December 7, 2014

#4 Follow The Money

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All
Writer Chiara Atik has a hobby -- spying on the financial transactions of friends and strangers.

She thinks that Venmo, more than any other social media site, is the place you can find actual, accidental truth online. This week we investigate that claim.


CHIARA ATIK: I went to dinner at a friend’s house (I have to be so careful about how I say this) But it was a small group of friends. And I brought like 2 bottles of wine - everyone brought something. And then the host ordered pizza.

PJ VOGT: This is writer Chiara Atik. And before we go any farther with this anecdote you need to know that there’s a service called Venmo. People use it to pay their friends small amounts of money. You can Venmo money. Or you can get charged by your friends, get venmo’d.

CHIARA: And it was a really nice evening and we had pizza and drank wine and had dessert and then left, and like three days later I got Venmo'd $10 for the pizza. And I was so shocked is there a statute of limitations on Venmo?

PJ: FROM GIMLET, I’m PJ Vogt and this is Reply All, a show about the internet.


PJ: The fact that someone got charged for pizza after bringing two bottles of wine to a party is not that big a deal, but it’s the kind of thing that if it happens to you, you obsess over it. You ask your friends about it. It comes up in interviews with podcasters. The one place you don’t mention it is on social media. A) You’d sound petty, and B) despite all the handwringing about our national oversharing epidemic, there’s still a short list of taboos, and money’s on it.

CHIARA: I would die if anybody saw my recent Google searches, or my credit card bill or transactions. Just like, Duane Reade 15 dollars. Just the minutiae of what you spend on is very private.

PJ: Chiara though, has found a place on the internet where people do share all this private information. Information that in any other social media … they wouldn’t mention. It’s Venmo, the site where pizzagate took place.Venmo’s front page shows a feed of transactions. Just a list, of people and what they spent their money on. Blake paid Andrew - reason: utilities. Gillian paid Nicole - reason: two martini emojis. Reading through this list is an exercise in utterly mundane details and with some bad jokes thrown in. Four times a minute, someone makes a joke about paying for sexual favors. And yet, Chiara loves reading this.

CHIARA: it’s a really weirdly, surprisingly, addicting feed to look through. People are surprisingly honest and unthinking in their Venmo transactions. And it’s so not dressed up. It's fascinating, this is what people are doing with their lives.

PJ: Part of the reason she loves it … she thinks it’s the one place on social media where people aren’t so image conscious. Chiara thinks that you can find stories here, in this shoebox of the internet’s receipts. For example, last year she got stuck on this one girl.

CHIARA:This girl that I see maybe once or twice a year at parties.

PJ: Melanie. She caught Chiara’s eye because of these weird notes between Melanie and Melanie’s girlfirend.

CHIARA: The notes were very terse. Couples on Venmo tend to be pretty cutesy. Emoticons and like, nice messages. But these were really utilitarian.

PJ: Utilitarian notes where Melanie was charging her girlfriend for stuff. Which is unusual, in a relationship. To live with someone and constantly be billing them. To Chiara, it looked like maybe it was a breakup.

CHIARA: And then it started to be for half a couch, or half a chandelier.

PJ: And it would say like “half a couch”?

CHIARA: Yeah, I mean, maybe it was a really acrimonious breakup where they were really dividing up their property.

PJ: Of course it’s one thing to make up a story out of snooped financial histories. But how accurate is the story you make up? Actually, pretty accurate it turns out. We found Melanie.

MELANIE: I was living with my girlfriend and we broke up. And I had to move out, and so, you know, it's New York City real estate. I couldn't take our sectional couch and our chandelier, so in a sort of spiteful manner, I guess I only now realize, I charged her for half of our furniture on Venmo.

PJ: Before they were dividing furniture, Melanie and her girlfriend had been happy. They first met on the internet but then discovered they already lived in the same building. A year later, they were living together on purpose, in the same apartment. After a while, though, they started having problems, Melanie’s girlfriend started cheating on her. Melanie found out when she checked her call logs on their shared phone plan, cross-referenced the number with Facebook and found the other girl. She was hurt, she was humiliated. She wanted everybody to be on her side. So she went on social media and started telling the story of her breakup the way she wanted it to be told.

MELANIE: I had been wronged and that I was the victim and that I was always the good guy and doing everything right and nice, and polite and just sort of like the stellar champion of a bad situation. So that people would really sort of...not pity me, really, just sort of see that I was really the good guy.

PJ: And in all of her social media, she carefully curated everything she did. Even when her ex took potshots at her on Intsagram, thumb-downing pictures of Melanie’s dog, Melanie didn’t take the bait. Online, she acted magnanimously, she played the blameless victim. Everything she did in her social media was designed to bolster that image. Everything but Venmo.

MELANIE: I think that I didn’t handle everything perfectly but the only glimpse into that is through the transactions, oddly enough. I can think back to conversations where she might have been trying to talk this out and handle the situation like adults and i’d go to a bar and charge her for half the couch. I would send follow ups so that she would get constantly pinged that said "Melanie's requesting this payment, Melanie's requesting this payment."

PJ: Chiara, of course, had been watching the whole thing unfold through these random little transaction windows. But. Having witnessed the pain, Chiara also got to witness a happy ending. Eventually, Melanie’s transactions begin to tell a story of a person working their way through a breakup. Chiara starts to notice post-breakup, single girl on the town payments.

CHIARA: Pizza night with the girls,

PJ: Those gave way to on-the-prowl dating transactions.

CHIARA: Taxi, dinner, drinks.

PJ: And then, eventually, serious relationship transactions.

CHIARA: Little plane emoji. And, like, clearly weekend away transactions.

PJ: Melanie never knew Chiara was watching -- she actually only found out when we reached out to her for the story. I thought she’d be freaked out by that -- it’s mortifying to think that someone you barely know was spying on you at your worst. But she was surprisingly ok with it, if a little confused.

MELANIE: I do do my fair share of light stalking here and there, but I've never looked at a Venmo feed. So, I knew it was there, I just really didn’t think anyone would ever look at it. You know, a list of financial transactions, among everything you can find online about a person never struck me as something of interest.

PJ: I would have felt kind of exposed. You didn’t feel that way?

MELANIE: No, I didn’t, and I think part of that is because, in fact, the story has a happy ending and I’m very happy now, but, you know, the break up at the time was a very difficult thing for me and it was a hard time in my life and I was upset and sad all the time. I imagine if I had seen this closer to that period, I might have had a different reaction. I think anybody really does know that your Facebook, your Twitter, your Instagram--I’m making those, they’re not, sort of, stories made up about me. I guess, in a way Venmo is more like a story written about me, even though I wrote it, too. I’m totally okay with that.

PJ: We got really intrigued by this idea of this kind of story, and we wondered if there are other ones like it hidden in the financial detritus collected on the internet. So we decided to do some light Venmo stalking ourselves. What we found, coming up after a short break.


PJ: Welcome back to Reply All. So we went out hunting for stories hidden in financial transactions. And they’re out there. We found a 32-year old woman who’d just moved back home with her parents, her brother emailed her money with a note that just said “sanity.” Turns out this woman was finishing her dissertation and had moved back in with her parents for the time since high school. She needed a little disposable income that she wouldn’t have to justify to her mom and dad. We found another memo that said “hush money for that time you saw me get beat up and didn’t say anything.” It was from somebody who was paying her parents back a 4,000 loan. She was paying it in weekly 50 dollar installments — each one included, in the comment, some childhood memory she had of them. And then, our producer Lina Misitzis found this one: a guy named Evan had charged somebody for advice. Lina was curious, so she called him.

EVAN: This might sound crazy and it’s really, kind of, the first time I’ve ever told like a complete stranger that I do this, but people actually pay me for advice. And he wanted a minute of advice.

LINA: Ok, super backtrack, what do you mean people pay you for advice? How did that start?

EVAN: Yeah, so basically, did it start? I basically...I don’t know. I’ve always been the kind of person to help people out and like whenever somebody makes a status like “hey, any suggestions on this,” I always make sure to, you know, to give someone the best advice I could. I kind of kept going, and people have always been coming to me for their questions about all kinds of things and a lot of them are, like, interpersonal relationship type of questions, like what should I do in this situation? Questions that aren’t like googleable. Things that, maybe, someone can’t really find out on their own and they need a third know, somebody who doesn’t have a strong bias either way. You know, and it’s part of my policy that I don’t tell. I don’t really share anyone’s questions with, I don’t know, what’s something vague that I could tell you...ok, I’ve had things and my manager have been flirtatious at a bar and I’m trying to decide if I should use this as something I should take advantage of or should I, like, nip it in the bud right away.

LINA: Are you licensed to be doing this? What did you go to college for?

EVAN: Yeah, so I’m not licensed to do this. I studied art and I studied communications and I studied high-tech business stuff. I’m actually really interested in entrepreneurship and this was really, kind of, monetizing it and trying to sell my service. It’s really something that’s very recent. It’s almost like a trial run.

LINA: Do you ever have people call you with question that you feel so unqualified to answer that you have to say no?

EVAN: I haven’t had any come up yet, where it’s one’s ever called me that has an addiction problem where my advice could know there could be a lot of liability tied to my advice. Or, like no one’s ever called me with legal advice ‘cause that’s just illegal. You can’t give someone legal advice if you’re not licensed to do so, especially if you’re charging them. The more I do it, the more I feel like I’m really, totally unqualified to be doing it and, like, I still liked doing it and it was an experiment to really see if people are interested in paying for unbiased advice.

PJ: Evan’s 23. He works in tech, and then he has this other job. And people seem happy. The rate is $5/minute, although charging that gets tough.

EVAN: Can I ask, like would you ever pay like 5 bucks for like totally nonbiased counseling type of advice?

LINA: Well, I’m so glad you asked, ‘cause I was just about to ask you how much you charge and depending on what you said I was going to ask if I could just ask you for some advice on this phonecall.

EVAN: Yeah! And I’ll do it for free.

LINA: Cool. Okay. Well, I am in total, complete love right now with someone who is, at this moment, driving all of my stuff across the country and meeting me in New York and like the plan is to be together. a couple years ago I was diagnosed with something called polycystic ovary syndrome. One of the problems with that is that I’m probably infertile and I haven’t told him that. So we’ve been together for a long time and he’s about to move to New York for me and I haven’t told him that kids probably, or at least biological kids, aren’t on the table. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

EVAN: Yeah, I my gut is really just to say you should just tell him and, you know, the timing of that is really going to be up to you. It’s going to come up...if you’re really in love with this guy and you really want to be with him and you see yourself with him forever, like you’re going to get married with him, or to him, rather, it’s going to come up anyway and the longer you wait, the more it’s going to stress you out and the more it’s, probably, going to impact him when he hears it. Every month that goes by is going to be another month of him thinking, like, why didn’t she tell me? Maybe, maybe. The other thing is, you know, he could be the kind of guy who is...who’s like not going to freak out terribly.

PJ: I wanted to check in with Lina, see if she’s taken his advice and, if so, how it had gone.

PJ: What you asked him, that was your first question, right?

LINA: Mmmhm.

PJ: That’s like….a big question. That’s like a doozy of a question.

LINA: Yeah.

PJ: Had it been on your mind a lot going into that interview?

LINA: So what’s been on my mind a lot is that I moved to New York just a few weeks ago and my boyfriend followed me to New York. In September, he moved to California to be with me and 2 month later I was like, “wait a second, I know you just got here but can we just move to New York instead?” So he’s made all of these huge, grand gestures for me, which has worked out great, ‘cause I get to be with the guy that I like in the places that I like, but...but the other thing I have to think about, now, is that this person is like back and forth, 3,000 miles each way, just to be with me and I...I don’t know. I’ve never had to think about a commitment as much as I’m thinking about it right now.

PJ: Had you...have you asked your friends for advice about, like, whether to tell him about this?


PJ: None?!

LINA: No. I didn’t actually think about how serious my relationship was until a few weeks ago when I moved back to New York.

PJ: Right.

LINA: So it’s only been a few weeks, really, that I’ve been thinking about the long term future of me and this guy that I’m with. But the minute I sat down for that phonecall with the guy on Venmo, found out that what his, like, job is is that he gives people advice. Without thinking about it, it was just the first question that came out of my mouth.

PJ: So did you...did you act on the advice?

LINA: Yeah.

PJ: [laughs] You’re, like, smiled in a way that suggests that it’s going well.

LINA: He made a Gattaca joke.

PJ: Wait...a Gattaca joke?

LINA: The movie Gattica where it’s like the future of babies where you get to pick everything about them...or, like, it’s a future of test-tube babies, I guess.

PJ: Right.

LINA: My boyfriend made a joke about by the time we’re ready to have babies, like, it’ll be Gattaca time and, like, technology will take care of anything that my ovaries can’t take care of.

PJ: That’s, sweet! [laughs] So, did you feel like it was good advice?

LINA: I felt like it was very young advice.

PJ: Tell me what you mean.

LINA: Well...maybe age doesn’t have anything to do with it. He didn’t go at it in a very complicated way. I’m definitely used to people, when there’s a problem, asking me like a bunch of questions about it. And I think what he did was just insert himself into how he would feel if he were the dude whose girlfriend was withholding...I’m sure it’s hard as a 22 year old dude to tell a woman who’s a little bit older than you, like, what to do with her fertility, or, like, how to approach the topic of her fertility…

PJ: But it did actually prompt you to have the conversation. Like it did help you.

LINA: Yeah. In the end….in the end I told my boyfriend.

PJ: How long have you known about this and not said anything?

LINA: I’ve known about...I’ve known about the fertility thing since 2012.

PJ: it sounds like it actually kind of helped you. Like, I know you say that you would have done it anyway but you hadn’t and you did. And it was ok.

LINA: In a weird way, calling this kid prompted me to tell my boyfriend the truth about our future together.


PJ: Reply All is hosted by Alex Goldman and me, PJ Vogt. Our producer is Lina Misitzis. Our editors this week were Alex Blumberg, Lisa Chow, Starlee Kine, and Kaitlin Roberts. Matt Lieber makes the ship run.

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