From the other side of the military checkpoints and towering slabs of concrete that separate Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, a stranger greeted me through cyberspace.
I was in my sister’s apartment listening to the nighttime hum of Tel Aviv when I received the message from Samir (who requested I change his name for privacy). I opened Tinder and examined his profile. The photos were fairly typical: a tall man with long black curls and an earring laughing on the beach, posing in the gym, wearing a suit and button up. My attention moved to the bio section underneath his profile. Less typical: just the words “Ramallah boy” and a Palestinian flag emoji.
As author and venture capitalist Scott Hartley optimistically wrote in a Forbes essay published in 2012 (the year Tinder was launched), the outlook of tech’s “borderless entrepreneurial class” is global because in the world of tech “products conform to platforms, not to borders
Ramallah? I thought, pulling up Google Maps to confirm what I already knew. Ramallah, only about 40 miles from Tel Aviv as the crow flies, is on the other side of the Green Line, a barrier of concrete and barbed wire between Israel and the territories that can be difficult, if not impossible, to cross, depending on who you are and where you’re going. This was the first stroke of luck for my relationship with Samir. The second, I thought as I mistakenly tried to pay for the East Jerusalem bus to the West Bank with an Israeli transit pass, is that I’m able to cross the Green Line to go to Ramallah at all, thanks to my foreign passport.
But apparently Tinder’s algorithms are unconcerned with this geopolitical nuance
This is swiping right from within the complex geopolitical reality of Israel and Palestine. When I tell people how Samir and I met-that we started talking during the six months I lived in Israel; that after two years of virtual friendship I finally crossed to meet him in Ramallah (a day trip while back in Tel Aviv visiting family); that I returned to see him the following year and we fell in love; that in 2019 we both moved to Washington, DC, where we’re currently based-I’m aware that it seems like a rather buddhist web chat romantic portrait of how digital technology can bring people together across divides. But this is not really how I see our story. After all, if I were an Israeli citizen, like nearly everyone I was with at the time, Samir and I would likely never have been able to meet face to face. Though Tinder operates as if the nature of its technical apparatus allows it to transcend borders altogether, the truth is that, by default, the app reflects, and at times even reinforces, a bleak, segregated reality.
In 2017, eight months after matching with Samir while in Israel but before we’d ever met in person, I moved to Silicon Valley to work on user experience for Google Ads, then called AdWords. When I arrived on campus, I was struck by a sense of borderlessness-a kind of transnationalism that defined both the form and content of our work. In a single day I might meet virtually with a coworker in Switzerland, work on a project with designers or engineers from India, Germany, Hong Kong, and Norway, and conduct interviews with users in Romania and Milwaukee. ”
In that same spirit, my team treated our product-one that allows advertisers around the world to access an international clientele-as culturally agnostic, relevant as much to users locally as to those on the other side of the world. This ethos was itself a source of unspoken pride, an enactment of the tech industry’s righteous calling to bring people together and, in the process, erode the infrastructure at the heart of global conflict.