Margaret Pennoyer, an elementary school teacher in Manhattan, had just returned from a bachelorette party in Napa Valley when she received an email that had been sent to all the guests. The two organizers had itemized each woman’s individual expenses, which they had covered, and requested reimbursement through Venmo, an app that transfers money between users who have linked their bank accounts to their phones. Pennoyer owed $31.98 to one woman and $20.62 to the other.
In a previous time, the organizers likely would have asked everyone to bring enough cash to repay them in person or to mail a check afterward, courteously rounding down to $30 and $20. But the Venmo request, calculated to the penny, struck Pennoyer, 29, as emblematic of how the app, the most popular among her fellow millennials for everything from entertainment expenses to rent shares, “changes friendships and makes them more transactional,” she said. “It’s nickel-and-diming everything, literally.”
By rendering payments between friends nearly invisible — no cash changes hands, no checks are written — Venmo theoretically should make these relationships less obviously transactional. Yet not only does it encourage pettiness, distilling the messiness of human experience down to a digitally precise data point, but by making it so easy to pay someone back for purchases as trifling as a coffee, the app arguably promotes the libertarian, every-user-for-himself ethos of Silicon Valley.
“It’s making people less generous and chivalrous,” Pennoyer said. “It used to be you’d go to a restaurant, and you’d put down your credit cards and split it 50-50, even if one person had steak and one had chicken. But now people pay exactly to the cent.”
“When there are three cookies,” she added, “let someone have the extra cookie — you don’t have to split the third one.”
Some users have observed a decline in magnanimity, particularly for small purchases.
“I have a friend who’s against Venmo because he believes it harms the norm of social reciprocity,” said Zach Fuchs, 30, who works in private equity in San Francisco, where the app is much in fashion. Fuchs noted that a colleague might normally feel compelled to buy the next round of happy hour drinks, for instance, but with Venmo he can pay back the buyer of his drink and be done.
Pennoyer agreed and recalled childhood taxi rides, when two adults would fight to treat the other. Now, thanks to a host (or perhaps that’s the wrong word) of money-transfer and bill-splitting apps — such as Divvy, which takes a photo of a restaurant receipt and assigns a bill to each diner — and a fare-splitting feature built into Uber and Lyft (for a 25-cent fee), “that doesn’t happen with my generation,” she said. “It’s the difference between saying ‘I’ll get it next time’ and ‘I’ll Venmo you.’”
Once two people have decided to repay a debt with Venmo, there is the additional awkwardness of asking for payment. The easiest way is turning the app into a verb, with the casually tossed off “Just Venmo me.” But if you’re at a bar and putting someone’s drinks on your tab, the instruction may well be forgotten amid a morning hangover. The app also allows users to request payment — in other words, to send an acquaintance a formal invoice.
To assist with record-keeping, the app also requires users to write a short memo declaring what the money is for. The memos are sometimes bluntly functional — “drinks,” “rent” — but, perhaps to mitigate the businesslike feel, are often whimsically annotated.
“I’m paying you money, but it’s not this cold, hard cash transaction,” James Auchincloss, 26, a law student at Fordham University, said of the mentality behind the less serious memos. “It’s a memory of this thing we did together. I can’t tell you how many people just send a beer emoji or an emoji of a sport from a game.”
Yet, as with anything emoji-speckled or exclamation-point-riddled, there is a performative aspect to the memos, especially since the default mode is that transactions (although not the dollar amount) and contact lists are publicly viewable. Moreover, the app can search one’s phone contacts or Facebook network for users, and its default setting is to add new ones as they sign up for the service. As such, it is like any other social network in that you can lose yourself for hours roaming through the financial transactions of others (or just seeing who someone’s Venmo “friends” are). Within a minute I was able to see what a friend — whom I’m not even connected with on the app — pays for internet access and electricity, since her roommate itemized the charges in the memo.
It is possible to make one’s ledger and contacts private, but many users overlook these options, don’t care or might even desire the visibility: both to document their own experiences as though in a photo album and to broadcast their curated lifestyles to others. Venmo, meet FOMO.
“A part of me wants people to see that I’m doing stuff,” Auchincloss admitted. “I kind of like that people say, “Oh, James went out to a baseball game or got drinks with people.’”
Scrolling through her friends’ ledgers, Pennoyer saw that two of her cousins had socialized recently and hadn’t invited her.
“The same way you can see on Instagram that you were left out, you can tell on Venmo,” she said.
Although calling attention to in-demand tickets or a fancy meal may inspire envy among one’s peers, and philanthropic payments can signal one’s virtue, it is just as possible to run across less glamorous or upstanding transactions. Pennoyer noticed that a friend’s mother had sent her a Venmo payment with the memo “allowance.”
“That’s just embarrassing,” she said.
The website Vicemo displays a running list of transactions with memos whose keywords or emojis describe drug-, alcohol- and sex-related payments. Some are clearly jokes — unless a lot of clean-cut youngsters really are buying “crack” — but it is nonetheless very easy for a boss to search an employee’s full name on Venmo and discover a payment represented by a suggestive leaf.
Public transactions also mean that intimate relations are often made legible and subject to scrutiny.
“You can tell who’s hooking up, if there’s enough of a pattern between two people that you thought were just friends but seem to be more than friends, because they leave a trail of clues via Uber payments or breakfast payments,” Auchincloss said.
One man used Venmo to write a lovelorn memo to his former girlfriend; a screenshot was quickly circulated among their mutual contacts and beyond.
More supportively, Noam Waksman, a 24-year-old who works in digital marketing in New York, said he has “been called out by friends before, for charging my girlfriend for a meal,” which they had spotted on Venmo.
Waksman has, in turn, peered at how other couples financially relate to each other and has seen people “surprise-Venmo” their significant others “with memos like ‘Have fun at the movies with your friends, love you,’” he said.
But the strongest demonstration of intimacy might be abandoning the service altogether. Fuchs and his fiancée used to use Venmo, but in preparation for their recent wedding, the two opened a joint checking account and now pool their expenses there.
“We’ve stopped settling up,” he said.