Social Media Stalking: Venmo Edition

You’ve all heard of it. You all have probably used it within the past week. Venmo. Venmo is a free app used to send money in the US and is considered very safe for storing both money and personal bank information. It was founded in 2008 by UPenn grads Andrew Kortina and Igram Magdon-Ismail when Magdon-Ismail forgot his wallet on a trip. Kortina spotted him the money for the weekend but this gave them the idea to create a platform to send and receive payments over text. Adding a social networking aspect was a deliberate decision based on the “stories” told over the original Venmo text messages. Its payment transactions in the last quarter of 2018 alone were $19 billion, all of them being accompanied by a message of text or emoji’s (most of which are publicly visible). They make money through transaction fees on instantaneous bank transfers and through charging businesses to use the app as a form of payment from customers. While this provides revenues for the company, it’s not enough to make a profit, or break even which is something they are struggling with especially in the wake of growing competition. Their competitors consist of Square Cash, Apple Pay Cash, Zelle and other mobile banking apps launched by banks themselves. However, none have reached the success or transaction volume of Venmo and none include the visibility of payment that comes with the social networking aspect of the app.

Just by scrolling through my own Venmo feed as I was writing this, I could see rent transactions with roommates, who had ubered to and from bars together over the weekend, and even found out that a girl from high school had to pay another because apparently she had stolen some of her food when she was drunk (or so the caption says). The point is, you can get as much information scrolling through your Venmo newsfeed as you can on Instagram or Facebook, only this time it also loops in spending habits. In fact, privacy advocates have done research to find out just how much information is hiding in plain sight on our Venmo accounts. Hang Do Thi Duc used more than 200 million public Venmo payments in her analysis to illustrate the lack of privacy. She was able to “trace the exact spending habits of a couple in California, documenting what stores they shopped at, when they took their dog to the vet, and when they made loan payments”. (Check out this link if you want to learn more about her findings). There have also been similar projects set up to track payments referencing drugs and “supposedly scandalous payments” which are actually pretty easy to trace.

The FTC says changing Venmo settings to protect privacy is “too onerous” and that Venmo hasn’t made it clear enough to users all of the settings that they need to change to make sure their payments are actually private. To combat this, Venmo created a new privacy tutorial that pops up when you create an account, however this doesn’t help their millions of already existing users. In today’s world privacy is becoming a bigger concern every day and it seems to me like this could be a threat to Venmo’s current role as a leader in the mobile money transfer space.

So why do we keep using Venmo despite the existence of competitors who provide exactly the same service without the social networking aspect? I think it has to do with the First Mover advantage and network effects. Venmo was the first money-sending app to really get publicity and its name out there. Now pretty much everyone I interact with has a Venmo account (even my mom!). It’s even a verb – “I’m going to venmo you”. If I were to set up Apple Pay or use my own bank’s personal transaction app, the people who I need to send money to most likely wouldn’t have an account of their own making my peer-to-peer transaction impossible. Simply put, I use Venmo because the people I need to send money to or get money from use it.

Could this change in the future?

Well that depends on us, I guess. There is not a lack of alternatives out there. Square Cash and Zelle are growing quickly and even getting backed by major banks. Gmail and Faceboom Messenger offer ways to send money between users and Apple is releasing the same thing with iOS 11. This could go one of two ways: either Venmo could change their platform to make switching to non-public transactions the norm (or at least much easier); or as people start to realize how much personal information the are really sharing on Venmo, they will start to switch to other more private apps. In the later case, as more people prioritize privacy, the network effects will begin to work in the favor of the competition as more users switch. Either way, Venmo’s profitability problems will only get worse if they lose users, so keeping current users and gaining new ones is imperative if they plan to be around for a while.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your inputs on this topic. Our potential adoption of other peer-to-peer money transferring apps has the potential to make or break Venmo. How much do we as millennial users value our financial privacy? Is Venmo privacy something you’ve ever been concerned about? And if you are, are you willing to (or have you already) make the switch to something that doesn’t combine your financial decisions with social media sharing? Venmo was created specifically to have a social media aspect to it – do you think that this will change in the future, or is a fundamental part of the company and its success so far?

Works Consulted & Referenced

https://www.statista.com/statistics/763617/venmo-total-payment-volume/

https://www.businessinsider.com/venmo-origin-story-facts-andrew-kortina-2014-6

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/17/venmo-payments-app-default-privacy-settings-public-information

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-23/paypal-is-said-to-weigh-privacy-changes-to-venmo-after-backlash

https://www.wired.com/story/venmo-alternatives/

https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/12/15782328/zelle-us-banks-instant-payment-processing-app-venmo-square-cash

https://www.thestreet.com/technology/how-does-venmo-make-money-14763957

14 comments

  1. dilillomelissa · · Reply

    I’m so glad you posted on this topic! This is something I think about almost everytime I Venmo (which is a lot). I used to love it for the fun emojis and creative captions, until I realized that it was literally a platform for stalking. One of my friends was seeing this guy who she realized was lying to her about where he was when he was Venmoing captions of being in another country for a week. A bunch of my friends would casually bring up that they saw I ate at the new Italian restaurant or attended a Cubs game. You can literally click on any person and go down a rabbit hole of all their transactions with people over the years. I immediately set mine to private. While I love how conveninent Venmo is, I do worry about my heftier transactions (rent) being hacked or my account information leaking at some point as well. Venmo honestly makes it easy to spend money immediately. I try to use it carefully because it’s so second nature to most of us at this point that we aren’t all fully aware of the risks. I’d gladly make a switch to someting non social media based.

  2. I’m a big fan of this topic. You hit on a lot of really great points throughout your post and the article you linked based on Hang Do Thi Duc’s research was pretty eye opening. Like pretty much everyone else, I use Venmo on a fairly frequent basis whether it be for something as small as lunch with a friend to something as big as airline tickets for a two week trip I have coming up. I like to think that most of the captions for my payments are fairly harmless and would only make sense to the person I’m sending the money to or receiving it from, but then again, using the emoji with sunglasses, an airplane and a palm tree isn’t all that hard to decipher… When it comes to your question on how much millennial users value financial privacy, I’m not sure that some even realize that they’re putting this at risk. Social media plays such a major role in just about every aspect of our life that it makes sense that it is how Venmo is structured and why people are inclined to use it. The platform is extremely easy to use and I think that, coupled with the entertainment factor of the app clouds the thought of the potential downfalls that could come with a breach of the it and a possible leak of their personal banking information. With all of that being said, I’d be interested in switching to a more private app, but until everyone else does, I’m sure that I’ll continue using Venmo, albeit more cautiously.

  3. This is such a great blog post. The privacy aspect of Venmo creeps me out so much (even though my account is private), but like you I use it because everybody else uses it. Plus it’s so convenient. I’m not too surprised that they’re not making a profit yet, since that seems to be the way with most start ups, but I do wonder if they have a path to profitability or if they’re still trying to figure out the business model. Especially since, as you mentioned, they’re are less creepy competitors out there. All of that being said, I do think that there are a lot of people out there that enjoy the social aspect of the app. I have often found myself scrolling down the payments timeline, intrigued by my friends spending habits – it’s insane how easily you can piece together someone’s weekend based on who and what they charged/ paid for!

  4. Wow! Immediately after reading your post, I went to my account to change the settings. I recently updated the app and when I opened it, there was a notification about privacy, but also a box to check to accept the new terms and conditions. Users of Venmo and many other native and mobile apps fall victim to blindly signing terms and conditions. Signing terms and conditions means we accept the policy that is written but very rarely do we do a complete and exhaustive read before clicking the box. Often, clicking yes is second nature and the pop up seems like a nuisance. User settings create an interesting dynamic where it is unclear when it is the users’ responsibility to figure out what information is shown and when it is the company’s responsibility to automatically fix the settings to protect the users. Similar to our talk with Professor Chang, Venmo, who was forced to remove “misleading” privacy settings, is creating new precedent that future companies must abide by.

  5. Great blog! I had already switched my Venmo settings to private a year or so back. When my venmo account was public in college, my friends and I would add comical lines to our transactions and took it as a way to ‘one-up’ one another the next time we sent each other money. I use venmo primarily to charge my roommates rent and split expenses with them…other than that I have begun to use Zelle more which the only inconvenience is having to sign into my BoA account. If all my friends had BoA, I would love to move off of Venmo and switch to Zelle, but venmo can bring anyone together with its platform. I do think some millennial’s value their financial privacy, but it truly takes time to kick in and for them to fully understand how important it is to keep your financials private, because as you described some people can track a strangers spending habits.

  6. Great topic! I agree Venmo has become a verb and there is no doubt that it has blown up. Personally I do not worry as much with the financial security given the transactions that I used Venmo for, I believe it depends on the user, I have many friends myself included who will not use the app for larger transactions. Part of the success of the company has been the early adoption making it harder for others to enter the market, which is why we haven’t heard as much from the other markets. There will always be privacy concerns when it comes to social media and adding financial information into the mix adds that much more complexity, I think there has to be strong guidelines around privacy for platforms like these from a legislative perspective. I think we are starting to see these conversation take place. For right now I am hoping people aren’t stalking me based on the comical lines from my transactions.,. like the ones I have received from @dancreedon4

  7. There is a really great episode of Reply All (a podcast about everything on the internet – #4 follow the money) that talks about Venmo’s social media element and how this woman basically watched the fallout of a long term relationship on venmo because you could see the sudden stream of shared furniture payments and broken leases fees. Essentially it makes the case that it’s the one place on social media where people aren’t as image conscious (despite the cloud of funny emojis) because by the nature of it being financial transactions and most people are actually honest about the payment descriptions.

  8. Like most people in the comments, I use Venmo all the time for quick and easy payments because most people around me have it as well. However, I’ve been really intrigued by Boston-based Circle (https://www.circle.com/en/pay) recently as an alternative to Venmo. On their website they state that “Unlike existing systems that are closed and proprietary, we use open standards and protocols to build our products.” and I support their use of open-source technologies as it adds a layer of transparency to their application. However, I’m not sure they are focused enough in this space (they are really crypto-focused) to overtake a company like Venmo. Additionally, I’m concerned that PayPal owns Venmo as it has had a plethora of security incidents in recent years.

  9. I also think it’s interesting how we can transform any platform into a form of social media. Regardless of whether or not it was Venmo’s intention to create a social media platform by creating a public payment feed, the content still gives so many people information on who is interacting and in what ways. I have definitely witnessed first-hand relationship drama unfold as a result of “venmo stalking”, and all of the different venmo “codewords” that have developed for the number of years I’ve been using the app.

  10. Personally, I don’t think of Venmo as much of a social media platform although I definitely find it creepy when I can see who of my friends are paying who and for what. I’ve always had my settings on private just because I don’t think its necessary to share with the people how frequently or for what I send money to whom. I definitely think the first mover effect has made Venmo the household name it is today. Venmo took the college world by storm as the prime market: broke college kids trying to split meals and bills, building up their customer base significantly from the start. I like others, continue to use Venmo because everyone I need to split bills with is on Venmo. I would consider using Zelle considering it’s linked with my BofA account, but it’s a pain in the a** to log in to that account, while Venmo makes it as simple as a few taps to complete a transaction. Overall, I think Venmo is here to stay based on its simplicity and the significant network effects its generated.

  11. Great post. Competition in this space has really been huge. I bet Venmo stays on as the one that transfers money between friends, and other other big players battle it out over business payments.

  12. Venmo definitely benefitted from being a first-mover in peer-to-peer money platforms. As you said, their network of effects is a major key to their current dominance, and our unwillingness to switch platforms, even with privacy concerns. I honestly haven’t thought too much about the privacy aspect before. I’ve never really used the social media side of it myself, so I don’t think I realized how dangerous it can be (although one observation I have made is how people freely use the champagne or beer emoji as captions when paying friends for alcohol, even if they are underage, which is probably not a smart move! Wish I could ask Kabrina Chang if this could be used against someone…they could “theoretically” just be using the emoji randomly for fun). I’d definitely prefer that there was no social media aspect, but I, like many others, am not willing to go to a different platform because of the convenience everyone being on Venmo provides. @profkane to your point on business payments — my nail salon now asks for payments over Venmo…seems like some kind of tax evasion to me, but curious if this is happening elsewhere.

  13. I completely agree that Venmo can attribute their massive adoption to network effects. As a Canadian the app is not available in the Canadian App Store, so when I came to college in Boston I had to create a new Apple ID and find work arounds to get the app on my phone. It didn’t seem like an option to have it because so many people asked me to venmo them, or venmo me after one of us spotted the other – downloading the app seemed like a much easier alternative than nagging for cash. I personally don’t ever look at the stream of payments from people that are my friends, so the social networking aspect has little impact on me. With that being said I had never thought of the privacy implications until just last week. I updated the app in order to continue using it and when I opened it again a warning popped up describing how to change your privacy settings. I immediately changed my preferences from “public” to “just my friends.” I don’t have anything against other alternatives such as Zelle, which I recently used to pay a roommate for my spring break trip, but you are completely right, there are just not enough other people using these alternatives to make it mainstream and effective.

  14. Great topic! As someone who has personally stalked people on Venmo (which I probably shouldn’t admit to), I’ve honestly never really thought about the potential privacy issues. I also only use Venmo to pay friends back – I’m nervous about paying for anything through an app (although I will take all of the Chase QuickPays my parents want to send me!)

    It will be really interesting to see what happens in this space. I personally have been very hesitant to use Square Cash – Jack Dorsey, the founder & CEO of Twitter, is also the founder & CEO of Square, and his history with Twitter makes me very reluctant to trust him, or his company, with sensitive personal information.

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