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Why do you stalk people on Venmo?

Episode 5 of our new podcast about how hard it is to be alive
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

This week on Why’d You Push That Button, we’re getting into one of the real soap operas of modern life: Venmo’s public activity feed. Some people never look at it; some people scroll through it during their daily commute, inexplicably curious about why their friends are exchanging money.

The payment app launched in 2009 and is now popular enough to work as a verb: “I’ll Venmo you,” meaning “I’ll hit you back right now and accompany the payment with some emoji or a dumb inside joke.” Yet, somehow, despite its popularity, and despite numerous trend pieces pointing out the potential for purchase-history sleuthing, users still make their transactions public, allowing others to mine them for drama. Why do we do this to ourselves, (if you even do it) and what secrets can we uncover? Will there ever come a day when a Venmo transaction description is as carefully considered as an Instagram caption? Will you ever hear the end of it, RE: that mysterious 2AM Uber charge? As you may have guessed, it’s about to get pretty messy!

First we talked to Olivia de Recat, a cartoonist who “decoded” some common Venmo charges in the New Yorker earlier this fall, and uses the app’s public feed to imagine what ex-love interests might be up to. It’s a crucial resource, she says, when an ex isn’t active on other social media — a winking emoji and a beer mug say a lot more than silence, even if they don’t say much. Then we called up Ashley’s college friend Michelle, who had a slightly less whimsical story about some deeply unpleasant information she managed to dig up via Venmo. You might want to cover your eyes, mouth, and ears while she is telling it. Finally, we took all of our anecdotes and questions to Venmo product lead Melanie Aliperti, to hear a little bit more about why a payments app has a social feed at all, whether this payment app is in fact a social media app, and how stories about Venmo-enabled drama might affect design decisions in the future.

Listen to the full podcast and check out the transcription of Melanie’s interview below.

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Kaitlyn Tiffany: We’re here with Melanie Aliperti, product lead at Venmo, and she’s going to tell us a little bit about how Venmo was designed, and how that relates to the big question of “Why do people do Venmo stalking?” So, for starters, I know Ashley wants to hear just a definition of what Venmo is.

Melanie Aliperti: I would describe Venmo as first and foremost a payments app, but I would say the thing that we strive to do and that we strive to do differently than other payment apps is bring a social element and think about how payments are really more about connecting people to one another and enabling them to do things. They rely on Venmo to make that better and more fun and more seamless.

Ashley Carman: I’m wondering if the social feed was included because Venmo was kind of a startup, nobody had really heard of it, if it made it more shareable and more likely to be known outside of friend groups.

Yeah, absolutely, so one of the biggest purposes of the social feed when Venmo first launched was around this concept of social proof. So if you think about a product like Venmo, it’s really only useful to you if people that you want to transact with are also using Venmo. So when Venmo launched, we had two feeds, we had the public feed and the friend feed. And immediately when a new user signed up for Venmo, you could see in the public feed that Venmo was something other people were using. There were tons of transactions happening every second, and you could see, based on the payment note and the types of transactions that you’re seeing, how people are using Venmo and why Venmo might be useful to you. It sort of created this idea of social proof or validation, that this would be a product that might be useful to you. And that was something that was really important I think in the early days of Venmo before it had the brand recognition that it has today.

Kaitlyn: That explains why Venmo would want both the friend-group feed and the public feed. The public feed is hilarious to me, because it’s like, who are these people, why would I care what they’re spending money on? But from a user standpoint, what do you think are the draws of being able to see who’s paying who and for what?

I think it’s human nature to be interested in what other people are doing. I think one of the things that differentiates Venmo from other social networks is that people really do view Venmo first and foremost as a payment app and the social aspect kind of comes secondary to it. If you think about what’s different from a Venmo transaction and why it might be more interesting than an Instagram post or something like that, there’s a level of authenticity or a more meaningful type of interaction that usually goes along with a Venmo payment. So, if I think about how I use Instagram, I’m probably likely to post an Instagram photo if I’m going out with friends and I haven’t seen them in a while and we’re going to dinner and it’s this big, special momentous occasion. But if you think about the Venmo payments I’m making, they’re probably with the people I’m watching Netflix with in my pajamas and ordering Thai food with. It’s actually sometimes a more meaningful representation of what you’re actually doing with your time and the people you’re spending it with. And so I think people find that very interesting, because it does feel a little more authentic and a little more real than what you might see on a more curated site.

Kaitlyn: This is kind of where we get into the stalking question. We’ve been debating whether or not it’s appropriate to say “stalking,” since it’s public information and not that hard to look at. But like, when you’re sharing a Venmo transaction I think most people are not considering it a “share” on social media. It’s not a curated thing that you’re doing. People for the most part aren’t thinking about it as self-presentation. But I mean now Venmo-stalking is kind of a culturally known thing at this point. Have you guys noticed any differences in the way that people are describing charges to be more vague, or setting transactions to private, or doing these things to avoid being public about their payments?

Yeah, so it’s an interesting question and it varies a lot based on the type of user and the type of transaction. To answer your question about whether or not we’ve seen trends in people making transactions more private, we haven’t. But what we do see is that people behave differently based on what type of user they are and what type of transaction it is. So you have certain user personas that we think about, that might be like, a mom that’s just using Venmo to send her kid allowance while they’re at college. That type of user is definitely thinking of Venmo as a utility and for the most part, all of their transactions will be private. But then if you think about that same student that’s receiving their allowance from their mom, they might also be transacting a ton with their friends, and that interaction might be a lot more public. What we hear a lot from users who use Venmo is that they do think about it but they think about it more as an afterthought. They write their payment note and then sometimes people will say that they try to make it a little clever or a little funny because they know people might see it. And then, you’ll also see that those same users, that same kid who has private transactions with his mom and public with his friends, might make certain other transactions private if it’s say, he’s getting a birthday present for a friend and he’s paying a friend back and he doesn’t want them to see it, or maybe it’s a transaction that he really doesn’t want out there — someone new that he’s hanging out with, or it’s for an exterminator fee, or something like that.

I think the other part of your question was around trends that we see, and how people use the payment note. Which I think is actually one of the most interesting things we see from the product area. We expected that people would use payment notes to say what they’re paying for, but then the behavior can get a lot different. Initially, early on, back in 2015, we started to notice that people were using emoji a lot in their payment notes. Almost a quarter of Venmo payments would have an emoji, and that really inspired us on the product side, so that’s how we ended up creating emoji auto-complete. Now we continue to see that trend, and we’ve tried to build upon it and build more interesting content. We now have custom emoji on Venmo. So, we try and kind of learn from our users and see how they’re using Venmo and how they want to use Venmo, and make that more friendly for them.

Kaitlyn: Since you obviously are thinking about this stuff all the time, are there any changes to Venmo that you guys are considering in regards to the social feed? What’s on your mind when you think about tweaking stuff like that?

We think about it a ton.

We’re a little bit far away from focusing specifically on the public feed. Recently we announced that you can now use Venmo to pay at over 2 million websites using PayPal. I think this is something that’s really exciting for Venmo users, because they’ve now been using Venmo with friends and they have a Venmo balance and we’re just allowing them to create that same experience now, but in a commerce setting. I think what will be really interesting is to see how this experience evolves with the feed itself. So now people have the ability to share purchase transactions that they make. And you’ll be able to say like “Oh, I bought this new hairdryer” and share it with your friends, and your friends will have this view into not just the people that you’re interacting with and the things that you’re doing, but also the things that you’re buying.

I think it’ll be really interesting to see how that works out with the feed.

Ashley: I think it’s interesting that you hit on two of the topics that we talked about in our prior interviews. Because, as we mentioned, the woman we talked to about her New Yorker cartoon, she told us a little bit about how she uses the feed to look back at ex-boyfriends because those guys aren’t active on Instagram necessarily or other social media apps, so they use Venmo I guess as a utility. I guess I’m wondering if you ever think about privacy concerns. Do you think all users are aware of this social function and realize that their information is out there? Do you ever think about that and do you ever worry about privacy?

Yeah, absolutely. Privacy is very important to us at Venmo and we want users to have the ability to choose to share and not share whatever they want to. And so we try to make that very obvious in the app. We are constantly doing user interviews and getting feedback and monitoring data, to think about ways that we can improve that so things are as transparent and clear and flexible as possible.one of the interesting things we see a lot when we talk to users is that when you first ask them they say they think of Venmo as a utility and they never look at the feed and they don’t really get the social aspect, but when we actually look at the data, you’ll see that most people do scroll the feed pretty frequently and on average our most active users are logging into Venmo every day and looking at the feed and not necessarily making payments, maybe sometimes making payments, and then checking the feed. On average, most Venmo users are logging in two to three times per week. We think it’s something users understand and appreciate and value, even if it’s not the forefront of what they think about when they use Venmo.

Ashley: Yeah, because it was just shocking when our friend told us about how she figured out she was the other woman in this situation. And I was like, okay, so this dude either just doesn’t care or has no idea that his transactions are public and therefore we can figure out what he’s up to.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, he sounded like a joker. Do you have any personal experience with Venmo stalking? I’m curious.

Yeah, no it’s funny that you ask that.before I worked at Venmo I was actually riding the train with a bunch of my friends and we have this one friend who’s not on any forms of social media, she’s not on Instagram, she’s not on Facebook, and we were kind of sitting in one of those four booth train sections and everyone was just on their phones playing around, scrolling Instagram and Facebook and then we look over at my friend and we’re like “What are you even doing on your phone? You don’t have social media.” And she was like, “I spend a lot of time on the Venmo feed.” And it was like early on, it was a few years back and it was before Venmo has the recognition that it has today.

Ashley: Do you ever wonder if sort of, you mentioned Venmo being authentic and not curated, so I’m wondering if you worry about that purity ever being tainted by more people using it or becoming aware of the social functions.

Kaitlyn: By this episode of this podcast.

I don’t worry that much about it, I want people to understand and I think our users do understand that this content is shared and is public. It’s kind of fun that you can share your information and make an experience more fun and more personal by creating this record of it happening and putting that record out there in the world. The fact that Venmo involves spending money and exchanging money means that all of these interactions are really meaningful and authentic. I’d like to think that that’s something that would continue throughout the entire life of the product.

Ashley: Money is for a lot of people is something that’s very taboo and not something they feel like should be public or talked about, regardless of whether that’s how much money they make or how they spend their money or who they’re spending it with, there’s just a lot of privacy around that for a lot of people, so the idea of segmenting it off into a separate app is interesting.

Kaitlyn: There’s also like a lot of people, in the first years of Venmo being popular, I feel like I read a lot of pieces being like “Oh thank god, finally it’s not weird to ask to get paid back for something,” but then there was another one that was like “Now all my friends are so petty and will send me Venmo requests for two dollars.”

Ashley: I’m wondering if you have heard any strange use cases for the social feed, because we also had someone we talked to who was telling us that she uses the social feed only to check on people who already owe her money. So she looks to see if they’ve been active. So like, if they go out to an expensive dinner, she’ll look to see if they’ve been active and then she knows if they’re avoiding paying her. And she says she hasn’t screenshotted and sent it to them yet but she knows she can kind of re-ping them and be like “I know you’re on Venmo, can you send this money?” I’m just wondering if you’ve heard any other stories of people adjusting the feed to their uses in weird ways.

That’s really interesting. We hear a lot of anecdotes about people that use Venmo in different and funny ways. I think a lot more of what we see are funny ways people interact and share payments. One of the cool things is that millions of people actually — sorry, we have millions of payments every year that are for less than one dollar. So it’s basically people that are just interacting and sending Venmo payments to one another as a form of communication and a way to write a funny note and kind of ping your friends or say happy birthday to them or something like that.

Ashley: Happy birthday, here’s 12 cents.

Kaitlyn: That’s such a weird thing to do.

Exactly! Or 22 cents if it’s your 22nd birthday.

Kaitlyn: I’m going to start doing that. That’s hilarious. That’s really funny, it’s slightly more thoughtful than getting the same birthday text from 50 people.

Ashley: Yeah, like I’ll take 22 cents.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, why not?

Ashley: Sure, thanks for something.

Kaitlyn: I’m gonna take that. That’s gonna be my bit now.

Ashley: I think this is now, everything we wanted to know about Venmo.

I think we covered it.

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