribe.

In cities, Morris suggested, everybody also lives within a tribe. The tribe is still small, but it is distributed. It has become a social network. Within the social network, for the most part, everyone knows and looks after each other. And under the right circumstances, it's still fairly easy to accommodate newcomers. But for urbanites, the remainder of the local fauna is, at best, fleetingly acknowledged, and at worst, ignored as part of the background noise of daily existence among a teeming multitude. For Morris, this makes perfect sense cognitively. We city-dwellers just wouldn't be able to function if we had to recognize the humanity of every person who crossed our paths.

Somebody pokes -- with a wink -- at the liminal zone between the urban social network as modern-day tribe and the surrounding froth of stranger danger. On its site, July goes on to describe Somebody as the "antithesis of the utilitarian efficiency that tech promises". On the contrary, it offers to its users an experience "that makes us nervous, giddy, and alert to the people around us".

By any standard metric of app adoption, Somebody has been a smashing success. In a recent note on the site, July claims that "an average of ten thousand people used the app every day". Yet she goes on to boast that "despite the ridiculous challenges, one in four messages were delivered". Framing a message delivery success rate as "one in four" certainly puts on it the most positive spin possible. But as many of the reviews of the app have testified, message delivery has indeed been a "ridiculous challenge".

When the app launched, the initial bottleneck appeared to be technical glitches. July entrusted the coding of the app to an agency called Stinkdigital. A team at Stinkdigital, which included designer Thea Lorentzen, built iOS and Android versions as well as the backend, a GPS-enabled database that housed user profiles and messages.

I have to say that the UI/UX design is fantastic. I love the consistently rendered Pop Art look and feel of the app -- the garish colors, the cloying font, the bubbly, asymmetrical shapes of the buttons. Even the lips that make up the app's logo (cartoonish lips, caught in mid-sentence, slathered in lipstick) sport crooked lower incisors.

But like any social media app, its complexity must have outpaced its budget, however lavish the subsidy bequeathed by Somebody's promotional benefactor, Miuccia Prada. (Stinkdigital could have shaved costs considerably if they had built Somebody in LiveCode.) So bugs may have put off early adopters keen to try Somebody based solely on the goodwill that Miranda July has amassed among her fans. July and Somebody's sponsor, Miu Miu, may have also squandered some of that goodwill with the app's mercenary privacy policy.

July does concede that Somebody "works best with a critical mass of users in a given area". To foster use, she set up "hotspots" at museums -- the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The New Museum, Yerba Buena Center for The Arts, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts. I can see how that would lubricate message delivery. In-crowds would be a lot more willing to play along, reassured that other participants had been pre-screened as provisional members of their urban tribe.

The imprecision of the GPS system itself also presented a formidable obstacle to the app's successful functioning. Often enough, even determined messengers were unable to locate recipients in public spaces, especially those with crowds. Still, the app's poor delivery track record surely can't be blamed solely on technical limitations.

There must be a "PEBKAC"-type explanation, or as the old help desk expression goes, the problem exists between keyboard and computer. My first hunch was that there'd be a shortage of users willing to entrust their messages to a stranger. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Plenty of folks are more than happy to have someone else do the legwork of delivering a message to an acquaintance, friend, or loved one.

Within three miles of my house "float" 36 undelivered messages. They're sorted by proximity. A mere 0.3 miles away, Carmen writes to David, "Can't wait for you to fly with Birdie and I [sic] Wednesday!" That message dropped "5 months ago". 2.9 miles away a message from Tessie to Olivia floats patiently, "HEY BETCH [Scream]". It's been waiting for somebody to deliver it since "last month". The freshest message is five days old. It's from Carol to Nick. Carol writes, "He [sic] Nick, wassup? Been a long time [Whisper]".

In a recent post, I likened the art app Cornbread to Pynchon's underground mail system from the novel The Crying of Lot 49, Trystero. Perusing these undelivered Somebody mini-missives feels like a particularly sad version of Trystero, a Trystero where the trysts go unconsummated, a Trystero where Hermes is snoozing on the job.

When I was a kid in 1982, something happened in America that radically altered public perception of strangers. The incident has since come to be known as the "Chicago Tylenol murders". A sociopath laced Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules with cyanide. Several people died. Tylenol's maker, Johnson & Johnson, conducted a national recall. The incident prompted pharmaceutical companies to develop tamper-resistant packaging. While there were several suspects, no one was ever convicted of the crime. The Chicago Tylenol murders were a national scandal that concretized the simmering collective alienation that had inspired a growing litany of urban myths. Who, for example, hasn't heard the one that trick-or-treaters should avoid unpackaged treats on Halloween, since we all know somebody who knows somebody whose kid found a razor blade in a juicy McIntosh?

There's a paradox at the heart of our post-postmodern age at which Somebody takes direct aim. As our cities have grow denser, more polyglot, more wired, a tech-enabled potential to "only connect" begins to feel unlimited. Yet contradictorily, even as crime rates drop, distrust of the "other" grows. Online trolls, enabled by anonymity, multiply. Politics polarize. Meanwhile, purveyors of middle-brow propriety fret that "our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection". Somebody aims admirably to reverse this trend in its own tongue-in-cheek way.

As a literature nut, it's tempting to see this tension as one between two ancient sensibilities, which manifest through genre. One is epic, the other comic. The epic frames the world as a dangerous place, a place of scarcity and competition. In an epic worldview, we either embrace the rat-race, or turning away, attempt to affix a tamper-resistant safety seal on the world itself.

By contrast, the comic sees the world as a place of abundance, a place where people in spite of our idiosyncrasies and irrationalities may know and love each other. Much like Morris's show about the human animal, Somebody sides firmly with the comic.

But, alas, July has announced that on Halloween Somebody is shutting down. For now, at least, the world stubbornly remains too dangerous a place for somebodies like us.

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