Talking to strangers is easy if you have a purpose. That’s how salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses do it – how they march up to another person and brazenly annex their time. The social contract traditionally divides us from our fellow man, and so we go about our business keeping mainly to ourselves. But Miranda July’s Somebody app is designed to confer upon you a purpose: it makes talking to strangers your mission.
Somebody is a messaging service for which ordinary people are enlisted as the messengers – a sort of Uber for telegrams. You boot up the app, compose a brief note, and select a recipient, and then a nearby stranger will be recruited to deliver it. You can specify that the message be whispered, or shouted, or punctuated with a selfie or affectionate hug. Then it’s simply left to this makeshift courier to carry out his duty as planned. The walls that divide us are torn asunder. A stranger gets to be somebody.
Or at least that’s the idea. In practice those walls prove rather durable. Over the last week I’ve made about 85 attempts to convey a message to a friend across town, and every time my efforts failed – the messages invariably rejected by their would-be couriers, as the app flatly declares: “For reasons we may never know.” My little dispatch was hardly important: it was the “only hope” speech Princess Leia smuggles to Obi-Wan via R2D2 in Star Wars, my idea of a joke. Nevertheless. If Leia could get the message from her Rebel ship to Tatooine you’d think I could send mine a few blocks uptown.
I soon decided to take a more active role in the delivery process. If all these nobodies were afraid to be somebody, I reasoned, I’d step in and do the work myself. I opened the app to the “floating” window – a sort of messaging limbo where undelivered correspondence awaits a gallant volunteer. Coolly browsing the stack for a missive worth undertaking, I spotted a nice note of apology that had been languishing for several days, and decided to accept responsibility for it. The young recipient was only a few hundred meters away. But as I started out the door, idly picturing the outpouring of gratitude that was sure to be my reward, my app spat up an alarming notification: the recipient had declined the message.
And so it continued to go. Time and again I plucked an intriguing message from the virtual mailroom only to be thwarted before I even set off. Veronica apparently didn’t want to hear that Billy missed her terribly. Nathan couldn’t be bothered to know that Kristen thought his smile was infectious. But of course it wasn’t the message that was disagreeable to these people – it was the method of communication. So averse were this lot to being confronted in the street by a stranger that they refused even to let another person take all the risk and do all the work. Maybe it easy to talk to a stranger with a purpose. But that doesn’t mean the strangers want to talk to you.
At last I resigned myself to the only remaining position: I became a recipient. I asked a friend, somewhat convolutedly, to see if they could send a message my way – I’d sit on a bench outside my apartment reading for a few hours, eager to be approached. Incredibly, a Somebody accepted: a good sport named Tyler was willing to find me and give me the note. I sat impatiently as my friend texted me periodic updates: Tyler was nearly there, she reported, according to the app’s built-in map.
In the distance I saw a young man walking a bicycle and staring intently at his phone, occasionally looking up and around as if on a hunt for something. This, I thought, must be my messenger. But Tyler couldn’t find me. Too far to shout or wave, and not wanting to spoil the integrity of the system, I sat hopeful that my courier would home in. Then it happened: Tyler abandoned his mission and went home.
After a week of near-constant effort this was as close to a delivered message as I could get. I didn’t speak to a stranger and a stranger didn’t speak to me. It’s much more difficult than you’d think to be somebody.