By Theodora Helgason ’22
Just Venmo me” is an unexceptional, yet loaded, demand college students and twenty-somethings across America are making of each other without second thoughts.
Venmo, and the economically and socially dangerous culture that has been built around the app, have changed both the social meaning and the real world consequences of financial transactions for the worse. Venmo’s design is intended to strip users of financial privacy, without indicating the real-world fallout that can ensue from publicly posting economic transactions without understanding the full ramifications of the seemingly simple action.
Scams on Venmo happen more frequently than users think. Alison Griswold, a journalist for Slate, reported several incidents of users getting scammed thousands of dollars on Venmo when they tried using the app to buy or sell products from strangers. She details one user’s experience when he listed NBA Finals tickets on Craigslist and the buyer asked to pay through Venmo. Kyle agreed, and the money he expected appeared in his Venmo transactions. Yet, a couple of days later, the payment was reversed and went back into the buyer’s wallet. He lost both the tickets and thousands of dollars.
The scammer understood something about Venmo that most users don’t. Despite the fact that payments appear in users’ Venmo accounts the second the payer presses send, finances do not transfer as immediately as they seem to.The buyer reversed the transaction so that he could scam the seller out of the tickets and the thousands of dollars they were worth.Buyers, not just sellers, on Venmo have gotten scammed by strangers too. Venmo does caution users only to use the app with family and friends, yet the potential thousands of dollars worth of danger that using the app with strangers enables is hidden in a couple lines on the Venmo’s website’s security page. This warning is nowhere to be found on the app itself. In reality, Venmo users have no reason to go on the website when the app is where they make and receive transactions and scroll through their Venmo feeds to see what their friends, and potentially strangers, are up to.
Venmo leaves financial security up to its users, hoping that they use the app with friends and family only. But how do users define friends and family? Would Venmo be liable if it was indeed a friend who scammed another user? And if Venmo’s owner, PayPal, can make electronic payments safe, why can’t Venmo?
Venmo insists on emojis as part of users’ transactions because emojis are embedded in the language of millennials and Gen-Zers. Venmo uses emojis to make payments social.
The app even incorporates emojis to autocomplete for words.
According to Zach Wener-Fligner at Quartz, of the top eleven most popular emojis used in Venmo transactions, five are emojis depicting alcohol. Venmo is unique in that users post drug-related activity without considering the potential legal or social consequences that can come from posting those activities on one of the most subtly public social media platforms.
Emojis, like Venmo, are easy to use without much thought. But it is the ease of Venmo that is part of its danger. Users employ emojis to “name” certain purchases that they are less likely to type out. The simultaneous ambiguity yet cultural understanding of emojis make their users feel immune to lawful consequences for the emojis they post. Although there is no emoji for depicting marijuana, using trees, leaves, or the kale emojis on Venmo often signifies that a user is paying for the drug. Venmo’s emphasis on emojis deludes users into thinking their payments are not susceptible to the same scrutiny that their words are.
No one actually pays for kale on Venmo, but thousands of people pay for weed on Venmo. Paying for drug-related activities on Venmo and hiding behind the fake ambiguity of green emojis that users would not post on other social medias like Facebook or Instagram is all too common.
Thousands of Venmo users publically post drug, alcohol, or sex-related activity.
The absurdity of this was not lost on Mike Lacher and Chris Baker, the creators of Vicemo.com, a satirical website meant to criticize how users post their vices on Venmo for anyone and everyone to view. The site collects the public Venmo transactions that involve incriminating activities. Their website allows people to “see whos buying drugs, booze, and sex on Venmo.” By clicking on any of the transactions, the user is redirected to the original payment on the Venmo app. At any given time, the site is updated with the most recent transactions that indicate vice-related activity. The site frequently has posts citing drugs cleverly disguised as “not drugs,” objectifying or sexual payments for “strippers,” and barely ambiguous drug payments hidden as emojis like the needle emoji, the pill emoji, the mushroom emoji, and green emojis like the herb emoji.
Yet, Venmo does little to warn users that posting publicly could be dangerous. Anyone whose account is set to public on Venmo is vulnerable to having transactions that could resemble drug, alcohol, or sex-related activity posted on Vicemo. And because Venmo automatically sets users’ accounts to public, that means almost every user is vulnerable to their activity, innocent as it may be, being posted on Vicemo. Posts found on Vicemo implicate users in risky behaviors that anyone can view. Almost all the Venmo-ers on Vicemo have no idea their transactions have been posted on the site.
Venmo’s design is intrinsically public. The app is automatically set to share all transactions publicly. If users want to change their privacy settings, they can choose to only share transactions with friends but it also makes their transactions available to the other participants’ Venmo friends. The other option is private which displays the transaction in only the other user’s feed. Yet, when users try to change their settings two questions from Venmo pop up: “Are you sure you want to change your default privacy settings? Did you know you can change the privacy setting for each payment individually?” Venmo asks users attempting to change their privacy settings these questions to retain the social aspect of Venmo that makes it a social media. Venmo users do tend to enjoy the social aspect of the app, and, therefore, Venmo will probably continue to keep the app defaulted to public despite the danger that the default public setting poses to users.
Venmo entertains the tech-native’s insatiable need for the gratification of recognition by another. Venmo-ers who use the app because they love its social aspect may be buying into the need to feel included.Almost every post on Venmo between friends implies a shared experience: reimbursing an associate for brunch or splitting the price of concert tickets. Payments like these on Venmo leave other friends scrolling through their feeds wondering what it means that Tiffany paid Jessica using the unicorn emoji, wine emoji, and heart emoji on a Saturday night. The friend left out from these transactions feels FOMO in the ambiguity of the payments but the certainty of a shared experience having occurred. What inside joke or event were those emojis referencing? Every Venmo user wants to know what their friends are doing without them. This insatiable need to know what one’s friends are doing with one another plays into how Venmo maintains its power.
To some extent, this structure based on having to spend money to prove one hangs out with friends poisons how millennials think of friendships and creates an economic basis to friendships that is classist. Although this phenomenon of events feeling as if they only really happen if they are posted on social media pre-dates Venmo, Venmo valorizes this experience because it does not require the camera or the posing or the fear of a photo being unflattering that posting on Instagram mandates. Even paying a friend back for groceries becomes a social event that others are left out of. Venmo takes FOMO from Instagram and the normalized posting of vices from Snapchat, while monetizing social media and altogether creating an app that everyone should have caution using, yet no one does.
Venmo reveals what users are doing in dangerous detail to more than just friends who scroll through their feeds when experiencing FOMO.
Khanna investigated how Venmo activity reveals potentially different information about its users. He created a Google Chrome extension that uses all data that is readily available from transactions that are public on Venmo. From the extension, Khanna was given insight into strangers’ social lives based purely on public transactions they post on Venmo. He knew not only what these strangers were spending their money on, but also with whom these strangers spent their time, and to some extent, where they spent their time. From that, Khanna could predict which users would spend time together, when they would spend time together, and how they would spend time together.
It should serve as a warning to everyone who uses Venmo that Khanna was able to create an extension without hacking Venmo for data that revealed so much about the app’s users. This information could be dangerous in the hands of companies, and because Venmo is often used on the public setting, it is likely that companies have already tried to use Venmo data to get insight into consumers’ lives. Without doing anything malicious, an individual or a company can look into the Venmo feeds of many users.
At the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Xin Yao and his team devised a Multi-Layer Location Inference which employs public transactions on Venmo to infer users’ location data. Using this method they were able to find the homes of users. This study exemplifies, once again, how dangerous it is to post publicly on Venmo. Publicly posting on Venmo is posting evidence of one’s economic activities, one’s routines, and one’s location, as well as the identities of friends and family“Venmo,” the verb, has snuck its way into the average college student’s vernacular yet not many users are aware of the app’s implications. “Just Venmo me” is the loaded phrase that no one should surrender to.
Illustration by Molly Antell ’19