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What Does Venmo-Stalking Tell About Ourselves?

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Consider the perfect couple you’ve ever known. Let’s just call them Mike & Julia for the sake of this article. Common white millennials. Perhaps they are the two people you met on your freshman year floor. They seem to have fallen in love and have grown closer together. They post beautiful, inspiring photos on Instagram of their summer weekends in East Hampton, and winter ski trips to Vail. Their engagement on Nantucket was a dream come true. And their Boston apartment is beautifully decorated by Restoration Hardware. Charlie, a yellow lab, is their dog. They look like the perfect match. They seem to be made for each other. A nondenominational wedding will follow with a country club reception that includes a crab cake bar, signature cocktails (made with gin, not vodka) and a ceremony.

Next, check your Venmo account. Your friend was only asking for $40 to go out last night. The app opens and you are confronted with a confusing discovery. Julia has charged Mike for beer. They aren’t engaged! You think. You click on Julia’s profile to find out more. Ninety percent are charges that seem insignificant between her and her partner of nine year. Rent is one thing, but there are also costs for pizza, batteries, and toilet paper. Is the perfect couple falling from grace? Are there sinister undertones to the facade of Breton tees and breezy selfies? It could be, but it is possible.

Venmo was launched in 2009 as a way for regular people to transfer funds between themselves up to $5,000. After you log in, you will be securely connected to your bank account. From there, you can transfer money to any person you wish. PayPal bought the app in 2013 for $800million. It is believed to have 65 million users.

Although it’s useful, the best part of the app’s popularity is its social component. It opens with a timeline that is similar to the one you would see on Facebook and Twitter. Each entry will show “Person A paid Person B,” along with a description of the purpose of the payment. While some transactions are obvious, others require more research. A quick scan of our Venmo feed revealed a few rent payments, split Ubers and vet visits for someone’s dog. There was also a payment for Megan Thee Stallion Tickets. Pretty standard stuff.

There are still gossip-y gems in the rough. “Venmo is far more real than, say, Instagram,” Katie, a teacher from Washington, D.C., says. “In Instagram, it feels that everyone is performing for their friends and followers. Venmo isn’t fake. All the details are laid out on a table.”

It’s an excellent point. Venmo’s authenticity is refreshing in a world where many social media posts are carefully staged and edited. Yep. Todd and Brendan went bowling. They then got burritos. Todd paid for everything. To that end, Venmo allows you to follow your friends and acquaintances to get a glimpse into the strange relationship we have to money. It shows how we share it and what we do with it. Mike and Julia would never advertise having separate bank accounts and nickel-and-dimeing each other for paper goods. It’s unlikely. Venmo is open to all.

The app has its limitations when it comes to stalking. First, users can hide their transactions. This is because “public” is the default setting. Many people, including us, are too lazy to change to private. You can’t see the amount of money being exchanged, but you can see that money is being transferred from one party to the next. However, it is not enough to stop people from spying. Becca, a New York City-based marketing specialist, says, “Even though it’s impossible to see exactly how much people send to each other, it’s certainly interesting to see who travels all across the country every weekend.” “Although I don’t know how much my coworkers make, it is sometimes quite amazing to see what they spend their money on Venmo.”

Ally, 29, is a finance analyst in New York. She has been irritated by some of her coworkers’ money habits. She started her career as a junior analyst at the lowest possible level and is well aware of the amount her younger colleagues make. She’s seen some of her colleagues living like characters in The Wolf of Wall Street, though. She muses, “It really makes it seem like you wonder where certain people get their money from.” “If you go to Michelin-starred restaurants every day, you have to think about how much wealth your family has.”

Some might argue that this type of speculation is foolish. Some might consider it liberating to be closer to a world in which it is not strange to see what people make and how they spend their earnings.

Venmo stalking is not just about financials. It also speaks to our insatiable appetite for gossip. One woman we spoke with discovered that her coworkers were having affairs on the DL due to Venmo charges. Katie, a teacher in D.C. has a more shocking story. She and her friends had been following a former college friend for several years. They suspected that the woman may have a sugar daddy. “No judgment, do what you have to do. But when I see an older man sending money to a woman in her 30s with the caption “just because,” it makes me wonder if he is a sugar daddy.” (We won’t go into the details of Venmo purchases, but we will mention that Venmo doesn’t always get used for legal transactions …)

There’s gossip, giggles and hurt feelings. Many people we interviewed for this story felt a stronger sense of FOMO after they trolling Venmo. We are reminded of the time we declined a weekend trip upstate another city with some of my friends, before COVID. We didn’t have to spend the money. We thought with ourselves. We have been to the Catskills at least a dozen times. The weekend arrived, and Venmo brought us everything we had missed. The beautiful Airbnb was subject to back-and-forth charges. The Insta-worthy apple orchard. The dinner at a chic bistro run by a Brooklyn transplant. Were we invited to the trip? Yes. Nevertheless, every transaction that we witnessed made us regret the decision more.

Julia feels the same FOMO as her single friends in Vegas when she Venmo-watches them. Probably. Do you ever feel grumpy when you see your friends out with their beers and cheese fries late at night? We bet you have. Venmo stalking may be pure voyeurism but it is also, like any social media platform, a way to show the parts of our lives that were once private. However, there’s a lot less curation and veneer.

Also, don’t invoice the toilet paper if you are concerned about optics.

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