Friends don’t need receipts: the joys and risks of Venmo’s social feed

This post summarizes a research paper on how people feel about Venmo’s social feed. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing on November 5th.

Mobile apps like Square, Facebook, and Apple Pay help people link their phones to their bank accounts, credit cards, and debit cards. These apps are replacing cash as an easy way for people to pay their friends back for meals out, concert tickets, and much more. Venmo, owned by PayPal, is one of the most popular apps. Particularly popular among young people, Venmo has handled over $26.5 Billion in transactions in the first half of 2018. Venmo’s twist, which PayPal’s Chief Executive suggests contributes to its popularity, is an emoji-filled feed of what a person’s friends, and even strangers around the world, are sending each other. The feed is similar to a Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, with features for liking and commenting on transactions.

Venmo includes a feed of what friends and strangers are sending to each other, which is unusual for a finance sharing app.

Although Venmo’s feed is similar in design to feeds in other social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the app’s purpose feels very different. While most social network sites help people share news and keep up to date with each other, Venmo helps people complete financial transactions with others. In this way, it may be similar to the social feeds in other applications that help people complete tasks — such as the feed in Spotify, which shares music people listen to, or the feed in Strava, which shares people’s exercise activities.

To learn about how people respond to social feeds that appear in apps that help them get tasks done, we studied how people feel about Venmo’s feed. We conducted two surveys, one of 164 people who used a range of mobile payment apps, the other of 80 people who used Venmo specifically. We followed these surveys with 14 interviews with Venmo users.

Social discovery and negotiating privacy

Participants felt that, overall, the social feed did not add to or detract from their reason for using Venmo — to send and receive payments. But some felt joy in writing and reading funny transaction descriptions or looking through what emoji to use. A few participants felt the feed helped connect them to their close friends and family. One participant even confirmed a suspicion that two of her friends were dating because they had frequent transactions.

[The feed is] icing on the cake… when it’s good, it’s funny, and I enjoy Venmo more. When it’s boring, it’s like, ‘Eh, whatever.’… I feel very neutral about [the feed] because I generally think that people don’t care about other people’s lives as much as people think they do.
“I like using Venmo over PayPal because of the social tabs. I think it’s cute to see what my kids are doing or chatting about, or what they’re planning or whatever.”

13 out of 14 interviewees expressed that seeing their friends’ transactions was awkward, because finances are often personal. This impression, however, did not cause these participants to hide their transactions or change their privacy settings. 56% of the recent transactions from Venmo survey respondents were shared with friends or publicly, and 11 out of 14 interviewees kept the default public privacy setting. Only 8 of 106 participants who had tried Venmo and another app cited the social feed as a reason for preferring the other app. People who hadn’t seen Venmo seemed the most concerned, with 28 of the 32 survey respondents (88%) expressing a negative impression to the social feed.

“I thought about it, but I never actually went through with what I was thinking. I guess I got lazy, because I never had a real need to make something private.”

Instead of changing privacy settings, Venmo users considered how transactions would be interpreted and edited them as necessary to address privacy concerns. When sending money to strangers or acquaintances, they tended to write descriptions much like how people use the memo line of a check. But when transacting with close friends, people would make more playful choices and reference inside jokes.

“When it’s with a close friend, where we all went to the event together, then it’s like, ‘Oh, comment is funny,’ because I was part of that experience, so I feel an emotional connection to it.

Suggestions for future designs and practices

In examining how people feel about and use Venmo’s social feed, we saw some cases where people learned what their friends and family were up to and surfaced how they negotiated privacy concerns. The playfulness of Venmo’s feed also reduced some of the stigma associated with asking someone for money. Designers of apps with similar feeds should make sure the feed’s tone aligns well with the purpose of the app. Designers should also think about drawing more attention to privacy settings, encouraging people to think about editing settings for particular posts.

Until then, we recommend that Venmo users consider potential risks while still laughing about the emoji they used when paying a friend back for pizza. Public Venmo data has been used to identify a marijuana dealer, a feuding couple, and a person with almost 4 transactions involving junk food emoji a day. This suggestion to balance fun and risk applies to other social data, too. Lots of feeds leak information. Public vacation posts on Instagram can make people vulnerable to theft; runs shared on Strava disclosed the location of U.S. military bases in the Middle East. These feeds offer great opportunities to share and connect, but it’s worth considering how the data could be used.

Contact venmo [at] uw [dot] edu with additional questions or comments on the study.
Full citation: Monica Caraway, Daniel A. Epstein, and Sean A. Munson. 2017. Friends Don’t Need Receipts: The Curious Case of Social Awareness Streams in the Mobile Payment App Venmo. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 1, CSCW, Article 28 (December 2017), 17 pages. DOI: