By Julia Glum
March 11, 2020
Mikel Jaso for Money

Late last year, Kiara Bolade earned $500 making French toast, eggs and bacon at home in her kitchen.

Scrolling through Twitter while her mom slept off a night shift in the other room, Bolade saw her timeline fill with tweets from the mobile payment service Cash App and got to work. The Evergreen State College student paused her breakfast to fire off dozens of posts in rapid succession. Every few minutes for two hours straight, she tweeted in hopes of grabbing @CashApp’s attention.

Bolade went basic — “pick meee” — and attempted reverse psychology — “i triple dog dare y’all.” She added strings of four-leaf clover emoji; she attached GIFs of the Powerpuff Girls and Tom Cruise. She cracked jokes about her desperation, admitting “im willing to spam,” then asked for sympathy, complaining about how “i never win.” Finally, she tried brutal honesty: “i want to have a fun new year’s eve help me outtt.”

That’s when the notification arrived. She’d been selected for Cash App Friday.

“I didn’t really believe it at first,” 23-year-old Bolade says. “I woke [my mom] up. I was like, ‘Uh, well, I just won $500 off of Twitter,’ and she was like, ‘Wait, what?’”

Bolade is one of the tens of thousands of young people who participate in Cash App Fridays, a social phenomenon-slash-corporate giveaway with a financial twist. Each week, Twitter and Instagram users log on en masse to fight for their share of a virtual jackpot, no entry fee or legwork needed. All they have to do is post their Cash App username and get lucky.

Cash App Friday has murky policies, long odds and security risks, but it’s evolving into way more than a promotional stunt. In a time where 40% of Americans would struggle with a surprise $400 expense, the contest is a way to pay rent, fix cars and buy diapers. Add in how ridiculously easy it is to play and win — especially for a generation on their phones constantly anyway — and it’s clear why the weekly “lottery” has gone viral.

How? Now that’s the mystery.

From Grassroots to Gimmick

For something so popular, much about Cash App Friday remains cryptic.

Ask Cash App about the contest it’s now famous for, and you’ll get radio silence. (I tried, several times, for comment — nothing.) But the secrecy goes beyond avoiding the press. There’s no Cash App Friday page to visit on the company’s website, nor are there public stats boasting about how much it’s awarded. The rules of the contest are hard to find and confusing to read. It’s unclear how winners are chosen and on what schedule. Even the contest’s origins are obscure.

What we do know is that Cash App and Twitter have always been inextricably linked. Cash App is owned by Square, the startup that lets you swipe your credit card at frilly bakeries. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey cofounded Square in 2009 and still heads it today.

However, neither company appears to have actually started Cash App Friday. In fact, it began almost by accident.

When Cash App launched in 2013, transactions required a phone number or email address plus a debit card. But in 2015, the company tweaked its system. All a person needed was a username, cleverly called a $cashtag, to send money to someone — whether they knew them or not. Like with Venmo, recipients could then tap their balance to pay others or cash out, depositing the sum into their bank account.

Of course, once Cash App customers realized how painless it was to send money to strangers online, they started asking for money from strangers online. And what better time to do it than Friday? It’s payday, the weekend’s coming, and everyone’s feeling generous.

Until late 2017, Cash App Friday tweets were mostly comprised of women encouraging men to Cash App them to get their nails done, and men telling women to Cash App them for fresh haircuts. That’s when Cash App itself got in on the trend. The verified Cash App account first posted the #CashAppFriday hashtag on Aug. 11, 2017. Days later, it confirmed the gimmick wasn’t a company creation, writing, “You invented it, we made a gif of it. It’s #CashAppFriday.”

Replies to @CashApp’s #CashAppFriday tweets hovered under 1,000 throughout 2018. Then it truly blew up. The first company #CashAppFriday tweet of 2019 attracted 1,100 replies; its first #SuperCashAppFriday of the year generated nearly 5,000. @CashApp wrote “blessed” to roughly 20 of them, paying out $100 each.

Fast forward to Dec. 27, 2019, the company’s last Cash App Friday of the year, when it sifted through 81,000 replies to award 49 people $500 each.

Giving away money may seem like a counterintuitive business strategy. But it makes a lot of sense for Cash App, according to Rich Hanna, a senior lecturer in digital marketing at Babson College. Though Cash App’s revenue comes primarily from subscriptions and services, not peer-to-peer transactions, it still needs downloads.

“What they’re doing is trying to generate brand awareness,” Hanna says.

Cash App’s primary competitor is the PayPal-owned Venmo, which launched in 2009 and quickly became a household name. Venmo boasts more than 52 million active accounts, with a third-party analyst projecting it’ll hit 35 million monthly users in 2020. For comparison, Cash App just revealed it has 24 million monthly active customers — up 60% year over year.

It’s not clear whether Cash App actually holds Cash App Friday every Friday, but when it does, the posts have insane reach. They rarely generate fewer than 10,000 responses these days. The #SuperCashAppFriday on Jan. 31, 2020, saw more than 56,000 replies. And 28,000 retweets. And 42,000 likes.

On top of that, Cash App often includes a prompt with its Friday posts to encourage participants to involve a friend. These instructions, like “tag a shopaholic for good luck,” cast its net wider while simultaneously broadening the applicant pool.

Cash App Friday isn’t a loyalty program. It doesn’t reward power users, and there’s no incentive to use the app beyond accepting one’s would-be winnings. Hanna says the giveaway’s goal isn’t even to influence people to open Cash App every day — it’s to spread the word about its sheer existence.

And it’s working.

The Allure of Getting Something for Nothing

Winners of Cash App Friday giveaways have to be at least 18, but otherwise the selection process is random. Victors aren’t necessarily the first to reply, nor do they have the highest follower count. Occasionally @CashApp will comment on a tweet’s content, but most of the time it just sends the sparkle and cash-flying emoji with a dollar figure.

(Cash App hosts Cash App Fridays on Instagram, too, though this story focuses on Twitter because account activity is easier to track. For simplicity, this piece also only examines Friday giveaways, not ones for holidays or other promotions.)

According to Money’s research, there were 10 official Cash App Friday giveaways on Twitter in 2019. About 150 people got $100 each, about 12 got $150 each, about 30 got $250 each, about 70 got $500 each and 25 got bitcoin. That’s more than $60,000 total.

Scroll through the replies to any Cash App Friday tweet, and you’ll see pleas for everything from weed money to birthday presents. While some users weave tales of single motherhood and crushing debt, others admit they want snacks for Fortnite marathons or Lakers tickets. Participants range from veterans adjusting to civilian life to college students needing textbooks. Sometimes people attach photos of their kids or pets to the messages; others include memes that nod to how long they’ve been trying to win.

For an act that involves begging for money in public, there’s very little shame involved. That’s because the prospect is nearly irresistible from a psychological angle, according to Joan DiFuria and Stephen Goldbart, who together run the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in California.

“‘I have to do almost nothing, and I may get something,’” Goldbart says. “That’s one of the oldest marketing ploys in the sales book.”

Cash App Friday isn’t the only way for people to obtain money on Twitter. There’s a thriving sugar baby/daddy scene, a findom subculture (Google it) and a near-constant flow of giveaways from Twitch streamers promoting their channels. There are also several well-known Twitter philanthropists, like PulteGroup heir Bill Pulte and YouTuber MrBeast, whose posts giving away Teslas and five-figure checks draw tons of likes.

These may not have been directly inspired by Cash App Friday, but the contest has certainly helped normalize the practice of asking for money online. Though they’d never tell their routing number to a stranger on the street, people don’t hesitate to post their $cashtags on Twitter, data security be damned.

According to DiFuria, Cash App Friday’s popularity isn’t derived solely from the chance to make a quick buck. The sense of community is compelling, as well. It feels special when all your friends are doing it, when you can see #CashAppFriday is the top trending topic, when Burger King and Lil B are getting involved with the movement.

For stressed-out adults and opportunistic teens alike, attempting to win Cash App Friday is a brief distraction. Like buying a lottery ticket, it gives them a dopamine rush.

“What they get is a free thrill. They get this fantasy they get to live in for a while,” DiFuria says. “Even if they don’t have impact, that makes somebody feel powerful.”

That was certainly true for Quintasia McLane, a 21-year-old who won #SuperCashAppFriday last April. A student at Livingstone College in North Carolina, she entered because she’d been struggling with the cost of physical therapy after a car accident.

It felt like a blessing when her phone lit up with $250 from Cash App.

“I thought I was trippin’,” McLane says. “I was astounded. I was so happy. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is co-pay money.’”

‘Why Would I Not Try It?’

Let’s be real — the vast majority of entrants aren’t considering marketing practices or psychological factors when they’re playing Cash App Friday. They’re mostly doing it because, hey, free money.

According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of U.S. adults between 18 and 29 have smartphones; nearly half people in that age group admit to being “almost constantly” online. Tweeting takes no time, especially if you already have your phone in hand or aren’t doing anything interesting (see: sitting in class, watching Netflix, waiting for work to end).

“It’s little risk for high reward,” says 23-year-old Ian Pomfret, a rare four-time Cash App Friday winner from Indianapolis. “Why would I not try it?”

Like many devoted Cash App Friday competitors, Pomfret has turned on notifications for @CashApp’s tweets. He gets alerted the instant the account comes online, he takes five seconds to enter, and then he moves on with his day.

This past December, Pomfret won $500 from Cash App while lying in bed with his girlfriend and three cats. But perhaps his most memorable victory occurred in a Michigan hotel room crammed full of mixed martial arts fighters. Because he needed to weigh in, he hadn’t eaten in a while and was feeling low.

His entire mood soon shifted.

“Not even 20 seconds after I commented, my phone buzzed. I popped up,” Pomfret says. “You wouldn’t have been able to tell I was cutting weight — I was jumping up and down.”

Pomfret’s teammates and coaches asked what was wrong, and he happily told them about the $250 he’d just made for doing approximately nothing.

Their reaction to his sudden windfall? “‘Yeah, you’re buying dinner tonight,’” Pomfret recalls.

These narratives are part of what makes Cash App Friday so fascinating. Some winners casually throw their hats into the virtual ring because they want to buy a round of beers for their bros, while others flood the account with sob stories because they can’t afford an upcoming surgery. Neither approach is wrong. Cash App Friday might change your life, or it might make it a bit more fun.

Add it to the list of quirks that have combined to cement the Cash App Friday craze in internet culture. It’s called Cash App Friday, though Cash App didn’t start it. The contest is massive, but Cash App won’t talk about it. Cash App promotes the giveaway every week, but it doesn’t always give money away. It’s unclear how much it’s awarded, whether creativity counts and who selects the winners.

When it comes down to it, the only thing we know for sure is that Cash App Friday is a sensation — and it’s showing no sign of slowing down.

On its first #SuperCashAppFriday of 2020, Cash App awarded money in $100, $250 and $500 increments to 60-some people on Twitter. The company has also been holding random mid-week contests on Instagram, bestowing smaller sums like $45 upon users who solve math problems or connect-the-dots puzzles. By offering a chance at no-strings-attached cash, Cash App continues to turn thousands of people into devoted, if unwitting, brand ambassadors.

Bolade, who won $500 from her kitchen in Washington, is one of them. After spending her winnings on dorm room decorations and, yes, a fun New Year’s Eve, she’s officially a Cash App Friday convert. Bolade’s always telling her sister and friends to “keep an eye on the Cash App Twitter account,” but she recommends everyone participate.

“It doesn’t have to be college students — even real-life, adult adults can enter this, and it can help them tremendously,” she says.

Bolade’s reasoning, like the concept at the heart of Cash App Friday, is simple. With so little to lose and so much to gain, why not try?

“Open the Twitter app,” she says, “and hopefully something good will happen.”

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