Venmo, FoMO

On Valentine’s Day, I vicariously went condom-shopping. There are two ways you could know this: either you happened to be in the aisle when I decided between a “Platinum Pack” and a “Pleasure Pack”; or, when my friend paid me back—ending my voyeuristic shopping spree—you read her Venmo payment statement: “Walgreens on Valentine’s Day = a terrible terrible place.”

This is a beautifully crafted Venmo update. It implies that we went to Walgreens together, thereby asserting our identity as social beings, but leaves out both the item being paid for (condoms) and the grounds for terribleness (trying to find appropriate giftwrap for condoms and length of check-out line). It implies something illicit or at least intriguing in a mundane transaction.

I take these to be the essential elements of a Venmo update given the statuses/statements in my Venmo newsfeed, where paying someone back becomes an affirmation of friendship. These one-liners are the lovechildren of tweets and credit card statements, but I don’t understand how or why they ended up in the same hotel room.

Venmo, for those who still reach for their wallet when they need to split a take-out bill, is a service (and obviously an app) that allows you to pay people back without cash. Initially, the money comes from a debit or credit card, but generally money sits in your account until you pass it on to a friend’s or you “cash out.” When lots of people have paid you back and your account is very green, there’s a side-effect of feeling as though you have free money. The strange thing is that because everything on the internet has to be social, these payments (sans the amount) are public. This system correctly privileges items purchased over amount spent, but nonetheless intertwines spending and friendship in strange ways.

It’s not enough to share the check for dinner—the fact that the check was shared must also be shared. Superficially, these transactions can come off as conspicuous consumption, but their real intention lies in conspicuous socialization. In a way, each payment exists to set off a little burst of FoMO for the uninvolved reader: the person who wasn’t in the cab, or at the concert, or aware of what “my dignity” actually means.

Before Venmo, I could measure the strength of a friendship by the amount I didn’t pay someone back. With my closest friends, the energy of who-owed-who four dollars at whatever hour of the day just wasn’t worth our time. It was precisely because we were friends that these small favors all evened out in the wash. I never advertised that I was spending time with or money on someone, I just did. I would joke about keeping tabs with various people, but in the end we never really did, or we’d sit down to figure out the difference and find it to be three dollars— which would soon switch hands over laundry or froyo anyway. Friends do things for each other. Sometimes these things cost money, but strong friendships reach equilibrium when in comes to advice, time, and emotional support, so why insert Venmo to assert that a friendship is financially balanced as well?

If I pay for clothing or a shit-ton of Pleasure Packs, it does seem appropriate to be recompensed. But when I walk to a table in Book Trader with two cappuccinos and have a text “so-and-so paid you $3 for love” by the time I put them down, there’s something almost mistrustful in that love. It’s too much effort into trying to be nice and fair. It feels like maybe this person is so uninterested in spending time with me now that they don’t anticipate having the opportunity to buy me a coffee the next time. Or that are they are so unenthused about having coffee with me that the experience itself becomes inadequate and feel they must share it with the people who actually read their Venmo newsfeeds.

I’d rather heap emoticons into my texts and leave them out of my finances. I don’t need an app to tell me if my friendships are in the red or the black.