Due to its incredibly intimate look at how your friends spend their money, the Venmo newsfeed has become one of the most interesting, informative social networks out there. But don't say that too loud, or you'll feel like a creep.
"It’s this weird voyeurism," National Journal's Emma Roller told The Wire about the appeal of Venmo's social newsfeed. "We’re all interested in seeing what our friends are paying for. But at the same time, we want to pretend like we don’t care about it." Roller first discovered the payment app last summer and reviewed it shortly after for Slate. "It’s like Facebook and PayPal combined—only a better version of both of those things," she wrote then. It's that element similar to Facebook that makes Venmo so intriguing from a cultural point of view.
For those who have not downloaded the app, Venmo's purpose is simple: it puts your bank account and your personal contacts in one place so that you can send friends specific amounts of money. Just split a $13 pizza with a friend, but don't have the $6.50 in cash and quarters? Your friend pays the whole price up front, and you send your friend $6.50 on Venmo. Take a $15 taxi on a Saturday night out to a bar with two friends? You pay the driver, and charge your two friends $5 each on Venmo. It's a straightforward app that makes splitting meals, tickets, electricity bills, and any other expenses incredibly simple.
Oh, and it's public. Every payment you make appears in the Venmo newsfeeds of your friends, with information on the who, when, and what of the transaction. Each item in the newsfeed includes the spender and the receiver of money, the time of transaction, and an answer to Venmo's question of "What's it for?" (The specific dollar amount can only be seen by the spender and receiver.) Given that the facts of who/when/what you pay is largely a reflection of how you spend your free time, the Venmo newsfeed is a startlingly intimate look at people's social lives.
New York writer Chiara Atik, for one, is a big fan of the social feed.
Just lying in bed, scrolling through my Venmo newsfeed— Chiara Atik (@ChiaraAtik) April 20, 2014
"It really does say so much about the little details of people's lives," Atik told The Wire in an interview. "I love all of it. I’m so nosy. It lets me be so nosy." Recently, for example, two of her friends ended a long-term relationship. Not long after, Atik's newsfeed was full of payments between the two: half of a table, half of a chair, half of a chandelier. The exes were splitting up their possessions and going separate ways. "That one was so sad, and so pointed. What a passive aggressive Venmo transaction," Atik said.
While the who and when of the payments are automated by Venmo, the app lets users put in their own explanation of what the payment is for. These largely fall into three categories. There are the straightforward posts (i.e. "cable bill"), the silly emojis, and the jokes (i.e. "morning after ;) thx bb"). If you can type it, you can put it in Venmo. These payments aren't just intended for the other person, but for the wider audience of friends on Venmo. "There's sort of a performative aspect to it," Atik said. Friends can like or comment on posts in the newsfeed, too, although this practice is relatively rare.
Importantly, because the app is almost solely used by iPhone-toting Millennials, it feels far more private than any other social platform right now. "It's kind of in the early stage where it's not quite totally mainstream yet," Atik explains, "so people are just being very open about their everyday economic transactions in a way that they wouldn't be or won't be when Venmo becomes something as clearly public like Twitter." In other words, your bosses and parents are not likely seeing your weekend or nightly activities. Because of that, users put the darndest things in their payments. Things like "Really specific amount of drugs," as one person in my feed wrote yesterday.
That social newsfeed is not a coincidence, of course. Venmo cofounder Andrew Kortina told Fast Company last October that they started the app to create a social payment app, in the mold of a Twitter or Facebook. Grantland book reviewer Kevin Nguyen took that social aspect of Venmo to its mock extreme conclusion, in which he and freelance writer Kyle Chayka paid each other $1 back-and-forth to have a regular conversation.
It's a joke, sure, but it hits on the appeal of Venmo's social feed. Who else is watching this? What will they think of what I'm writing?
That outside-looking-in aspect of venmo explains why the general feeling of newsfeed watchers is one of creepiness. "I think that’s where I feel a little squeamish, is I don’t want my friends to feel like I’m monitoring their spending habits," Roller said. "I’m conflicted because on the one hand, I really enjoy the social aspect of Venmo. But then on the other hand, I think it is a little different from how I use Facebook or Twitter because of the money aspect. Money and finances are such a personal thing. At least in American culture, it’s considered rude to talk very openly about money." In the confines of Venmo, though, that openness to talk money is the point.
The Venmo feed has its problems, to be sure. For one, the newsfeed includes every friend and simply lists them chronologically. But not all of your Facebook friends remain personal friends, meaning that it can feel a bit weird and creepy to see how your freshman high school crush spends her money. Neither Roller nor Atik regularly open up the Venmo newsfeed as often as they do Twitter or Facebook. "I think I would feel a little creepy if I was just opening the app every day, like 'What are my friends paying for?'" But once they open the app to pay a friend, they linger on the newsfeed.
Who did your friends share lunch with, and what did they get? Who all is going to that Lady Gaga concert? Why are those two sharing taxis at 2:21 a.m. late Friday night? Whether you're jealous or just generally interested, Venmo is full of social information that isn't being shared anywhere else.