How I Learned to Embrace Venmo’s Ever-Evolving Vernacular
This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we spend money today.
After years of covering technology, I felt uncharacteristically slow on the uptake as I stared at my phone. I felt like An Old. I didn't know what I was seeing—I could make out the characters, but their meaning eluded me. I am, of course, talking about emojis on Venmo. Personally, I was late to the money-swapping service. For a long time it bugged me that friends wanted me to trust yet another Silicon Valley company with my personal information—and my bank information at that—when I could just pick up the next check or buy their next coffee. But then, once I converted and the convenience became evident (it does suck having to bug deadbeat friends to remember to give you cash for concert tickets), I was faced with a new inconvenience: decoding what was the most "fun" way to leave a Ven-memo for the pal who snagged our Avengers: Infinity War seats. A thunder bolt for Thor? Some floating stars? I never knew.
Emoji have been a part of Venmo's system practically from the beginning. As a matter of convenience, posting an illustration of a bowl of ramen is the easiest, quickest way to answer Venmo's most vital question: "What's it for?" The fact that Venmo turned money transfers into a social network only made emojis seem more apt. A great many of the transactions on Venmo are public, which means you want to be funny and smart—maybe even coy—in the memo field. Thus, as the platform grew, the Ven-moji became a vernacular all their own. The "flying money" emoji next to a house symbol signified rent. An egg frying in a pan sent between two people you suspected of hooking up quickly came to mean "They had breakfast; they're definitely boning." Pizza, wine glass, airplane; a quick dinner, drinks out on the town, a group trip. Tech-savvy people love emojis, and as soon as they loved Venmo, the two formed a more perfect union. Venmo noticed this trend and introduced an emoji autocomplete feature in 2015.
Yet, as ubiquitous and natural-seeming as Ven-moji are (I like that portmanteau and I'm sticking to it), deciphering why certain characters and character sets became the official dialect of Venmo is hard. The most used emoji are flying money, the house, pizza, and the heart. And pizza and tacos are the most-used food icons, getting 5,150,917 and 2,388,695 uses each, respectively, in 2018. Those numbers are way up from where they were just a few years ago. Other popular emoji: burgers, beer steins, wine glasses, sushi, and that face that winks while blowing a heart-shaped kiss.
Of course, those emoji are popular on most platforms, but they seem to take on a different meaning when they're associated with money—the thing that couples fight over, the thing that, unfortunately, divides so many people. It can seem odd—or it did to me, at least—to reduce the large sums of money people spend on rent or the shared experience of a first date or vacation with friends to just a few goofy illustrations placed in a public forum. (Venmo transactions can be private, but many people don't designate them as such.) Does a shared pizza have the same value, either literal or metaphorical, as a shared mortgage? Not really, but on Venmo they are afforded the same quick tappity tap. Venmo, it seems, has reduced even our most serious emotional and financial transactions into something jokey.
Maybe that's a good thing. Money can be a contentious thing in relationships—maybe it's time to remove some of the strain around it.
"Venmo took away the seriousness associated with money transfers," says Sanjaya Wijeratne, an emoji researcher who organized the first International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media conference. "[It] made a social network out of it, and emoji certainly added whimsies to it."
Contrary to my notion that emojis devalue our transactions, Wijeratne sees emoji as a way to complement the exchange. "The majority of those transactions are taking place between two known individuals, and the two parties already know how much is owed and the purpose of the payment," he says. "Therefore there is no need to explain it in detail, so emoji provides a great alternative to express the key concepts associated with a transaction using a few characters."
But not all the emojis used on Venmo are a way to avoid the self-consciousness that comes with cash changing hands. Sometimes, they're a form of evasion. The website Vicemo, for example, provides a steady feed—pulled from Venmo's public-facing transactions—of "who's buying drugs, booze, and sex on Venmo" based on their memos, which are often just "pill" emojis or martini glasses. Clearly some of them are jokes—vaguely homophobic bros have been paying each other for "blow jobs" pretty much since the service's inception—but as with any social media platform where emoji become the lingua franca, they also transform into something of a code.
In his research, Wijeratne noticed a few years back that street gang members on Twitter were using gas pump emoji to represent marijuana. The usage, he notes, was for a very specific subset of Twitter users, but it does represent how smaller groups on specific platforms can create their own emoji shorthand. He has yet to see any Venmo-specific emoji codes emerge (though codes like lettuce/leaves-mean-marijuana and peaches-mean-butts have crossed over), but the effect of some of the not-code-codes is unique to the platform. The fact that users give themselves Venmo FOMO by mentally translating clinking beer mugs into "they hung out without me" is now so common that people use it to their advantage, actively being coy to drum up interest. Send enough friends 20 bucks next to a wine glass emoji or a "Thanks for last night!" and suddenly you're the most popular person on the platform. (Or people think you're paying your friends for sex, whichever. Like I said, I'm still learning.) Use vague enough emojis in your memos—palm trees, shining suns—and you can easily fool people into thinking you're going on exotic vacations when you're really just reimbursing a coworker for some SPF 50. Venmo is, if nothing else, the financial version of the Instagram humble-brag: Yeah, I did this cool thing, but I'm so nonchalant about it, I only had time to type a surfer emoji or just "surfing." The ironic twist is, of course, that to master the use of Ven-moji one must work really hard to appear nonchalant.
It's worth it, though. Knowing how to fluently speak Venmo is truly a social cachet—and that's the most valuable currency of all.