Everyone and their mother is using Venmo. (Except my own mother, who calls it “Nemo” and refuses to download the app.) Since it launched back in 2012, the app has become so synonymous with “cashless transactions” that its name has become a verb — one sure sign of an app or site’s success. Another sure sign of an app’s success? Think pieces blaming it for a particular bad manner or social ill — like Kari Paul’s recent Quartz essay about the way Venmo is turning people into “petty jerks.”
Once free-wheeling nights out with friends are now followed up with digital IOUs. In the past, someone might buy drinks for a friend at a bar, who would of their own accord offer to pay the cab ride home or buy the next round. Rather than an app, arrangements like these rely on generosity and unspoken trust. It is a sign of friendship to feel unconcerned about the possibility of being stiffed, and confident that everything will even out in the end.
Sure, sending a Venmo request to cover the cost of a few IPAs at happy hour feels less friendly, less personal than waiting for someone to make good on their offer to “get you next time.” Frankly, asking for money via emoji on an app is less personal. But money isn’t personal. Money is business. And there’s nothing impersonal, or petty, about asking to be paid back promptly. Especially if you’re anything like me or my friends, with whom the offer to “get the next one” is often unintentionally forgotten by the time the tab for the “next one” rolls around.
One of my most recent Venmo transactions is a request for $3.33 from one of my roommates. It’s exactly one-third the price of one of those plastic pieces you shove into a shower drain to stop stray hair from clogging it and making your building superintendant very angry. If you scroll farther back in my Venmo history, you’ll see plenty more small costs. Four dollars from a friend who borrowed a few bucks to cover a cash tip at a nail salon, $2 for half of a movie on demand rental (Sisters — I hated it). Five-dollar requests paired with endless strings of beer and wine-glass emoji. The list goes on.
It might seem like a petty collection of minor debts and repayments — an endlessly scrolling portrait of a miser. But I think it’s actually what makes Venmo so great: It takes the hassle out of paying your friends, both in large and small increments. And, even better, it takes out the awkwardness of having to ask to be paid in return. The app becomes your middleman; no more saying “Hey, about the bar tab last night?” or “Wow, I bought SO many paper towels at Duane Reade on Tuesday” and hoping your friends pony up.
And Venmo isn’t just for good for bar tabs and splitting your Con Ed bills. “It’s nice at work, because in a situation where it would be weird to ask someone more senior than you for the money they owe you for ordering lunch, they can just Venmo you,” a 23-year-old New Yorker who works in the nonprofit sector explained. “Salads start to add up, but you also don’t want to be that person making a big deal out of lunch.” While it would be uncomfortable to ask for cash, sending a Venmo request for the equivalent dollar amount is totally kosher.
Look: We’re socially conditioned to feel weird when it comes to money. You’re not really supposed to need to borrow it. And even if you do ask a friend to spot you (whether for $5 or $500), it’s supposed to be a chummy exercise in trust — one that often ends badly for the lender. (You ask to borrow $20, your friend obliges and then never brings it up again so as not to make things strange between you two.) Venmo, with its automated requests (“Taylor Swift requests $8.50 for sick beats”) keeps things fair without forcing you to craft a text message or have an IRL conversation that would accomplish the same thing but could leave both parties feeling sufficiently awkward.
It’s easy, and often justified, to lament that there is too much automation in daily life. Many of the most popular apps and start-ups of the most recent tech boom are essentially replacements for certain human interactions. Way back in the glory days of cash, taking a cab (or so I’ve been told) involved a far more nuanced series of social considerations than it often does today: You had to call a dispatcher, give directions, calculate and ask for change, less tip. Uber has put each of those potentially awkward conversations behind a handful of buttons and taps on your phone. The same goes for ordering lunch, making dinner reservations, buying movie tickets. A romantic extrovert might find the ebbing away of these dozens of small daily personal exchanges sad, but a socially anxious introvert will find it enormously freeing.
For me, Venmo falls firmly on the “freeing” side. That doesn’t mean it gives me permission to be rude; I still participate in what my friend Megan calls “Venmo etiquette.” “You should just always say ‘I’m going to Venmo you’ or ‘You can venmo me,’” she said. “Everyone I know who uses Venmo always asks or tells me in advance they’re going to charge me for something. To be frank, whenever someone does that to me, I’m glad — it makes me remember how much I need to pay them.” (Note that a Venmo request does not immediately deduct money from your bank account. You still have to accept a request to complete the transaction, so ultimately the decision to pay is always yours.)
It’s not to say that there aren’t petty jerks using Venmo. There are. (Quartz writer Kari Paul details an anecdote about a young woman being Venmo-ed $6 after drinking a glass of wine at a friend’s apartment. A glass of wine that the friend had willingly offered and poured for her guest. That’s petty. Don’t be that guy.) But asking your friends and colleagues to pay you back doesn’t make you one of them, it’s just par for the money-spending course.
Plus, if somebody is knocking down your door over a $6 drink you didn’t ask for in the first place, chances are good an app didn’t make them a petty jerk. They were probably just a jerk to begin with.