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Quartz coins "the Venmo Line": Reminding us that the under-30 crowd lives in a totally different digital world

By Michael Carney , written on October 8, 2014

From The News Desk

Quartz’s editorial team stumbled upon a generational divide earlier today, describing the phenomenon “the Venmo line.” One one side of the line are millennials and their elders who value privacy and view digital services that threaten it with suspicion. On the other side are youthful, digital natives who view public sharing as foundational an element of their lives as breathing. Judging by Quartz’s unscientific data, this line appears to fall right around 30 years old. (Disclosure: The author of this article is 31. Do with that information what you will.)

This amusing although hardly novel discovery occurred in one of Quartz’s many editorial chat rooms when one staffer kicked off a discussion of Square’s peer-to-peer mobile payments platform, Cash. The discussion quickly turned to Venmo, the Braintree (and thus PayPal)-owned competitor, which offers many more social-sharing features. For example, when one friend pays another for a shared night of drinking, she has the option of including a personalized memo like, “good timz last night drunkie!” That memo would then be shared across the two friends’ social graphs. Depending on your perspective, this is either highly entertaining or downright horrifying.

Quartz published an edited version of the ensuing discussion, including indications of which age group each participant belongs to. The disconnect between the pre- and post-30 crowds could not be more striking. Those above the Venmo line were generally appalled by the idea of sharing details – be they truthful or in jest – of one’s spending behavior, and even more mundane information like their age.

For example, one over-30 staffer, leo, asks: “why on earth would anyone care what their friends are paying each other?” To which two junior staffers, Zach.wf and max, reply with, “because people write funny things,” and “With emoji, usually.” leo, however, remains unconvinced, asking, “again, why do you care?”

Despite being assured by several regular Venmo users on staff, nearly all of which were sub-30, that users can elect to make sensitive transactions private, heatherlandy takes the discussion beyond one of utility versus novelty, and straight to the digital immigrant fear-mongering that is at the heart of this Venmo Line divide. She writes:

omg, it’s not bad enough that i have to know that the girl i used to sit next to in social studies just took her 4-year-old to the dentist, now i have to know that one of you paid your roommate for the phone bill??? people, you are just GIVING your privacy away! about sensitive things like money! we all need to have a big talk soon…
While the social sharing preferences of various Quartz staffers may not be hugely significant, in and of itself, the discussion illustrates a key point in the way new technologies are received: through the lens of the observer. And while this is true for privacy concerns and new forms of sharing, it’s also true for countless other forms of user behavior.

When Snapchat first started to generate buzz among technology watchers and later the mass media, the reaction of most “adults” was something along the lines of “I don’t get it,” or “That’s just a sexting app.” It all sounded a lot like, “Those damn kids and their loud music.” But amid all that dismissal, there didn’t seem to be a lot of appreciation for the pressure that digital natives feel from having every aspect of their identity and every moment of their lives permanently etched into the Internet digital record. Where the adults saw a tool for behaving badly, early Snapchat users, most of which were in high school or college, saw it as a platform for the kinds of casual self-expression they were already doing in person, only with the power of a connected mobile device.

Whisper elicited a similar reaction, with many naysayers writing it off as a gossip platform, as did Tinder, the so-called hookup app. Many are saying the same thing about Secret today, and while I can’t personally argue for the platform’s redeeming virtues, that isn’t to say that it won’t offer one to someone looking at the product through a different lens.

In the year or so since Snapchat burst onto the scene, the company has exploded to more than 100 million monthly active users, a group that surely includes more than just teens. In other words, people are starting to appreciate the power of near-instant communication, as well as the opportunity to peek into the private moments of friends’ (and strangers’) lives without the fear of a lasting record. Whisper and Tinder too are exploding in terms of engagement, with the former helping users of all ages deal with the life challenges that they are uncomfortable with sharing publicly, and the latter leading to many real long-term relationships, despite the much deserved reputation for more casual courtship.

The bottom line is, all three companies are, in their own way, adding real utility rather than just trivial entertainment to their users’ lives. But this was largely missed in early reviews, the majority of which were handed down by people outside each product’s target demographic, or who brought to that analysis some biases based on their age and prior relationship with technology.

As Sarah Lacy pointed out earlier this week in her brilliant piece on Silicon Valley’s "asshole problem", it’s teens more than any other demo that are driving the outlier successes in the consumer technology market today. Lacy writes:

The determiners of success in the Valley are no longer CIOs deciding on huge iron boxes that cost millions a pop. It’s not even whether geeky early adopters will like Twitter or FriendFeed more. It’s what teens around the world want to do on their phones. A hot mobile app has more in common with a movie premiere than a classic Silicon Valley tech company. And increasingly, VCs know they have no clue what’s a good idea and what’s a bad idea.
It’s said that missed deals, rather than deals gone bad are what haunt VCs. In that sense it’s not surprising that many of the best investors have looked outside their own offices for inspiration and guidance as to the next hit product. Lightspeed Venture Partners' Jeremy Liew reportedly first heard about Snapchat from the teenage niece of a fellow partner. And Andreessen Horowitz invested in ShoeDazzle because several of the partners’ female executive assistants couldn’t stop raving about the service.

Quartz’s gideon offered the most apropos comment of all, dubbing the discussion, “that moment when everyone over 35 in the office suddenly realizes everyone under 30 lives in a different universe”