As the stock markets plunged early on Monday, someone wondered on Twitter whether this was the beginning of the end.
In fact, it was. What's ending is our ability to undergo a stock-market correction without the background noise of social media. Ever heard the phrase, Keep Calm and Carry On? On Twitter, they changed it to Keep Freaking Out. If you're not already torqued about stocks, Twitter can fix that.
Investing pros and journalists used to at least wait until the end of trading to size up a bad day for stocks and give it a nickname. But Monday was dubbed #BlackMonday on Twitter before most of us had even arrived at work in the morning.
The start of trading was a certifiable stock-market horror show, but the term Black Monday is one that shouldn't be thrown around casually. Back on Oct. 19, 1987, the Dow Jones industrial average fell a staggering 22.6 per cent. In this week's stock-market decline, the Dow was down 6.6 per cent at one point before staging a temporary rebound and Chinese stocks fell about 8 per cent on the day.
Social media does not handle this kind of distinction well because subtlety is not their strength and the qualifications of participants vary from impressive to non-existent.
"We are officially entering another recession," one self-styled economist declared. Another found us to be on the brink of a new financial crisis: "Best to have some bitcoins," he concluded. Bitcoin, in case you haven't heard of it, is a digital currency that isn't issued by any government or central bank. It's unclear how you would save for retirement using Bitcoin, much less buy groceries.
And then there's the really wacky stuff on Twitter. One observer of the day's events offered this crash advice: "Get hard cash in a safe place; don't assume banks and cashpoints will be open." A subsequent tweet urged readers to stock up on bottled water and tinned goods. The day's inspiring tweeted biblical quote was Matthew 6:19 – "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break and steal." Maybe buy some bitcoins, then?
Possibly the most self-serving tweet of the day came from a real estate agent, who asked, "Who is glad they invested in the stock market rather than buying overvalued real estate?" Talk about tempting fate.
Social media's role in the recent stock-market correction reminds me of how jarringly the Internet affected investors when stocks crashed in 2000. Back then, I wrote a column about how disorienting it was to watch the major stock indexes falling before your eyes online. Previously, most people caught the latest numbers on an hourly radio update or the evening news on TV.
We're now used to watching stocks fall online in near real time, but not to the instant play-by-play commentary offered on social media by people from all over the world. If you can filter out the silly stuff, there's actually a fair bit to inform, amuse and comfort you on Twitter and Facebook.
The Facebook page run by the online investing community StockTwits featured a chart showing all the many serious pullbacks on the S&P 500 index since it bottomed in 2009 (http://bit.ly/1fBK96k). On Twitter, one investor helpfully pointed out what a "good and safe investment" bonds are. Another used a Seinfeld reference to show how crazy investors were acting. "Today's market open reminded me of when George Costanza knocked down women/children to get out the door from false alarm fire," he tweeted.
Humorous feature of the day on Twitter: A photoshopped picture of Wall Street's famous charging bull sculpture lying dead on the ground.
There are also some normal people on Twitter looking to commiserate about losing money in stocks. "You know it's a bad day when you are happy the Dow is off 182 points," one guy said at midday. Another joked that "everyone on Twitter is a finance expert today."
Twitter's kind of flighty, but so was the stock market on Monday. Actually, the two are perfect for one another.