An Emoji-based Economy
Venmo publicly displays social monetary transactions between friends and brings to light the different noncommercial exchanges coded by brief phrases and emojis. While the actual monetary amounts are hidden, through the frequency of posts and the content of the emojis, Venmo allows users to see how often their friends spend and with whom they spend.
However, most users see Venmo a different way. Venmo allows us to put up a façade or as Erving Goffman would say “front” by creating a wealthy and social appearance through our list of transactions by purchasing commodities, in which we create a representational appearance that positions our social rank within our friend circle.
Referencing David Graeber’s “Exchange” essay, however, these transactions reveal the particular exchange or transaction relationships between individuals and how these translate to social bonds. For example, one can often see reciprocal meal or drink exchanges between friends via equal postings of food or drink emojis. At the same time, one may notice who has the upper hand in a hierarchical relationship based on the dominant person’s continual requests for payment of lightbulb, water, and money emojis. When one’s Venmo feed is filled with exchanges between the same two users — most likely best friends — the relationship switches to an individualistic communist exchange in which both members’ exchanges seem so widely random and frequent that one assumes that there is no intention to equally reciprocate since the bond of exchange is not likely to be broken anytime soon. Occasionally, agnostic exchanges are seen as shows of one-upmanship, not necessarily shared between the two people within the exchange, but rather by the frequency and expenditure of different outings between two rivals trying to establish dominance within their circle. Repeated emojis of microphones, airplanes, champagne and/or money may flood the feeds between these competitors.
While these coded social exchanges seem personal, Venmo gives anyone the authority to analyze these relationships. The further removed users become the tangible quality of face-to-face exchanges, the more weakened the social bond between individuals becomes.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books. 1959, 22.
Graeber, David.“Exchange” in Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W.J.T. Mitchell and Marc B.N. Hanson.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2010, 221-223.