Public by Default
I write for a living, and often that involves essays with a personal angle. I suppose I can blame 12 months indoors for why I’ve become a far more avid follower of other people’s lives as performed via social media platforms. Recently, I decided to write about my new fascination with a weird little soap opera that plays out on a very specific social media app: Venmo.
Surprised to hear your favorite bill-splitting app put in the same category as Instagram and TikTok? Well, Venmo is definitely a social media app by design. When I joined Venmo years ago, I must’ve given the app access to all the contacts in my phone at that time. As a result, I had many “friends” there (some people I’d met once socially or professionally). And as I chronicled in a recent essay, nearly all of them have public profiles. That means that I can see what they spend money on and with whom – and wow, did I develop a fondness for watching.
These people shared seemingly mundane transactions as well as perhaps more intriguing exchanges of capital (child support, therapy sessions, etc.). Were they exhibitionists, getting some sort of charge out of strangers having access to knowledge about their pizza purchases? After all, I could look at not just the activity of my “friends,” but of plenty of other Venmo users with public profiles.
Perhaps most Venmo users just don’t regard such actions as interesting, much less salacious. It’s not like strangers get to see the amounts of cash involved. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Everybody in a capitalist system exchanges currency for goods and services. That’s no secret. We only consider it gauche to flaunt or inquire about the amount spent on particular transactions, and Venmo provides no info on that front.
And while it can be tempting to blame the individual for not getting to know the ins and outs of an online product before signing up, the truth is that platforms don’t make it easy – Venmo especially. As I wrote in my original essay, I derived a great deal of insight from a 2018 article from MarketWatch that “detailed a project by coder and privacy researcher Hang Do Thi Duc, who analyzed 207,984,218 public transactions posted on Venmo in 2017." The researcher was able to glean all sorts of information about people’s private lives thanks to their public spending via Venmo.
Platforms like Venmo have overly complex privacy policies. Consumers are left with the choice of agreeing to their terms of service or simply not having access to the platform at all. That’s why Mozilla has called on Venmo to change its setting to be private by default, so that the product treats financial transaction data more like you would expect -- with a modicum of privacy. Venmo in particular has not always made it clear that one’s activity will be automatically available for the whole world to see. In fact, as I learned from the aforementioned MarketWatch article, the FEC fined Venmo in 2017 for this very reason.
And while the app has apparently become more transparent with first-time users, that doesn’t take into account the countless longtime users who joined before the app faced government sanction and a growing online movement to make profiles private by default.
One woman told me that her son requested money from her publicly on Venmo, and she and he were both flooded by requests for money (under the apparent delusion that she was a sugar mama of sorts, funding the lives of younger men).
Another woman shared that a coworker had been dumped by his girlfriend after a woman sent him money to cover a couple of beers at a work function. I have to assume there were various pre-existing issues in that relationship related to trust, but still – rather dramatic!
A man saw one transaction described as “summoning demons,” and added that his friend does make art related to the occult, so maybe it was just a joke. I prefer to believe that this enterprising lady has got a tidy side hustle in summoning demons to do one’s housework, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part.
Plenty of comedians and humor writers have told me that they just enjoy making up silly descriptions for each transaction, under the assumption that it’ll amuse those looking on. But most people don’t get a kick out of seeing their private financial lives on display, and more than a few readers commented that they were surprised to discover their profiles were available for the whole world to see.
One commenter wrote, “I rarely use Venmo and had no idea my settings were public.” Another commenter shared an example of major Venmo audacity: “I found out that my Venmo transactions were public when somebody on there noticed how I was lending a friend some money and tried to hit me up for some squeezin' green of his own. I blocked him, and then checked my privacy settings.”
Still another shared that while he had a disagreeable end to a friendship years ago, he keeps up with her thanks to Venmo: “I can report that she either has an ongoing inside joke with a friend, or a personal sex toy shopper. Either way, I’m happy for her.” One can assume that the former friend would not exactly be pleased to know that this guy was still tracking her behavior, even rather passively.
At the end of my essay, I shared that I had decided to quit Venmo: “I quit because I don’t want to invent personalities for you anymore, or let the demons in my brain keep me up even later at night gossiping about why you sent that slice-of-cake emoji to that person on that date at that time. I don’t want to see how much you gave your ex-wife because your third kid, the surprise, needs braces. I don’t want to guess at what you’re doing for work. Whatever it is, I hope it’s going well.”
But in order to give this essay a proper ending, I decided to dive back in and see what joining Venmo is like in 2021.
I downloaded and opened the Venmo app, and was immediately greeted by a pop-up that encouraged me to “Get a heads up on everything Venmo.” The option to “Allow notifications” was automatically highlighted. As I do with all apps, I clicked on “Not now” instead.
I was given the option to “Join with email,” and reached a screen requesting my first name, last name, email, and a password. In tiny font at the very bottom, beneath the info on the Consent to Receive Electronic Disclosures, I saw “Helpful Information.” I clicked, and was taken to a rather awkwardly designed two-column explainer spreadsheet that didn’t entirely fit on my phone screen, requiring some sliding around.
Here I received such guidance as “Venmo should only be used to transact with people you know” and “Buyer beware.” After scrolling a bit, I hit the “Who Can See My Transactions?” section, where I read the following:
When you pay or get paid on Venmo, you decide who can see it. You can select the settings, including Public (visible to everyone on the Internet), Friends (visible to sender, recipient, and their Venmo friends), or Private (visible to sender and recipient only). Payment amounts are always secret.
Your initial default privacy setting is Public, so everyone on the Internet can see your payments. You can change it for each transaction individually, or for all in Settings. If you and your friend use different privacy settings, we use the more restrictive one when you’re paying each other.
One thing you can’t set to private? Your list of Friends is always public on Venmo, even if you change your transactions to private. No explanation was provided as to why I might find it a tantalizing prospect to show my purchases to the entire internet, or to declare who qualified as a Venmo friend.
I chose the profile name YourProfileIsProbablyPublic. I skipped connecting with Facebook, since I don’t have an account on that terrible website. I didn’t allow Venmo to sync my contacts. And at that point I finally got to a screen that said, “Things to know about privacy…” followed by another couple of screens that elaborated further.
Are they collecting and selling data on transactions based on category and perhaps description notes? Do they really think people are interested in bonding over cash exchanges between friends, and if so, do they have reliable data to back up that assertion? Venmo could one day profit from the public social feed, as publications like The Atlantic have pointed out, but, at the moment, it’s unclear how this public info is used by the service.
At the very least, out of respect for its users, Venmo should push an update that makes all new members automatically private with an option to be public. I can’t imagine they’d lose folks who’d stop in the signup process and say, “What? I’m automatically going to be PRIVATE? I want nothing to do with this application! Off to CashApp I go!”
I don’t know if I’ll ever use my new Venmo account. I didn’t finish filling out the banking information. Thankfully, I’ve got other options - and chances are, you do, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if even more people began to express their distaste for the current state of Venmo, eschewing it for other apps. In fact, I’d encourage them to do so.
Perhaps it’s ultimately all theater, and the move to a new app will only provide the comforting illusion of privacy in a world where we are increasingly desensitized to being on public display. But I think many of us can use a little more comfort these days.
Sara Benincasa is an author ("Real Artists Have Day Jobs," "Agorafabulous!" and more), comedian, corporate and college speaker, screenwriter, and person with a very cheeky Venmo handle.