The app, which formerly paired up Palestinians with Israelis, hopes to build relationships between people we expect to hate each other.
Have Democrats and Republicans ever seemed as far apart as they do now? With the possibility of a socialist Jew from Brooklyn facing off against Donald Trump in a general election, there is an end of days quality to the latest election, and one that seems to have the country more polarized than ever.
Enter Verona, an app seeking to bridge the gap between Fox News and MSNBC, Nascar lovers and pot smoking yogis. Named for the city where the fighting Montagues and Capulets caused the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is a Tinder-esque app originally conceived of to pair Palestinians with Israelis, which it has been doing for a year now, to great success. Recently, creator Matthew Nolan decided to expand the app to connect other populations at war, and Verona is now available to Republicans or Democrats seeking friendships across the aisle, as well Trump supporters and Latinos who might want to chat.
Nolan is banking on the idea that exposure breeds good vibes, and that hanging out with a person who comes from the opposite side of a political divide can create enough connective tissue to bridge that divide. VICE caught up with Nolan to chat about Verona's latest foray into domestic politics.
VICE: Last time we spoke, you had just launched an app matching Israelis and Palestinians. How's that working out for you?
Matthew Nolan: It was an unexpected success. Since we last talked, it just kept growing. We're at tens of thousands of users.
It got me thinking—the world is so polarized right now by the media and politicians. I think we're at a time when people need to come together, need to collaborate, instead of taking sides. So that's the motivation behind opening these new groups.
When Trump made his election speech and said those terrible things about the Mexican community, I thought, well, I might be able to do something to help bring people together, when there are loud people in the media trying to separate us.
By the media you mean...
I mean media figureheads like Trump, like Bill O'Reilly—these very polarizing people. When people are experiencing economic trouble, to point out a group, to vilify them and say, "That's the reason why everything is going wrong"—whether that's the right vilifying the left or the left vilifying the right politically, or whether it's Trump vilifying the Latino community—Adolf Hitler did the same thing to the Jews; that's how he rose to power.
Given the state of communication technology and given the challenges we all have to face right now, it's more important for people to come together and empathize with one another than at any other time. That's why I'm building this thing.
So how does it work?
When you sign on, you have three different options. You can join Israeli/Palestinian, and pick one or the other; Republicans and Democrats, and you pick one or the other, or Trump supporters and Latino Americans, and you pick one or the other. And whichever you pick, we show you the other; if you pick Democrat, we show you Republican, and vise-versa.
And people are signing up?
They are. And it looks like it's going to be growing pretty fast.
So there are actual Trump supporters who are signing up to meet Latinos?
With the Israeli/Palestinian group, when it first came out, people said, "That could never work—there would be nothing but arguing, nothing but negativity." There have been zero reports of any nastiness. It's been nothing but positivity. I think the fact that all the chats are private allows you to really empathize with the person. If you're in an elevator with somebody, it's a far better experience to just get along, you know what I mean?
Are people using it for friendship or for romance?
That's a great question. When it first came out, we said it was a dating thing, and then all of these people from the Middle East reached out and said, "Hey, that's great, but what we really need out here is a friendship app," so I sort of rebranded it as a friendship app, and people use it primarily for building friendships on either side of the divide.
That said, there have been some dates. Users have reached out to us and thanked us for what we've done. They'll basically say, "Thank you for building this thing, I met someone very special on it," and I'm like, "Wait! Rewind! Who did you meet? Tell me the story." There have been reports of people entering the border into Israel from the West Bank and relationships forming that way. I know about a dozen of those, but there could be more. And we're talking about a guarded border there. But Verona is primarily a friendship platform.
Are you on Verona? But I guess you're not Israeli or Palestinian...
I tell people that even if you're only a fraction Jewish or a fraction Palestinian, or if you're neither, but maybe you have an ideology that resonates with one, choose that. I've made friends on Verona. Two weeks ago, I had a chat with someone in Jerusalem about Arab house music.
So you signed in as Israeli?
I sign in as Israeli. Well, I'm on as both. I kind of switch back and forth.
For dating or friendship?
I'm the barkeep. But I've made friends on there.
I know you've just launched the new groups, but are there more Trump supporters signed up to meet Latinos? Or more Latinos signed up to meet Trump supporters?
There's slightly more Latinos, but the numbers are changing a lot.
Are there more Democrats or Republicans?
More Democrats—about three quarters are Democrats.
Does that mean that liberals really are more open minded?
A lot of the work we're doing is based off studies by Arthur Aaron, who has done a lot of psychological research about reducing prejudice and how relationships form. The whole theory behind Verona is that if you make friends with someone who is in an out-group, and then you tell your friends you've made friends with someone from the other side, and they're really not that bad—studies have shown that reduces prejudice not just in you but also in your friends. There's a network effect.
So people on either side of the Israeli/Palestinian thing will tell their friends, "Hey, I met someone on the other side, and they talked for half an hour about their passion, which is tennis—so how bad can they be, you know?" That's how we're building global empathy on either side.
So is that the goal of Verona?
Yes. We're trying to increase global empathy. A third of humanity is on the internet right now. It's crazy to me that there's not massive singing and dancing in the streets.
Do you sympathize with Trump's positions?
I can understand where his supporters are coming from ideologically. Or I think I understand. Or I'm trying to understand—and maybe Verona can help me understand—why they would gravitate towards the kind of message he broadcasts, and I think the important thing is that Trump supporters can communicate with Latinos, and vice-versa.
What would you say to someone who says, "Trump supporters are racists. Why should they get a platform to explain themselves?"
Not 100 percent of Trump's supporters are racists. And I think the cure for racism is empathy. As soon as you see life through someone's eyes, he or she is no different from you.
Ninety-nine percent of our human wants and desires are all the same. Trump supporters and Latinos want the same thing—they want to take care of their family, they want a good job, they want security, they want to feel safe. They want a great America. We're giving them the opportunity to communicate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Batya Ungar-Sargon on Twitter.