Cashing Out

How Venmo is encouraging a new kind of conspicuous consumption.

Venmo markets itself as “a free digital wallet,” but it also operates as a social media platform, broadcasting what people bought onto continuously updating feeds.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock, screenshot via Venmo.

In January, I received from Venmo—a peer-to-peer mobile payment service popular among millennials—an email containing a link to some intriguing scraps of data. Among these was the amount of money I had sent and received on my account, which people I had transacted with most often, and how much cash I had moved through Venmo compared with the rest of the people in my network. But what most captured my attention was the section devoted to the payments made by my friends and acquaintances, and the neatly organized window it offered into their lives.

One friend, I learned from Venmo, was a “party animal,” a characteristic revealed to the company (and now to me) by the number of payments he had made related to “going out.” Another’s transactions had led to him being profiled as a “sports fan.” And a third was awarded the title of “philanthropist,” due to the charitable nature of his transfers.

As I absorbed this information, I felt a voyeuristic thrill. There was something compelling about learning how other people allocate money in the course of their daily lives. It also seemed, in the moment, illuminating—akin, perhaps, to the revelations one might enjoy after stealing a quick glance inside someone’s medicine cabinet. But at the same time I experienced a twinge of anxiety. What broad character traits of my own, I wondered, had I communicated to Venmo through my payment patterns? And which of these had the company elected to highlight in its email to my network of friends?

Venmo markets itself as “a free digital wallet that allows you to pay and request money from your friends.” Users can link accounts to a credit card or a checking account and then digitally transfer funds to others through their mobile devices. The app can remove many of the nettlesome, awkward aspects of splitting a dinner bill or reminding a roommate to pay his share of utilities. But it also operates as a social media platform, broadcasting what people bought, and with whom, onto continuously updating feeds.

It turns out I’m not the only one who finds the practice of turning quotidian details about personal spending into public data a bit disconcerting. Last fall, an amusing discussion unfolded in the editorial chat room of Quartz when its more senior members discovered the frequent usage of Venmo among their younger colleagues. When one staffer championed the ability to “see a news feed of what your friends paid each other for,” others were reluctant to view this as a resounding positive. Why, asked one skeptic, do “i have to know that one of you paid your roommate for the phone bill???” The question was swiftly followed by a warning: “people, you are just GIVING your privacy away! about sensitive things like money!”

In an age when our photos, thoughts, and résumés are splattered across the Internet, issues regarding personal finance might indeed be one of the few areas of life still sensitive to public scrutiny. A study conducted by researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology found that money was the subject considered private by the most participants (roughly 95 percent), ahead of other topics such as health, sexual preference, and life events. But Venmo’s popularity is surging—in the last quarter of 2014 it had a payment volume of $906 million, up 29 percent from the previous quarter. That, plus interest in the mobile-payment market from companies like Facebook, suggests a fast-approaching future in which a new degree of transparency—and risk—will be introduced into the many ways we spend our money.

Discussing personal finances is often a delicate undertaking. It’s not socially acceptable to ask someone how much she spends on rent or what she paid for that fancy-looking couch. And yet we are also inclined toward putting a certain amount of our financial activity on display, a practice that frequently services vital psychological and sociological needs.

In his 1998 paper “The Technological Role of Fiat Money,” economist Narayana Kocherlakota argues that money has always possessed a fundamentally public dimension. “Money’s technological role in an economy,” he writes, “is to allow people to credibly record some aspects of their past transactions and make that record accessible to other people. In short, money acts as societal memory.” Money, according to this theory, is primarily a record-keeping device. Kocherlakota was working within the context of monetary economics, but his general conclusions translate to the arena of economic sociology as well. Both fields contend that a dollar in someone’s wallet, intrinsically worthless, derives some of its value in part from other people knowing it was spent.

The manner in which that dollar is transferred also contributes to its underlying value. Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer, who focuses on the intersection of economic activity and interpersonal relationships, asserts in her study “Payments and Social Ties” that not all forms of payment are equal, even when the medium of payment is uniform.  To illustrate this, Zelizer describes the historical arc of the company Christmas bonus. When the tradition first began, most employers viewed the bonus as a discretionary gift to their employees. Eventually, however, it became standard to treat the bonus as a negotiable form of entitlement, “a separate category of payment from the regular paycheck.” The way in which both employers and employees regarded the bonus had a profound effect on how they perceived their relationship and the value of the employees’ work.

Monetary payments, according to Zelizer, break down into three categories: gifts, entitlements, and compensation. “Each one,” she writes, “corresponds to a significantly different set of social relations and systems of meanings. People making payments use a number of earmarking techniques to distinguish those categories of social relations and meanings from each other.”

Venmo is an effective tool for such earmarking. The small messages users compose when they are paying or charging someone—which then find their way onto the platform’s news feed—imbue certain transactions with distinct significance. What items a person chooses to request money for over Venmo, and the style and frequency with which that is done, can communicate a good deal about the boundaries of a relationship and the ways some people manage their social connections. When writer Chiara Atik stumbled onto an acquaintance’s series of odd, tersely worded Venmo transactions—including one request for half a couch—she realized that what she was actually witnessing were acts of retribution from a wounded lover. And, in a more lighthearted and novel use of the service, teenagers have apparently taken to sending small sums of money to their friends as a way to say “thanks” or to give a sort of digital “high-five.”  

Of course, a lot of Venmo activity can be credibly assessed as crude exhibitionism masquerading as consumption. Perhaps my “party animal” friend curated his payments in such a way because he wanted others to know he maintained an active nightlife. But that kind of behavior has existed since long before the information age—Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in the 19th century. Social media has merely given it new and amplified expression. “Classically, conspicuous consumption referred to the purchase of trophy items, to show off one’s wealth or status,” Bill Maurer, dean of the University of California, Irvine’s School of Social Sciences, told me. “With things like Venmo, what is happening is the making conspicuous of the tiny transactions that are the warp and weft of social life—making the private public, perhaps, or showing off one’s embeddedness in a web of relations.”

There are plenty of things money can’t buy. But, it turns out, we can do more with money than just buy stuff.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.