/ Money

Of Beers and Bullion

The moment a friend introduced me to Venmo something about it violated my moral intuitions. Initially, I assumed the unease lay with both the emojification and publicity of personal monetary exchanges.

Even though the exact figures aren't displayed, there's enough meta-data to make inferences about the relationships and I couldn't shake the notion that there is something worrisome about performing these transactions on a social media platform.

I'm no Venmo veegan. I use the platform, mostly for rent, but my protestations in it manifested by posting quotes that dragged the rentier or demonized rent-seeking. I suspect there's something deeper going on when we satirize our Venmo transactions. Perhaps through acknowledging it's a profoundly weird way to conduct personal exchanges, we are able to be at peace with using it. Or is it that all social media platforms are, by their nature, performative and where aesthetics are prized on Instagram, satire is demanded by Venmo.

While those issues exist, at the end of the day, that's not what I find most unsettling. While reading David Graeber's Debt I discovered why I'm unnerved by Venmo. A passage from Graeber's work sheds light on this feeling:

"Exchange allows us to cancel out our debts. It gives us a way to call it even: hence, to end the relationship. With vendors, one is usually only pretending to have a relationship at all. With neighbors, one might for this very reason prefer not to pay one's debts. Laura Bohanan writes about arriving in a Tiv community in rural Nigeria; neighbors immediately began arriving bearing little gifts: "two ears corn, one vegetable marrow, one chicken, five tomatoes, one handful peanuts." Having no idea what was expected of her, she thanked them and wrote down in a notebook their names and what they had brought. Eventually, two women adopted her and explained that all such gifts did have to be returned. It would be entirely inappropriate to simply accept three eggs from a neighbor and never bring anything back. One did not have to bring back eggs, but one should bring something back of approximately the same value. One could even bring money—there was nothing inappropriate in that—provided one did so at a discreet interval and above all, that one did not bring the exact cost of the eggs. It had to either be a bit more or a bit less. To bring back nothing at all would be to cast oneself as an exploiter or a parasite. To bring back an exact equivalent would be to suggest that one no longer wishes to have anything to do with the neighbor. Tiv women, she learned, might spend a good part of the day walking for miles to distant homesteads to return a handful of okra or a tiny bit of change, "in an endless circle of gifts to which no one ever handed over the precise value of the object last received"—and in doing so, they were continually creating their society."
-David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years

Venmo reduces our interactions into a set of explicit and exact transactions. When people go out, it's common for someone to pick up the tab or for us to split the bill, but only when Venmo is introduced have I seen the bill split with machine precision. If I pick up the tab for someone else and they pay me back on Venmo, the ledger of transaction is permanent. They have paid me back. It no longer exists as this ephemeral idea that implies in the future that they might pick up the tab next time. Even when a person intends to pick up the tab they can be interrupted by the question, "I don't have cash on me, do you want me to Venmo you?" A person can simply brush this off and say, "Don't worry about it," but simply being asked if one wants to be Venmo'd implies that the other party does not wish to be in your debt. Might it be rude to deny the offer and insist on paying? Not every tab is picked up with the intent of being paid back exactly, immediately, or with money, sometimes it's a filial gesture, often a meal shared with someone is more enjoyable than sitting alone. We are constantly building our community. The tools we introduce into our lives can cause us to forget that.

Without engaging with our friends and peers face to face, Venmo enables us to demand payment. If the request goes unanswered it serves as a permanent reminder that they are still indebted to us for $5.33 slice of pizza. The bonds of friendship include debts that cannot be paid. The idea that, through an app, we can pay our debts to our peers exactly subtly communicates that we want an option to end the relationship.

There are times when recorded, explicit and exact transactions make sense. Sometimes even between friends and family. More often these exchanges are with strangers or institutions and not within our communities. Have you ever noticed that regulars in coffeehouses or restaurants don't always pay for every single item they receive? Many businesses wouldn't define those exchanges as good customer service, because it grants preferential treatment to some clients.

Perhaps something else is going on there. Graeber posits that money expresses what one cannot do. Is it possible for the establishment owner to pay you back for your patronage or—as a regular—the word of mouth you engage in. They could try and come up with a sum and then the patron would be more of an employee and the owner would have expectations. I'd argue that by discounting your tab, the owners and waiters are saying they cannot pay you back for your patronage, but they appreciate it.

Every part of us is owed to someone else. The personal debts I've incurred between my friends, family, and communities I've lived in are more valuable when there are outstanding payments. Rather than wipe the slate clean, I would rather pick up the tab from time to time.

Further Reading
Graeber's Debt is a fantastic fundamental read that everyone should pick up.