Feeds-for-All: Venmo and the New Normal of Transparency

I know what you did last night.

We all know. And heck, you know what we did too.  

Oversharing is a natural symptom of the social media stronghold we’ve come to inhabit. As of January 2017, more than 2.5 billion people are on some form of social media; every 60 seconds, there are close to 300,000 status updates on Facebook alone. Sharing is not only expected of you when you’re out and about — it’s become a conscious factor when making plans.

Does this restaurant have good lighting for a photograph? Is the food Instagrammable? So on and so forth. But through these sharing decisions, the constant has been just that: intentional choice. (Silly or ill-advised as it may be.)

Based on our constant and reliably predictable decisions to share, certain companies have made the decision to share for us. Notably, Spotify and Venmo have friend activity feeds which are a default feature on both ends. Users have to make the conscious choice not to share with connections on these platforms. Contacts and followers can sit back and observe your every activity when making payments or enjoying tunes with these major applications, until you decide otherwise. Many users probably don’t even realize you can turn the sharing off.

Countless others relish the voyeuristic nature and don’t stop to question why people would need to know these personal details — or for that matter, how they might be read among friends, family and coworkers. These globe-conquering companies are banking on it, hoping to steer the conversation toward the “fun” and away from the “but why?”

Until sharing goes out of style, they figure, why not share it all?

A “Shared” Success

Some believe that much of Venmo’s success (i.e., $18 billion in transactions last year, an estimated 7 million monthly users) relates to the payment gateway’s not-so-subtle stab at social. The app is convenient as all get-out, making the chore of paying roommates for utility bills or splitting restaurant tabs a cash- and hassle-free process. Knowing the transaction will be public to contacts on the app, though, a growing number of Venmo’s overwhelmingly young users make a sport of the specifics.

Whether this means complete lies/jokes, a string of random emojis or bragging about the enjoyment related to an expense (i.e. Sunday yacht rental! #swag #blessed), individual descriptions on the feed are a new medium of expression; the latest accessory adorning our precious personal brands. Contacts can even “like” and “comment” on your transactions — just one more avenue for sporadic dopamine bursts in a person’s day.

Ven-Mo Money, Mo Problems

Playing along is surface-level entertainment for users and their friends. But as with Snapchat before it, these hot new apps are adding fuel to the fire of addictive oversharing. By insisting upon the “feed life,” are these companies enabling this generation’s addiction? And what other risks could this insistence on sharing present?  

Some users have learned the hard way that there is a limit to what one should share, or the creative liberties one should take, on this latest feed-ing frenzy.

In 2015, a Venmo user was flagged and contacted by the company after marking one transaction with the description: “iced coffee obama nsa inside job syria.” This is just the sort of post-irony humor that young people today toss around at will on social media. But in sifting through tens of thousands of transactions a day, there’s no clear-cut way for Venmo administrators to determine if this is a millennial goof or a clumsy war criminal. (Earlier that year, the Treasury Department fined Venmo’s parent company PayPal $7.7 million for allowing illegal payments to Syria, Cuba and Sudan. No word if iced coffee was involved.)

A similar administrative headache exists for drugs … a recurring theme among young people both in jest and ingested.

Countless users of Venmo will seize the opportunity to joke that they are paying for narcotics on the app, rather than ramen noodles or whatever commonplace purchase it might be. Scattered throughout are very likely some actual transactions related to drugs, but the lines of irony are so blurry at this point, it’d be impossible for friends (or administrators) to know. One person’s crime or cry for help can slip through the cracks as just another hilarious young person slinging some sarcasm.

The website Vicemo conglomerates all the Venmo exchanges that make mention of drugs, alcohol and even sex, but exists moreso as a cheap supplement for entertainment than an attempt to reprimand or intervene. It’s reasonable to assume that Venmo’s decision-makers will stay silent on the issue, as tampering with the app’s entertainment value — however shallow — would disturb the core user base. That is, until another $8 million lawsuit perhaps leads them to flag drug references as they do mentions of Cuba.    

Even if your actions on Venmo are legal and honest enough, there’s a lingering number of inherent hazards in its share-happy design. Prospective, present or past lovers (or simply contacts with crushes) can easily stalk a user’s expense history, drawing conclusions or using the knowledge as ammunition. Bosses and colleagues can form opinions based on what you buy and when you buy it. Depending on the effort they’re willing to exert, users across the spectrum of familiarity can learn heaps about your life from these personal details. A Venmo extension called Money Trail can even take this data and create detailed visualizations about who your contacts are paying most often and vice versa.

A “Venn-mo diagram,” if you will.  

The Need for Feeds

In a vacuum, the Venmo feed is fun and interesting, in both straightforward and questionable ways. As described by writer Chiara Atik on an episode of the podcast Reply All, “People are surprisingly honest and unthinking in their Venmo transactions and it’s so not dressed up … it’s fascinating, this is what people are doing with their lives.” In the same episode, Atik describes a acquaintance’s breakup she watched unfold over a series of terse Venmo transactions (ex. charges for half the furniture, etc.), followed by the rebound and eventual return to normalcy.

The contact, Melanie, didn’t realize her transactions were public. But after learning about it, and of the (correct) assumptions people were making, she put a positive spin on the ordeal. “Your Facebook, your Twitter, your Instagram … I’m making those, they’re not stories written about me. I guess in a way Venmo is a more like a story written about me … and I think I’m totally okay with that.”

At the end of the day, a clear window into your daily spendings is a natural next step for our hyper-public society — as disturbed as it would have seemed in an earlier time. Venmo will continue making headlines and disrupting the way we spend, as it well should. Companies like Apple and JPMorgan are kicking themselves for not cornering the market first, and various imitators are well under development or now available.

But as with all social media, don’t confuse a trend for an obligation. Sharing is always optional and a small shred of privacy is still available, even if you have to click around to find it. Venmo, Spotify and inevitably more apps in the future will presume that users want every single interaction broadcast to our respective circles. Stay cognizant of what’s being shared and the potential pitfalls in this bizarre new normal.

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