The Bigger Picture | The Petty Venmo Request

The Bigger Picture is bi-weekly blog diving deep into culture and analyzing it from a sociological standpoint.

By Colin Kennedy, Staff Writer

I was out to lunch a few weeks ago with a friend who mentioned that she had never had a chicken nugget, and I immediately offered to let her try one of mine. Jokingly, I suggested she can just “send me the $1 that the nugget was worth,” so you can imagine my surprise when she offered to do so in earnest.

My joke actually described a common aspect of friendship in the modern age — the Petty Venmo Request. I hear of people using Venmo to charge their friends for things that I always thought were best left ignored. I wanted to dig into this phenomenon and what it says about friendship, tech and money today.

I see Venmo as a tool best used to split group expenditures like house rentals, or to save the time and inconvenience of asking a waiter to split a dinner check six ways. I’ve always found it in incredibly poor taste to send a Venmo request for $0.38 worth of salsa or a glass of wine drank at a dinner party. Beyond being poor etiquette, I see these kinds of nickel-and-dime Venmo requests as a way to tell someone that you aren’t friends, though I suppose that relies on a certain definition of friendship.

Sociologists see friendship as a mutual, voluntary interpersonal relationship built on trust. For example, you tell your friend a bit of gossip, trusting they won’t let it get back to the subject. You invite a friend over, trusting they’ll be a good guest. Forming this tie is a series of increasingly larger leaps of faith that you take with an individual. The monetization of this pattern has long been explored by sociologists, seeking to understand how we form ties with each other when money is involved.

Galit Ailon of Bar-Ilan University in Israel explored the monetization of friendship in a scientific journal article titled “The Double Meaning of Money.” In it, she combines two long-standing sociological theories about money — that it is cold and impersonal, and that money can be imbued with “symbolic meanings according to the distinct interpersonal relationships.”

A loan can be a leap of faith in many ways, but as a result of the symbolic dualism, Ailon writes that “it is not merely ‘our friendship’ that will be evoked but also the possibility of the dissolution of this friendship.” For example, when taking care of a check at the end of a meal with a friend, you’re either doing it as a gesture of goodwill to nurture that friendship, or you see it as a loan that will be repaid.

Ailon suggests that symbolic dualism is an “important cause” of tensions and trust issues “characteristic of monetary exchanges between individuals who are close.” Ailon also suggests that the more often money matters arise in a relationship, “the more these trust preoccupations are likely to grow.”

With digital wallets and apps like Venmo, never before have relationships been so easy to monetize. Amounts of money that would’ve been forgotten about in the dark ages of laborious bank transfers, ATM transactions and check writing are now able to be settled in seconds. With this convenience comes the Petty Venmo Request.

In an age of lightning-fast bank transfers and mobile banking, everyone must make a choice about money, relationships and trust.

How do we look at money? Is it a way to symbolize how much we care about someone or something? Or do we see it as this cold, impersonal fact of life — like the law of gravity or the existence of the moon?

Can you trust your friends? To pick up the bill next time you go out to eat? To repay you with something worth as much as a share of a jar of salsa? Or must you log, track and charge what they’ve taken from you?

To ensure stable friendships, the most important thing is to understand where everyone is coming from and arrive at a mutual understanding.

Colin examines and analyzes everyday life in the modern world. Reach out to him at [email protected].