Sensitivity with regard to personal payment data has become a big topic these days. One of the more recent developments in this field is the idea of linking social media with payment. Venmo, a subsidiary of PayPal and one of the most popular peer-to-peer-mobile-payment-cum-messaging-apps in the United States, may be regarded as a pioneer and as an exemplary case. With Venmo you can pay, share and tattle!
Since Venmo is only available in the US, I learned about its existence when browsing through anthropological literature. What I found interesting is that Venmo (and some similar wallets such as WhatsApp’s payment function recently launched as a beta-version in India) works as a “micro-payment service that integrates with social media so that users can see each other’s payment activity” (Maurer 2017: 216).
Being largely used by millennials and often for rather particular purposes (sharing bills for food and drinks, tipping friends, making donations and payment requests etc.), Venmo creates straight links between payment, identity, group activity and social memory. On that score Venmo is another good example for what anthropologists and sociologists have discussed for decades under rubrics such as “spheres of exchange” (Bohannan 1955), “special monies” (Polanyi 1957), “social currencies” (Graeber 2012) or with regard to social processes of “earmarking” money for particular purposes (Zelizer 1994). These studies have long shown how poorly money is understood if it is regarded merely as a neutral tool of exchange and only as a means of payment. Rather it can be argued through instances of primitive currency up to contemporary ecologies of digital transaction that arranging, re-arranging (and also destructing) human beings or relations between people has always been one of money’s core functions (compare Graeber 2012).
Venmo explicitly challenges the still widespread idea of money’s impersonality and immorality. Or, which may be even more subversive, it challenges the disciplinary morale that financial transactions should better be kept private. Instead Venmo playfully engages with the counterpart of such a morale: the inclination which many people may feel toward sharing what they do, what they have, what they owe, what they consume as well as what and to whom they pay in order to show their presence and embeddedness in social networks and spaces they inhibit.
“Conspicuous consumption” (Veblen 1899, Trigg 2001) is thus a key to understand why Venmo is attractive for users (compare Tung 2015), while the larger implication is also that it needs not be taken for granted that anonymity, abstraction and (social) “distancing” (Simmel 1900) are the true values or vices that explain how money has to work in or affect society.
Now, I am writing this article after I became aware that Venmo uses a public API through which all transactions are made accessible not just to users or group members, but in fact to the entire world. Hang Do Thi Duc, a researcher and media fellow at the Mozilla Foundation just made the notable effort to bring this fact to the attention of a larger public (though it appears to never have been a secret as such). Thus irrespective whether one uses the app or not, anyone can access Venmo transaction data as long as users remain with the app’s standard privacy settings which are by default set to “public”. The intelligence offered includes users’ (actors and recipients) real names and pictures, date of account registration, date of the transaction and, importantly, content of messages that accompany the transactions and which quite often reveal a whole lot of further information. Out of this Hang has compiled a few exemplary and nicely commented datasets to trace transactions (and communications) – for example among lovers or among cannabis-dealers and consumers (though in a legalized setting) – as well as to show how easy it is to identify some users’ diets, attitudes, networks and friends. To get the full picture it is strongly recommendable to consult her website – it’s very accessible, entertaining and highly informative!
Anyone interested can of course directly access the public API here (change the last number in the url to get more or less transactions displayed, use filters to search for key-terms or names, etc.) – it’s in real-time, and well it appears to be an Aladdin’s lamp of information for researchers like me, or perhaps for insurance companies, or stalkers, or marketers, or governments…
For a quick illustration, here is another screenshot of one of the first transactions that (inevitably indeed) caught my eye when scrolling through public api the other day (habitually I have blackened all personal information, though I know this is almost useless as long as any specific information is conveyed at all – to justify: audience was set to “public”): Actor ‘A ‘(female) made a transaction to target ‘B’ (male), obviously paying for “stripping for us” – whatever that precisely means and whatever kind of internal joke, episode, value or intention it may convey among the two parties and perhaps their closest peers.