Venmo can reveal too much about you. People like it anyway

Joe Biden's Venmo friends list was found on display Friday. That's how the app is designed, keeping personal connections central.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read
A US hundred dollar bill dissolves into binary code

Emojis and funny messages make awkward money conversations easier.

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If Venmo users forgot that the popular payment app makes transactions and friend lists publicly visible by default, they were reminded multiple times over the last several weeks. In April, the Daily Beast reported that outspoken Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz had made $900 in payments to a friend, who then distributed the same amount among three young women, one of whom was 18 years old and a mutual connection of both men on Venmo. Gaetz's transactions were reportedly visible on PayPal-owned Venmo for anyone to see.

Gaetz's friend, Joel Greenberg, pleaded guilty on Monday to federal charges, including sex trafficking. Gaetz has denied any wrongdoing, with a spokesperson reiterating to reporters on Friday that the congressman has "never paid for sex."

That member of Congress isn't the only politician whose Venmo account was easily seen. On Friday, BuzzFeed reported that it found President Joe Biden's Venmo account with ease, following a New York Times story that mentioned the commander-in-chief uses the app. Biden had set his transactions to private but, as is the case with all Venmo accounts, his friends list was visible to the public, opening access to a broader network of connections in the president's life and creating a potential security risk.

In the world of finance, many people try to keep their activity private. Not on Venmo, where taco 🌮and noodle 🍜 emojis let the world know what diners ate. In less innocent transactions, Venmo users have also been caught buying drugs 🌿, getting drinks with exes 🍻 and overusing the eggplant emoji 😬. There are app-wide trends in emoji use, such as the gift emoji, which Venmo users sent in messages 20% more during the 2020 holidays than during the same period in 2019, Venmo said. 

"Venmo is very much a community," said Darrell Esch, a senior vice president and general manager at Venmo, "a community of communities with 70 million members, based generally on social activity."

Esch said Venmo was built around the idea of paying friends back, and that framework continues to guide the app's design. In addition to publicly posting transactions, Venmo lets users import their contacts as "friends." The first screen users see is a feed of their friends' purchases. (Friends lists can't be hidden, and the only way to hide your connections is to delete your friends.)

Many Venmo users enjoy those public or friend-facing features, using them to communicate about shared experiences like splitting a bar tab or paying a roommate for the utilities. Competitor Cash App also has social features, including the ability to send messages with payments and the #CashAppFridays Twitter handle, where the company gives away prizes to users who post their Cash App usernames. But public-by-default settings are unique to Venmo in the US.

Social spending is broadly accepted in China, where popular social networking service WeChat has a payment service, WeChat Pay, embedded in its platform. Competitor AliPay has also tried to bring its users' social lives into the platform with a chat service and social networking program. The features show that payment app makers are tapping into the dynamics of social media, which keep users coming back to interact with friends, rubberneck at other people and share news about milestones, like the purchase of a wedding dress.

Read More: How to Protect Your Privacy on Venmo and Cash App

With the adoption of affordable smartphones and social media, consumers got the tools to talk more openly with their friends about money, says Lana Swartz, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia who has written about the transformation of payment services into social media. Now transactions have become messages about all of human interactions, good or bad. It could be rent and nights out, or betrayal and even crime.

"Money is really social," Swartz said. "But it doesn't mean just one thing."

Public posts show users how to spend on Venmo

Friends want to know what friends do with each other. Money is part of that activity, and Venmo is a window onto how social groups act. If you're new to a group, the app lets you see how its members behave.

At the University of Washington, data science expert Daniel Epstein and his fellow researchers interviewed Venmo users in 2016 to get a sense of how they felt about public posts. Many who used the public features simply hadn't taken the steps needed to make their posts private, reporting they hadn't known or cared enough to make the change. Others said they only used the public features occasionally when they thought a transaction might be funny or cute.

That ability to joke about money made conversations about the sensitive topic less awkward, Epstein says. "We found it interesting how norms developed over time to diffuse tension around payments," he said. "Like requesting rent with some sort of funny joke for a roof emoji."

Another value users found in the social features was learning how other people in their circles used the app. One interview subject said the public posts taught her how people act on the app, providing ideas as to which emojis to send friends with payments and when to post publicly (or not).

"It just seemed like the culture of Venmo was to use emoji instead of actual writing," one study participant said. "I just wanted to fit in."

Of course, the public feeds on Venmo share some of the same unhealthy behaviors that social media has created. Many people admit to using the app to check up on exes, seeing who they're spending time with after a relationship ends. Other times, Venmo posts let people see when they're being left out of a pub night or when a friend is lying about feeling too sick to go out.

A social dynamic that keeps you coming back

Regardless of why people spend publicly, the social features create a value that Venmo says keeps users on the app. Social interactions help app companies build a relationship with their users, giving them a reason to think about the app, use it more frequently and stay on it longer. Tech analysts call this "mind share."

Venmo and other payment companies want to "make sure the end consumer is not leaving the platform and stays there engaging," said Sulabh Agarwhal, who leads a team focused on global payments systems at Accenture.

The social spending makes Venmo's brand stand out, giving it an identity that sticks in people's heads, said Forrester analyst Peter Wannemacher. But that doesn't mean consumers simply come to Venmo for the social features. 

"What your brand is known for isn't necessarily the reason people use you most," Wannemacher said. "The reason people are using Venmo is to get money."

Balancing social spending with privacy

Gaetz's reported public posts aren't the only reason Venmo users might be concerned about being so open about their spending on Venmo. Consumers are more aware of data privacy issues than they were in 2016 when Epstein interviewed Venmo users at the University of Washington, he said. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the introduction of stricter data privacy laws in the European Union and some US states have made people wary of how much companies are learning about them through social apps.

So far that hasn't prompted a change in Venmo's settings, and the company says users are adept at switching between posts that can be seen by the public, friends or no one but the parties involved.

Based on the Gaetz story, however, not every Venmo user has found the settings.