Public Displays of Transaction
How Venmo became the ultimate social network for voyeurs and gossips
By Chiara Atik
Illustration by Stephen Vuillemin
There’s this girl that I stalk on Venmo. Last fall, she showed up in my newsfeed, and though I don’t know her very well, I was interested to note a series of payments she made to her live-in boyfriend:
“Half a couch.”
“Half a chandelier.”
The notes were terse: no emojis, no jokes. Just economic transactions as she went through and calmly charged her boyfriend for his share of their life together. “Roku.” “Half the security deposit.” “U-Haul.”
I later asked a mutual friend if she and her boyfriend had broken up. “Yeah, you see that on Facebook?” He asked me. Nope. The real social media platform for stalkers, gossips, and know-it-alls (in my case, all three) is Venmo.
Don’t get me me wrong, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are great for glimpses at how couples want to be perceived: that carefully cropped and filtered picture, the self-consciously flirtatious tweet. But money is intimate, far more intimate, in fact, than sex.
We’re a generation that talks about sex comfortably and easily, but money is a different matter. (Would You Rather: A date see you naked, or a date see your 2013 tax return?) Afraid of seeming cheap, or reckless, or broke, or unfashionably rich, we keep our credit cards close to the vest. But with Venmo—which automatically connects to your Facebook friends—we have a new way of seeing what each of us does with our money. And maybe because Venmo is a fairly new platform, a lot of people seem unaware of the stories they’re telling in their transactions. This will likely change once it becomes more mainstream (in the same way Facebook use became more guarded once everyone’s parents got an account), but for now, it’s the Wild West of uninhibited, relatively public commerce. And if you want to get a snapshot of how people are dating in 2014, take a quick scroll through your Venmo Newsfeed.
“Oooohh, I love you, oh, you pay my rent” writes one girl to her live-in fiancé, quoting The Pet Shop Boys and presumably paying her half of the rent. A guy friend paid his newfound summer fling for “Car rentalllll,” another new couple transacted over “wine pairing!!!!” Men are paying women, women are paying men, couples are taking turns, alternating charging and receiving money for “dinner” “rock climbing” “Uber” “coachella!!” “utilities,” “[plant emoji]” (which I presume is a euphemism for pot but for all I know could literally be a joint investment in houseplants).
But public displays of, if not affection, then at least economic interaction, have their potential drawbacks. If you’re wondering whether your ex has a new girlfriend, a Venmo transaction for concert tickets might be a better indicator than a Foursquare check-in. If you’re paying attention, a mundane charge for “ConEd” may say more about couple’s stability than a relfie (ugh) posted on Instagram and Facebook for public consumption and posterity.
Love affects how we spend money. And on Venmo, for better or for worse, these interactions are public, open to speculation and interpretation from your second cousin, your ex-boyfriend, your mom’s work colleague, and, uhm, me.
Of course, when scrolling through a Venmo feed with the sole objective of measuring the relationship statuses of your friends and acquaintances, you’re going to have to do a lot of filling in the blanks. But that’s true of all social media, really: as telling as it is to see glimpses of how couples interact, or look together, or spend money with each other, all you’re ever really getting is just glimpses. It’s up to us (the voyeurs, the busybodies) to see what we want to see. It’s just that Venmo makes this tantalizingly easy to do.
Take Melissa*, the girl who broke up with her boyfriend. Her appearances in my Venmo newsfeed over the course of last winter read like a truncated romantic comedy: Immediately following her breakup, most of her transactions seemed to be with her roommates, for things like [wine emoji] and [pizza emoji]. And then, sometime in February, I noticed a transaction for a “Taxi!” with a guy whose name I didn’t recognize.
As winter turned to spring, this dude became a fixture in her life, and on my iPhone. Every time I opened the app, I would note, with a smile, their increasing (and increasingly cutesy) interactions. Movie tickets and drinks and payments for “lobstah dinner” were soon followed by airline tickets, hotels, and, perhaps most tellingly, “❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤.” I haven’t seen Melissa in over a year, but this winter, dollar by dollar, I watched her fall in love.
- Not her real name. Obviously.