Venmo ruined my week

And my friends helped!

Welcome to Embedded, your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, published Monday through Friday by Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci. “Get Embedded” on Twitter and Instagram. 🧩

Once a week something that happens online makes me feel insane. Here’s this week’s thing. —Kate

People may keep sharing more and more on social media, but there are things I feel I simply should not be privy to. Complaints tweeted at an airline, for instance. Or a Google Doc with someone else in it. It feels wrong to witness certain things, but this week I’ve been witnessing exactly those kinds of things over and over again, thanks to Venmo.

On Monday, the company tweeted out something that anyone who follows an influencer has seen before: a giveaway. In Venmo’s case, they have a $100,000 pot that they’re giving away in $500 chunks to a lucky few of the users who simply retweet the tweet with their Venmo handle. Well, that is, simply retweet, follow Venmo on Twitter, and have a Venmo account in good standing. They also went ahead and did the same thing on Instagram.

Suddenly, these quote tweets and Instagram Story shares were appearing all over the feeds of people I follow—people I respect. People who have constructed online personas of snarky cynicism and carefully filtered images were tossing all pretense aside for $500 they almost certainly wouldn’t win. (As of this morning, the stunt has garnered over 250,000 retweets and close to two million Instagram comments).

On a human level, I get it. A bit of street cred is a small price to pay for the cash my friends stand to win. Why people would participate is not really the confusing part. The real question is, why would Venmo?

Influencer giveaways have become notorious over the past year—loop giveaways, which require participants to follow a handful of influencers, in particular. The influencers get more followers, and a user may get, I don’t know, a Peloton. Despite how generously it may be framed in the caption, giveaways are almost exclusively a growth tactic for which the influencer has to give relatively little to receive a whole lot in new followers and engagement. 

It’s safe to assume Venmo isn’t being charitable, either, and $100,000 is a drop in a bucket for such a large company. So what are they after? Followers? The giveaway specifically requires you to be following them on Twitter or Instagram, depending on where you’re participating. It also requires you to have a Venmo account, and the promise of potential free money probably scooped the company a not insignificant amount of new users. But the main thing they got feels far more dystopian: a bunch of people to do free advertising for them by putting the Venmo logo on everyone’s feeds over and over and over again for over 24 hours.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the promotion follows one of Venmo’s biggest recent PR blunders: BuzzFeed revealed that the accounts of President Joe Biden and all his family members were easily identifiable on the app. Venmo updated its privacy options as a result of the story. There’s one surefire way to push down Google results related to that story, and it’s a massive publicity stunt. 

And that, ultimately, was the cause of my cringe when I witnessed yet another person I thought I knew quote-tweet the giveaway with “why not!!!!” What do you mean why not?? Because I didn’t realize Big Tech and capitalism could buy your compliance and access to your entire social media audience for the slim possibility of 500 American dollars, that’s why not! You’ve been tricked into thinking you’re doing something for yourself, but the only person guaranteed to benefit from this is the company. That said ... if the challenge ever ends up being “retweet this tweet and we’ll get your acquaintance to finally pay you back that $18 on Venmo after four years,” then I’m all in.