A freshman at UC Davis enjoyed “the strippers.” A high-schooler just paid her pal back for bankrolling “Wasted Wednesday.” A guy in Provo, Utah, spent the evening with his brother, splitting some hard-earned “soda and weed!”
… and all these indiscretions are visible to anyone on the Internet, courtesy the voyeuristic glories of the new “Vicemo” feed.
Vicemo is, in a word, brilliant. Vicemo is the silent, withering critique of the overshare culture that Venmo always needed. The site, launched Monday by the same guys who brought you Cloak, Unbaby.me and Seamless Roulette, is basically an aggregation of every Venmo post that mentions terms related to sex, drugs or alcohol. Many of the posts are clearly jokes, i.e. “rentable blow-up dolls,” “clowns and strippers,” “the estrogen pills you need.” But many of them are just simple statements of (personal) financial fact, broadcast — like most things on Venmo — very publicly.
“Jake paid Jason … for bar last night.”
“Jason paid Sarah … for rent/utilities.”
“Sarah paid Ali … for cupcakes. Also, LSD.”
To the outside or over-30 eye, of course, the very premise of Venmo seems patently insane. Why would anyone want to share the things they pay their friends for, especially when those things are incriminating?
And yet, anyone is doing it. Everyone is doing it. Since 2009, when it launched in relative obscurity, Venmo has become the payment platform of choice for the post-cash generation, many of whom rely on the app for mundane daily transactions like paying rent or splitting a bar tab. According to Venmo itself, the most common transactions involve rent, food (particularly pizza), gas and utilities. And there are a lot of those transactions, it turns out: The company processed $700 million in payments last quarter — a boon for its corporate parent, eBay.
“Venmo is on fire,” CEO John Donahoe said in a recent earnings call. “Venmo is acquiring new users. It’s a leading peer-to-peer way to pay. And if you go to any college campus across America, they talk about Venmo-ing money to each other.”
But as many faithful users have pointed out before, the “Venmo-ing money” part of Venmo is not its primary appeal. After all, a million mobile apps exist for that purpose — even Snapchat, as of November, is in on the payments game.
Rather, Venmo is unusual because it doubles as an unlikely social network, a place to see who your friends hang out with and what they’re doing. Whenever you send someone money on the app, you note what it’s for. And by default, those notes — sometimes sincere, sometimes silly — display publicly: a little trail of financial breadcrumbs that, taken together, can suggest larger stories.
The Internet is full of mysteries sleuthed and solved through Venmo: who’s hanging out with whom, who’s secretly dating, who’s breaking up and who’s moving on. In the hours since I signed up for the app — because I, like someone 10 years my elder, have historically been skeptical of the whole Venmo thing — I learned that several college friends are still living together, an old classmate now works in Germany, and several of the couples I know are, at least with each other, kind of cheap.
Venmo’s makers didn’t necessarily intend the app this way — they once said they added the social stream just to get people to keep the app open longer. But once they added the social features, they made sense. After all, sending money is inherently social: You have to interact with another person to do it. Each Venmo update represents not only a financial transaction but also a point of interpersonal connection.
It helps, too, that Venmo doesn’t display the amount of the purchase, and the things people pay their friends for aren’t generally very sensitive. Drinks with friends, a fancy dinner, a plane ticket or hotel room — this is the humble-braggy, consumptive stuff of Facebook and Instagram, too. If anything, Venmo just makes it easier for people to participate in the pics-or-it-didn’t-happen social economy. No need to orchestrate a glamorous selfie at the bar or a status update about the great night you had — Venmo understatedly informs your friends for you, without making you look thirsty/desperate/otherwise bad.
“Many think payments are a private thing,” co-founder Andrew Kortina told Fast Company, “but if you think about it, the things you spend money on with friends are: going to restaurants, concerts, ski trips, birthdays … It’s natural people want to share.”
The question, of course, is who they want to share with. Venmo has long profited from the illusion of privacy: because the app’s popular with teens and 20-somethings, and pretty much no one else “gets” it, users feel that it’s a kind of safe space — nothing your parents or your boss will ever see. Vicemo, alas, punctures that conceit. Not only are these transactions public, but they’re usually tied to users’ real, full names — and their Facebook accounts, where we easily found details on their employers, schools and families.
So yes, Venmo may be the “ultimate social network,” the fulfillment of every gossip’s utmost fantasy. But … now anyone with an Internet connection can also see Joseph’s last payment to some guy named Randy:
“JUST TAKE THE DRUG MONEYYY.”
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