As Payments Go Social With Venmo, They're Changing Personal Relationships More people are using mobile money apps to pay each other without cash. With Venmo, its social network is a key part of the payment process, and it's changing people's behavior in unexpected ways.
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As Payments Go Social With Venmo, They're Changing Personal Relationships

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As Payments Go Social With Venmo, They're Changing Personal Relationships

As Payments Go Social With Venmo, They're Changing Personal Relationships

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've been looking at what's beyond cash - cryptocurrency, digital payments and more - in this month's All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

SHAPIRO: Today there are more mobile payment apps than ever - Zel, Apple Pay, Square, Cash. But just one doubles as a social network. NPR's Daniella Cheslow explains how Venmo has changed relationships.

DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: When copywriter Kelli Johnson moved to Los Angeles, she didn't tell her parents she'd be living with her boyfriend. Johnson grew up in Bakersfield, a couple hours' drive north.

KELLI JOHNSON: Very conservative, very religious - my parents as well (laughter).

CHESLOW: In LA, she pays the rent, and her boyfriend chips in his half on Venmo.

JOHNSON: When he did it, he put it in the memo line (laughter) - the month plus, like, the little house emoji. And that's how my mom saw. (Laughter).

CHESLOW: Her mom uses Venmo too. Johnson was busted. I shared that story with Richard Crone, a payments expert.

RICHARD CRONE: (Laughter). That reinforces our findings; the No. 1 use case is paying rent.

CHESLOW: He estimates about 39 million people use Venmo, which is owned by PayPal. The company didn't confirm. Here's how it works. You use Venmo to pay or request money from other people on the app. It's usually linked to your bank account. Every transaction has a memo line.

And there are emoji for things you pay for - like pizza or wine or rent. But these memos and emoji are public by default. So you can see how your friends spend money and what they're asking others to pay for. Crone says that visibility can be a perk.

CRONE: You want to pay it socially so everybody knows that you're not a deadbeat, and you've met your obligation.

CHESLOW: PayPal CEO Dan Schulman says Venmo is the app for a generation that grew up on social media. And he says the public feed is the essence of the app. Here he is on CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN SCHULMAN: It's really a social experience. Like, you do a payment. You tag it. You put an emoji next to it. You share it with your friends.

CHESLOW: Nineteen billion dollars changed hands over the app just between October and December of last year. That's up 80 percent from the previous year. Not everyone knows others are seeing their payments. The Federal Trade Commission last year demanded that Venmo make it clear to customers that these transactions are public. Venmo says it never posts the amount of the transaction, and anyone can make their payments private.

Private or not, the app has made it easy to give cash instantly. We heard from a woman in Baltimore. She picked up a $350 grocery bill for a friend who forgot her wallet but Venmo'd the money immediately. A man in San Francisco told us he Venmos birthday money to his friends for a round of drinks. But others noticed when it's so easy to split a bill, it becomes an expectation.

MATTHEW MASOUD: I'm definitely less generous when I go out with my friends.

CHESLOW: Matthew Masoud studies aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He says via Skype that he went out to dinner at a restaurant that wouldn't split the check. So he just paid for everyone, and then he sent out Venmo requests.

MASOUD: One of my friends ordered pasta dish, I believe. And that one was, like, $13.

CHESLOW: Before Venmo, Masoud said he would have just taken care of the whole bill, and next time someone else would. If Venmo has changed Masoud's habits, it doesn't seem to have changed Kelli Johnson. Even after her mom discovered the live-in boyfriend, Johnson says she didn't change her privacy settings.

JOHNSON: No, I haven't.

CHESLOW: Are you kidding?

JOHNSON: I have nothing to hide now (laughter).

CHESLOW: Daniella Cheslow, NPR News, Washington.

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