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Why Is Stalking People on Venmo So Addictive?

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

My senior year of college, I dated somebody who then went abroad for a semester in Paris. Before she left, we cried a lot. We reminisced about the whole six months we’d spent together. We cried some more. “Together in Paris,” read the note she left in my dorm room with a mix CD. This was, I freely admit, a reference to a sappy plotline in the animated classic Anastasia. (Bernadette Peters is in it. Meg Ryan is in it. The music slaps. I refuse to be embarrassed by this anecdote.)

We broke up six weeks later. And though that was years ago and we’ve both long since moved on, I still found myself gasping when, as I scrolled through my Venmo feed last year, I saw a charge she’d sent her current partner. “Together in Paris,” it read, complete with a croissant emoji.

Honestly, what was I expecting to find? Usually, Venmo — the ubiquitous app that enables us to send and receive money between friends — is just a series of mundane exchanges for things like beer and pizza emoji. Nobody cares about seeing roommates pitch in for Con Edison payments denoted by lightbulbs. Or do they? “I like to look for utilities or rent payments between couples,” Kevin, a 28-year-old from Manhattan told me. “I find it interesting to know who pays for what in the relationship. Whose name is on the lease? That sort of thing.” These transactions give us clues about small, intimate, generally innocuous parts of people’s lives they might not otherwise share. And that’s why they’re so fascinating.

“People have an innate tendency to be voyeuristic, and the internet has made that unbelievably easy,” Harris Stratyner, a psychologist who specializes in addictive and unhealthy behaviors, told me. “You cannot imagine the people who come to see me who are addicted to the internet and its various apps, Venmo included.” He has a few theories for why we get so hooked on information that could potentially hurt our feelings: “You might go up to the edge of a cliff and look over and get scared, but there’s a part of you that wonders what would happen if you fell off or jumped. It’s the same kind of thing.”

Also, Venmo hides just enough to make your imagination fill in the blanks. “Venmo is filled with intrigue and jealousy, like a psychological detective story, or something out of a Hitchcock,” says Stratyner. While it might seem dramatic to envision every person scrolling through their Venmo feed like a present-day version of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, peering through binoculars at his neighbors in the dark, it’s also … not that far off.

Then there’s the tension between the performative aspect of making transactions public (do you include a joke, or a reference to the dumplings you ate together?) and the sneaky quality of the “private” setting. “When I was single, I would check people’s Venmos for hints on who else they were sleeping with,” said Megan, a 28-year-old from Brooklyn. One guy she liked kept his whole Venmo feed on lockdown, which struck her as “shady.” When Liz, 26, got back together with an ex but wasn’t ready to tell her family yet, she made sure to keep their transactions out of her feed. “All my other exchanges are public, but I just know my sisters stalk my Venmo and would see what we were up to.”

Another reason why Venmo is great for stalking: My friend Lena, whose Venmo voyeurism habits are unparalleled, pointed out that it’s designed so that the “comment” and “heart” icons are on the left side, making it harder to “like” something by accident while scrolling through another person’s feed (if you’re right-handed, at least). This allows people like Lena to safely peruse through days’ and weeks’ worth of transactions without fear of brushing the screen and tipping people off to the fact that you were creeping on them. (Even though they, by using Venmo, are ostensibly inviting you to do so.)

People can be surprisingly unguarded and reachable on Venmo, including the wealthy and famous(ish). When Sean Spicer, one of Trump’s short-lived press secretaries, was unmasked on the app, people were interested to see that he’d exchanged money with just two people, his brother and sister, and counted a major K Street lobbyist among his small friend list. When Becca Kufrin was dumped on The Bachelor, strangers around the world found her account and sent her $6,000 in microdonations. (She gave the money to charity.)

Stratyner pointed out Venmo offers a particularly potent draw that other social platforms do not: intel on a taboo subject. “It’s easier for patients to discuss their sex life with me than to tell me what they make in a year,” he said, noting that Venmo acts as an intermediary that lets people talk about their finances without actually doing so. “[On Venmo], you can show off how much money you have in an indirect way,” he said. When you display how often you spend, on what, and with whom, you may inspire “venvy”, a portmanteau of “Venmo” and “envy” coined years ago that has only become more relevant as the app has grown. The difference between “venvy” and, say, the Instagram equivalent, is that braggarts can chalk up their flexing to the app’s genuinely useful function (“I wasn’t trying to show off, I just needed to pay so-and-so back for our ski trip”).

And then we, the people scrolling through this information, have yet another metric against which to compare and judge ourselves. “I recently saw a group of my friends renting a house for an upcoming long weekend … and I wasn’t invited,” Lena said. Another user told me she checks the app to see which of her high-school friends are still hanging out with each other, without her.

“I think Venmo is unintentionally one of the most honest platforms,” Megan explained. “People don’t really tend to think of it as social media, so if you want to find out what someone is up to, who they live with, or what some of their life habits are, Venmo is actually a more complete picture than say, Instagram, which is very intentionally curated.” It helps, too, that Venmo payments default to public. You have to manually change the setting if you don’t want people to see where your money is going.

This means, even though it’s technically automatic, people who opt to keep their payments public are making a choice. They’re saying they want you to be able to poke around in their finances. To pry open their social calendar. To know their new relationship is going great thank you very much and why yes we are looking forward to our trip to Paris. Which is good because we, as humans, are wired to want to know those same things. “I didn’t even know Venmo could be private,” one user told me. “Where’s the fun in that?”

Why Is Stalking People on Venmo So Addictive?