How Coronavirus Went Viral Across Twitter and Venmo

by Nona Tepper
March 23, 2020

A student was left homeless after being forced to leave campus over the coronavirus — and she turned to Venmo to fundraise. A night shift nurse treated colleagues caring for pandemic patients to pizza — and used Venmo to help buy them dinner.

How did these users make their financial calls go viral, enough to reach people who could help? By posting about them on Twitter. Over the past week, Twitter users have been relying on Venmo to fundraise for unforeseen circumstances caused by COVID-19, reaffirming the cross-platform economy that exists between the two social media platforms, according to academic Lana Swartz.

Swartz, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, and research assistant Megan Vickery, have been analyzing the relationship between Twitter and Venmo since October of 2016, as part of an ongoing study titled “Venmo as Social Media: A Qualitative Analysis.” Swartz said she built “a simple little script” to search Twitter’s API multiple times a day for the word “Venmo” and store all the tweets, along with their metadata, that were found.

She has then analyzed the 1.2 million messages collected, in an effort to understand how the New York City-based app is changing our relationships and culture. Traditionally a topic eschewed in polite conversation, Swartz said Venmo represents one of the first technologies to publicize the ways money is used and influences our social ties, since it displays payment information as public by default.

What was once private, invisible transactions are now suddenly like social media data. That’s changing norms in ways that we don’t fully understand yet.”

“What was once private, invisible transactions are now suddenly like social media data. That’s changing norms in our friend groups, and in our relationships, and in our families, in ways that we don’t fully understand yet,” said Swartz, author of the forthcoming book New Money: How Payment Became Social Media.

Twitter acts as a way for individuals to discuss and set new norms, Swartz said. There, users talk over items such as what situations it’s appropriate to bill someone, when they should pay and for how much. Some joke about whether they should round to the nearest dollar, or pay exact change, when splitting a bill, Swartz said. Others voice concerns over Venmo making friendships more petty, since it brings money — and potentially mixed expectations over how it should be used — into relationships in a new way. 

“Tweeting about it, and talking about it, and making jokes about it, is actually the place where these new norms are getting made,” Swartz said. “So even though it’s a place where people complain about their concerns, it’s the place where that concern gets worked out.”

In addition to setting social norms, including Venmo links in Twitter posts also enables the San Francisco-based social media app to act as a “grand bazaar” for buying and selling goods. (This functions despite the fact that Twitter lacks its own native payment platform.) Recently, Swartz said she’s seen a surge in tweets fundraising for those affected by the coronavirus. Other popular topics? Funding charitable causes, personal problems and sex work.

“The payment for pornography isn’t happening through Twitter’s actual platform, it’s happening cross-platform on Venmo,” Swartz said. “It’s interesting that, in order to really understand anything that happens on any social media site, but particularly Twitter, you have to really see it across the platform.”

Tweeting about Venmo allows us to monetize our Twitter activity. It also defines Venmo’s worth, Swartz said: The social media payments platform, owned by PayPal, is not yet profitable — Swartz called it a loss leader — but said PayPal’s value of owning the verb, as in “Venmo me,” was priceless. 

It’s worth it for a company like PayPal to not make any money off of [Venmo] as long as it’s getting to scale.”

“It’s the default way to do person-to-person payments,” Swartz said. “It’s worth it for a company like PayPal to not make any money off of it as long as it’s getting to scale, so that everyone is using it as a verb, so that it lives in everyone’s phone.”

She said the possibility of selling user data also could make Venmo profitable. Venmo does not share personal information with third parties for promotional or marketing purposes, according to its privacy policy, but it does share user information and activity with the providers that power its platform, law enforcement officials who ask, businesses that use its services, and more.

In many cases, these individuals’ data is already public anyway.

Swartz pointed to artist Hang Do Thi Duc’s “Public Domain” project, which crawled Venmo’s public API to document the financial lives of five unsuspecting people, and show how much the emojis, messages and memes they posted revealed to an unexpected audience.

“[Venmo] has hidden audiences of data brokers who can analyze transactions for all kinds of purposes that we are, as yet, unanticipated for,” Swartz said. “It’s now kind of on our permanent records, and we don’t know what the future of those permanent records are.”

 

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