It may not bring about world peace, but Verona hopes to create greater empathy between those on both sides of one of the planet's oldest conflicts.
Does exposure breed good vibes? Can hanging out with a person who comes from the opposite side of a political divide create enough connective tissue to bridge that divide? Scientists have long struggled to answer this question. While there is still no conclusive evidence, some relevant data emerged from a recent Pew study that explored how different religions are perceived by Americans. Muslims were viewed the least favorably, Pew found. However, knowing a Muslim seems to have a small effect on reported levels of personal prejudice.
Matthew Nolan wants to explore—and exploit—that finding to secure peace in the Middle East. The 31-year-old Detroit native now lives in the East Village, where he works as a software developer and dating coach. Most recently, Nolan launched a dating app intended to bring together Israelis and Palestinians. Verona, named for the city where the fighting of the Montagues and the Capulets led to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, is a Tinder-esque app that matches Palestinians with Israelis.
Verona currently has between 1000-2000 users, and the reviews seem very positive, aside from those that are blatantly xenophobic ("This app is for lazy & ugly Arabs, who don't have any chance to find their love mate in other places or apps. If you are looking to be raped and live in daily violence, this app is perfect for you"). VICE spoke to Nolan to learn more about Verona, the tech world, and what a white guy from Detroit has to contribute to peace in the Middle East.
VICE: How would you describe the work that you do?
Matthew Nolan: I build software. I'm an artist. Software has become my art, I guess.
So you're a tech dude.
For better or for worse, I'm a tech dude. But I'm a cool tech dude. They've been getting a bad rap. There's a lot of douchey tech guys out there. I'm one of the non-douchey ones. I really like doing things that affect the world in a positive way. Technology, it's like a hairspray bottle: with a little bit of effort, in just the right way and just the right place, you can affect great change, massive change, positive change.
How did Verona come about?
It was at a party after Valentine's Day. I had a bunch of people over, and we were talking about Burning Man and how to use art to make the world a better place. My buddy, who's Palestinian, brought a date who is Israeli, and he said, "We're bringing the world together." I'm like, that's hilarious! Maybe we should do a dating site, like J-P Date, Jewish-Palestinian date. We were laughing about it; we were just having a fun time. But the idea stuck with me, J-P Date. And it's easy—I already have these software skills. So I thought about it, and then after a week, I was like, Yeah, I should just fucking do it. I did the whole thing in a month, less than that, coded the whole thing up.
When I told people my idea, people were just like, "Dude. That's awesome. Fucking hilarious, you have to do that. That's amazing." My super-hippie/burner/tech friends were all into it. So I started seeking out friends of mine, or friends of friends, who are more conservative, guys at the office who are Israeli and have kids. Everybody thinks that it's hilarious. And nobody's threatened to kill me yet, so I think I'm onto something.
Are you an Israeli or a Palestinian?
I'm a white guy from Detroit.
Do you think there's a cap on how many users you can attract? What about cultural and religious barriers?
I'm very flexible with the terminology of Israeli/Palestinian. Even if you're Jewish and you've never been to Israel or you're Arabic but don't have direct ties to Palestine, I still want a selfie of you on a date. My dream is a wall of selfies of people who met on my app. That way, when the propaganda machine over in Israel is saying, "The other side hates us," it just seems more asinine.
Is my app going to spark world peace? As much as I would love to take credit for igniting world peace, it's going to take a lot more than my app, but it's a step in the right direction. It's a shift.
I want people to have more to talk about than all this bullshit, who's right and who's wrong.
How does Verona work?
I'm fascinated by the mating habits of the human being. The problem I have with Tinder is that it's so fundamentally superficial, right? Something interesting about me is, apart from being a software engineer, I am also a professional dating coach. Clients from around the world fly to New York because they have a hard time meeting people, or they are too shy, or too nervous, or they aren't confident enough. They need help in their love life: That's what we do. It's probably one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in my life. It's about helping people develop social skills, a tool set so they can get their own dates. What I'm doing is stripping away blockers for them. It's all about removing insecurities and helping them realize their full potential, that they really are amazing people, and there's no reason they can't get a date, and enabling them to go forth and do that.
Have you ever had problems approaching women?
No. Everyone in the community has the same story: They had a hard time in high school. I always had girlfriends in high school. I never had confidence problems. I am a computer nerd, don't get me wrong! I've got my nerd stripes, I'm a techie, I'm a nerd. But I was DJing as a teenager; I was out and about.
So Tinder felt wrong. Why?
It's so superficial. It's based completely on how a person looks, which has its place. It's a raunchy pick-up app. If all you're looking for is someone based on physical appearances, Tinder serves its purpose. And then a lot of apps go the other way, like OkCupid and Match. They're too psychological; it's not fun, they're like homework.
For Verona, I want people to have connections with more substance. It's critical that people aren't just hooking up on a superficial level. So my key feature in Verona is, I ask people to identify what in life they're most passionate about. When guys come out when we're coaching them, they're always like, "What's the one pick-up line? What's the one zinger to guarantee you'll get a girl?" And really, the one thing is to say, "Hi," and then ask them [about] what interests them. There's nothing more attractive than somebody being interested in you.
What's one way Verona might help those in the Middle East to better understand each other?
If you can imagine people over there in the middle of this conflict, I want people to have more to talk about than all this bullshit, who's right and who's wrong. It seems to me that's what the dialogue is: Your people shouldn't have done this, your people have done that. This way, if people are talking about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, at least there's a lot of common ground established.
Do you believe a romantic connection can increase empathy?
Before romance ever happens between two people, there first has to be a basic connection. What Verona provides is a venue for that connection to first happen. Verona is just as useful [for making] casual friends, as it is for something deeper. In any relationship, the depth of love is directly proportional to the amount of trust each person is investing. Hypothetically, if you had masses of people forming deep, profound relationships, and investing great trust with individuals on the other "side," the conflict would cease to exist. A cynic might say this notion is naive. I disagree. These kinds of relationships are already happening. There just needs to be more of them.
What would you say to people who say Jews should only date Jews, or Muslims should only date Muslims?
If this app upsets them, don't use it. This app is for people making a choice to date, or even just to communicate, with someone who's different.
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