Would you ever want your friends to see how many taxi rides you share on a wild weekend out? Who you had Thai noodles with on any given day? With whom you split rent and living expenses?
If the answer is yes, you are part of a cohort of Venmo users who use public transactions, which according to a 2018 study accounted for about 18 million people.
I am, willingly, one of them. Ever since I joined the payment service app, I’ve voluntarily displayed my financial transactions in my public feed. Between office lunches and happy hours, I’ve welcomed the ease of digitally settling a tab while attempting to garner a few laughs with my try-hard descriptions, like “adult diaper” (I don’t remember what this was for); “My fat ass” (probably food) and “Boulder holster” (yes, I paid a friend back for a bra).
I hoped my transactions would capture the attention of voyeuristic Venmo users who would be forced to think about whom I was paying and for what purpose. However cringey in hindsight, a part of me wants my friends to see a Venmo transaction for “So some improv comedians walk into a bar” and believe I might actually be a funny person, instead of a writer who took an improv class.
Before you ask, yes, every digital tool poses personal security risks – and yet it is not enough to make my transactions and friend list private. This is a bet Venmo co-founder Iqram Magdon-Ismail made early on: in 2012, he said “one of the reasons people prefer us and will prefer us in the future is just the fact that we are social. You get more value out of sharing with friends.” In short, openly and ostentatiously swapping funds is fun.
When Scottie Irvin, a 30-year-old bartender in Buffalo, New York first joined the app, he decided to lean into the feature, drafting outlandish descriptions he hoped would garner attention. On one occasion, he paid a friend on Venmo, writing “Sorry that I returned your butt plug late”, Irvin said. The next day, when his mom opened the app to Venmo him money for dog food, she saw the transaction and asked him about it. “My mom was very uncomfortable when she saw me the next day,” Irvin said. “I find it hilarious. That’s at my expense, I’m not making fun of anyone but me.”
For others, public transactions are a way to remind friends of your interests. Michelle Palmer, an orchestra manager from Pineville, Louisiana, most frequently pays independent artisans for jewelry and skin products on Venmo. She hopes her public transactions inspire friends to seek out those makers, too, acting as a de facto grassroots influencer on Venmo. The 35-year-old also enjoys reading through her friends’ public transactions, which motivates her to write cute descriptions herself.
Humans are by nature voyeuristic, said Harris Stratyner, a psychologist and clinical associate professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This theoretically explains why others would find perusing public Venmo payments amusing. But for those who purposely keep their payments exposed, there is an element of exhibitionism, Stratyner said: “It gives people the option to surreptitiously show off.”
Critics are quick to call those with non-private Venmos psychopaths and exhibitionists, but public payers said they have nothing important to hide. Tyler Mulvey, a 29-year-old senior account executive from West Milford, New Jersey, said he regularly uses Venmo, from splitting groceries with his fiancee to divvying up a bar tab. He used to put lyrics to entire songs or recipes for banana bread in the transaction description until the app limited their character limit to 280.
After his fiancee’s colleague mentioned she saw one of Mulvey’s Venmos to his fiancee, she went private. He not only remained public, but began writing “raunchy” descriptions to catch the colleague’s attention. “I don’t think it’s psycho to keep your Venmo public,” Mulvey said. “I think it’s psycho to look – which I know makes me hypocritical – because if you think it’s psycho if somebody looks, then make it private. I don’t think the onus is on me to make it private, I think the onus is on you to not be a weirdo.”
Private citizens aren’t the only ones guilty of public Venmoing – but some public figures live to regret it. This spring, Representative Matt Gaetz’s 2018 public Venmo transactions to an accused sex trafficker were unearthed. Shortly after, BuzzFeed News purportedly discovered Joe Biden’s Venmo account via public friend lists on the app, sparking a debate surrounding Venmo’s public-by-default transactions and perpetually visible friend lists. As a result, Venmo announced users could make their friend lists private.
Although Venmo couldn’t be considered a social platform, some users don’t see the harm in keeping their transactions visible since they already divulge so much of their lives on other social networks. Caitlin Elliott, 31, a Lynchburg, Virginia-based student, is one of those people. “The privacy ship has sailed a long time ago,” she said. “I wear a watch with a GPS on it when I go running every single day. That’s got me down to the step on the sidewalk. Clearly I’ve made some concessions in my life.”
When Lauren Calise, who lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania, thinks about the fact that all of her social media profiles are private except for Venmo, she questions herself. The 21-year-old therapist frequently uses Venmo for paying rent, splitting groceries and meals with friends; regardless of the transaction, she’ll use a smiley face emoji as the description. But because she personally doesn’t use the app as a social platform, she assumes others won’t scrutinize her transactions, though she knows it isn’t out of the realm of possibility: her clients frequently discuss their Venmo behaviors, like monitoring the transactions of exes.
Still, she remains public. For now. “You’ve really got me thinking. If the other ones are private, maybe this one should be.”
Soon that choice will be taken away from her. Late last month, the company said it would go one step further: it would soon eliminate the global feed – a running collection of complete strangers’ transactions – in the new redesign.
While users will still be able to see their friends’ transactions (if their profiles are public), the days of snooping on strangers are over.
In a press release, Venmo said the change “allows customers to connect and share meaningful moments and experiences with the people who matter most”. Which, I’d argue, are the people who know me least.