Sam was at a bookstore when a man he’d never met stopped him to say “I love you.” The strange tale of how a woman in Washington DC who tells her ex in California that she loves him through stocky blond man who neither of them have ever met.

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Show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: So can you tell me just like … where you were — can you tell me the story of what happened?

SAM: [Laughs] that’s a great leading question.

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet Media, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: And I’m Alex Goldman. And that guy you heard up top is our friend Sam. He lives in San Francisco. He works above a bookstore, and one day at work, he got an email from the owner that say “hey, there’s someone looking for you here.”

SAM: So I walked in the bookstore and there’s this dude there, he’s kind of blond, short hair, stocky, and he 2:46 looks at me and he goes, “Sam?” and I said, “Yeah?” and he goes, “It’s me! Arielle!” And then he walks up to me, and he puts his hand on my shoulder, and 4:47 he says, “I fucking love you, and I don’t know how to tell you.”

ALEX: Sam had never seen this stocky blond guy before. But he WAS involved with a woman named Ariel. They’d dated off and on for a year. And when he vreceived this message, Ariel had moved across the country – to Washington DC for work.

PJ: Ariel had gotten this stranger into delivering this message for her through an App called Somebody, maybe you heard about this, created by Miranda July, artist, filmmaker, genius. And here’s how it works: Somebody is a messaging app, but instead of recieving a message on your phone, you receive your message by a total stranger. So if I want to tell Alex that we need to record today, I’ll send him the message, but it won’t go directly to him, somebody who is physically close to him–a stranger–will get the message and be given directions on how to deliver it to Alex.  You can also include stage directions, so I can ask the stranger to yell at Alex that we need to record today or tell Alex we need to record today while crying.

ALEX:  The idea is to make technology more human. But also it also makes it way more awkward, by introducing a complete stranger into a intimate interaction. And, as you can imagine, this particular interaction was very awkward; not just for the people involved, but for everyone in the bookstore.

SAM: my coworker’s jaw dropped, the bookstore guy was like, “GASP!” and there 6:06 were other people in the store that were all like, “GASP!” And that kind of just hangs in the air for a minute– and then he says, “OK! So, can I ask you about what that was about?” 5:21 And I said, “No.” [laughs] Like, I don’t know you. And he goes, “Alright, can we take a selfie?” because the app asks to take a selfie when a message gets delivered. So I give this big goofy grin, and then I was like, “Dude, I gotta go.” And just left [laughs] and then i went back to work

[PHONE RINGING]

Ariel: Hello?

Alex: Hi, is this Ariel?

Ariel: Yes this is Ariel, is this Alex?
Alex: Yes it is. I really appreciate you doing this. I don’t know if I would do it.

Ariel: [laughs] yeah… um…I’m up for it.

PJ: Why would anyone would use an app to say something this important? We’ll find out after the break. But first, and it is strange and exciting to be saying this: a word from our sponsors

ALEX: and, just a note here, you’ll always know that we’re reading an advertisement when you hear this music: [music]

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PJ: welcome back to the show. Before the break, we talked to Sam about the stranger who accosted him in a bookstore with a message from his ex-girlfriend, because of Miranda July. But we were also curious about why Ariel, Sam’s ex, would do that. So Alex talked to her.

ALEX: Ariel says that she first heard about the Somebody app from Sam back when they were dating. She decide to send the “I fucking love you” message later at a particularly low moment, right before she was getting ready to move across the country.

ARIEL: I was starting to say goodbyes around the city and pack up my life, and I think it finally came down to a particularly difficult moment – I was having some–you know, a little of that sad to go mild depression that sets in when you leave your home. And I just remember being in my room and going, you know, “I’m just gonna send it.”

PJ: Ariel actually sent Sam a bunch of messages through the app; both before they’d broken up, after they’d broken up, before she moved, after she moved and the others were super innocuous. but for Ariel it didn’t feel crazy to send a bunch of messages to Sam because — and this the one thing everybody knows about this app, if they know anything about it– it barely works. Most of the messages users send never get to the intended recipient.

ARIEL: So it kind of felt like I was just sending stuff out into the aether, and it felt like a little bit of catharsis on my side like I was working my way up to saying something, but with a very low probability that it would actually end up to him.

PJ: Of all the messages Ariel sent, Sam only replied once, and nothing about the one reply that he did send suggested that the message that had gotten through was THAT message, the “I fucking love you” message.

ARIEL: He sent me an email that said “I got your message, your Somebody message. That was super sweet. I’m glad we can stay friends even as you move across the country. And I was like “Oh, great.” At that time we had been talking and he’d had a stressful couple of weeks, and I also sent him more recently than that message, a message like “keep your chin up, you’re a great kid. You got this!” kind of thing, I was like “it’ll be funny” So I assumed that’s what he had received. So the response I got from him seemed totally appropriate to the message I assumed he had received.

ALEX: You can see why she’d make that assumption. “That was super sweet” is an odd response to “I fucking love you.” But in Sam’s defense, the medium kind of obscured the message. It wasn’t like she’d called him on the phone or on email. I mean, how seriously are you supposed to take a message, no matter how heartfelt, if it’s delivered to you through internet performance art?

SAM: like I can’t tell if it was meant to be heavy for her or if she just meant it as a joke. Like, as just like, yeah. As like, as a thing that she’d fire off at 3A in the morning via text, but instead of a text she sent a Somebody message. I don’t know. I don’t know what that message meant to her. It had never crossed my mind that people would use it for actual, real communication.

ALEX: Of course, Ariel was confused by her own motives.

ARIEL: I don’t know if I had really thought through it that much…

ALEX: In that moment that you sent it, what was your, like ultimate, fantasy idea of what would happen when you got it?

ARIEL: I think at best I thought maybe this – in this weird way – would plant a seed that would sit there, maybe, for a month maybe a year, maybe forever. We could be 80 and, at some point he would be like “you know remember that one time — let’s try this again.”

ALEX: But, I mean, do you feel that? Do you love him?

ARIEL: I do. And I probably still don’t know how to say that to him, and I probably won’t say that to him. And even if we talked about it, I feel like the conversation he and I would have about this would still skirt the issue because neither of us knows what to say with that.

ALEX: So, why didn’t you want to follow up with her afterward and find out exactly what happened. Or find out exactly why she sent it. I mean was it just too heavy? Was it just too much?

SAM: I was I don’t know. I was. I don’t know if I really want to answer that. Um. But. I mean, I was afraid of there being a mismatch of expectations, in terms of  — where we were at. And, as I’m talking to you now, I’m like really nervous about hurting her feelings somehow, because I really don’t want to do that. I don’t know…I guess I…I guess I just didn’t know how to handle it.

ALEX: About 15 years ago, I was in a very similar situation to Ariel’s, as I imagine everyone has been at some time or another. I had just moved across the country for college, leaving behind a relationship that I was still incredibly invested in. I spent most of those first few weeks in college crying. Crying in my dorm room, crying in line at the food co-op, crying in the bathroom between classes. When you’re in that situation, feeling something you’re not sure the other person feels. you’re in this weird limbo. Part of you wants to tell them, to find out if they feel the same way. And part of you is terrified to tell them, because what if you find out they don’t. When I came home on Spring Break, I did the lo-tech, high risk version of what Ariel did. I went to her office, during work hours and essentially said what amounted to “I fucking love you, and I don’t know how to tell you.” Her response? “You are embarrassing me at work.” For Ariel, The somebody app allowed her to show up at sam’s work and make a big romantic declaration without showing up at Sam’s work to make this big romantic declaration.

ARIEL: Me, sending a message, through a stranger, through a glitchy app, through a stranger to tell him something so big, is kind of inherently that I don’t want to look straight at it either, you know, and it gives him the out of not having to look at it on his own. I kind of….it gave me a little space to put something out there. And to knowing he got it, that it’s out there and know that it’s been acknowledged, but doesn’t have to be fully acknowledged. Like, it doesn’t have to exist beyond the fact that it’s just out.

ALEX: Well not until the radio producer comes in and makes you go on his podcast to talk about it.

ARIEL: [laughs] But you can’t make either of us really acknowledge to each other what we think of it.

ALEX: So you’ll just have this conversation through me?

ARIEL: You’ve become a proxy of our somewhat failed relationship

[SOUND OF CRYING]

PJ: When Somebody first premiered, Miranda July released a short film to accompany the app…it opens on a woman sitting at the foot of her bed, weeping. She reaches for her phone to make a phone call, but then she stops herself and begins typing.

[TYPING SOUND CRYING]

The way Miranda July imagined it, the woman’s boyfriend is in a public park, he’s a tall, good-looking, bookish guy (not unlike Sam) and he gets approached by a large man in a track suit, the Sam character is picnicking alone, his name’s Caleb

LARGE MAN: Caleb?

CALEB: yeah?

LARGE MAN: It’s me Jessica! I so totally love you. I just — I just can’t be your girlfriend anymore, I can’t. It’s not anything you did. You’re perfect! You’re perfect! I just need some space!… I just need some space! alright. uh…you’re gonna be alright, man. You got this.

PJ: Since the app came out in August, the coverage of Somebody has been pretty uniform: initial excitement, and then a wave of stories about how the app is a glitchy mess that barely works. But watching this trailer, you realize that Ariel and Sam are actually exactly the use case Miranda July had imagined. And how often does that happen? A prototype ends up being used EXACTLY the way its creator intended?

ALEX: We’ve heard rumors that Miranda July is planning on fixing the app, which currently remains pretty much as broken as it was when Ariel used it. But maybe that glitchy inconsistency is less a bug than a feature – an emotional Russian roulette that will embolden user to tell people how truly fucking loved they are.

CREDITS

ALEX: Reply All is PJ Vogt, Lina Misitzis, Caitlin Roberts, Alex Blumberg, Matt Lieber, and me, Alex Goldman. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and a special thanks this week to Mark Delore and my wife, Sarah Ohala, who came up with the name “Reply All.” After months of laboring over a name, maybe three weeks before the launch, Sarah was like “why not just call it Reply All”–she’s amazing.

PJ: If you’d like to find out more about Reply All, you can follow us on Twitter, DO. NOT. GO to replyall.com–it’s too expensive, didn’t want to buy it–instead, we bought replyall.limos and replyall.diamonds. Thanks for listening, and if you like this, come back Wednesday for a new episode.

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