May 7, 2009...11:32 am

Fear and Loathing in the Stock Market and Social Media

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Replica drawing of an image originally used to illustrate Hunter S. Thompsons book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It depicts a sort of drug-addled desperation as two people drive down a Las Vegas highway in a convertible.

What our fear of the stock market can teach us about resistance to social media integration

Sounds crazy, I know. But, many of the same things that prevent businesses from getting social are the same things that prevent people from investing in the stock market.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying things a bit, but I think if those of us who are so smitten with social media can begin to understand our own hangups then maybe we can better empathize with the businesses we’re ultimately trying to help.

For most of us, the idea of investing in the stock market seems very abstract and completely removed from our day-to-day activities even though the economy impacts almost every aspect of our lives. The same can be said of businesses and social media.

The last statistic I heard was roughly 100 million Americans have never owned a single share of stock. 100 million Americans equals about one third of the entire U.S. population or the number of viewers who visit YouTube each month.

Why is everyone so nervous?

1. Lack of a B.S. Meter

When it comes to the stock market and social media, I feel comfortable saying there’s definitely a lot of bullshit out there.

Too many of us in social media rely on buzz words that ultimately mean nothing or do little to truly communicate. Detecting B.S. of any kind really comes down to one’s ability to trust his/her own judgment.

We feel vulnerable when we don’t have a clear idea of who we should trust to guide us into unknown territory. For most people, the stock market and social media both still qualify as relatively unknown territory.

2. The Rules Change

There is no clear-cut, step-by-step formula for turning a profit in either the stock market or with social media. A lack of understanding makes the stock market and social media investment seem like gambling.

The patterns are there, but it takes some dedicated observation and hands-on effort to see them emerge in a meaningful way for any particular circumstance.

3. Long-term Commitments are Best

Although a lot of people seem to benefit from risky short-term endeavors, real gains in the stock market, just like social media, are made in the long term.

Add to this factor the above statements and realize how unsure it feels to make a long-term commitment without an adequate B.S. meter in an environment where the rules seem to change.

Empathy Helps

The problem with evangelism and enthusiasm is that they often burn too hot to coexist with the soothing presence of the other e-word: empathy.

I’m only a few weeks into my new position working with PEAK6 Online, but I’ve been learning a lot about attitudes people have toward investing in the stock market through one of our websites, WeSeed, and applying that to what I do professionally with social media. (This is my disclosure — yes, I work for WeSeed).

WeSeed is an interactive site that lets people learn about the stock market by investing in virtual stock portfolios with fake money. It even lets members browse for stocks based on things they’re already passionate about, like sports, fashion or technology.

The mission of the site is to help people get over their fears of the stock market. This really resonates with me since most of what I do here is to try to help professional communicators and other business types get over their fear of social media.

Just like those of us who readily engage in different types of social networks, savvy investors often feel enthusiastic about sharing their market knowledge with others. Think about the last time you ran into one of those people the next time you get frustrated with a business’ lack of excitement over the idea of social media integration.

If it’s our job to help others wade their way into social media communication with confidence, isn’t it also our job to empathize first and frame these foreign concepts in ways that make them seem more familiar and relevant before we climb up on our soap box?

When was the last time you felt afraid?

Note: Since I totally ripped off David Griner’s title for one of his presentations, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant work of Gonzo Journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, please check out David’s slide deck on SlideShare. Also, follow David on Twitter – @griner. I wish I could do more for HST, but if you can just pause for a moment of silence the next time you drink Wild Turkey, that will probably suffice.

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Photo by Paul Watson


  • Stock Technical Analysis

    People only hears rumors and tend to “play it safe” and never tries to learn how the market actually works.

    There money to be made in the markets even today, people just need to get out there and see for themselves.

    Good article by the way; found you from Twitter.

  • What a great analogy. People often don’t try things they don’t understand. And, they avoid things that they are afraid of failing at. The timing and the the comparison could not be more appropriate.

    “Isn’t it also our job to empathize first and frame these foreign concepts in ways that make them seem more familiar and relevant before we climb up on our soap box?” Fantastic. That is my mission as I educate people on the power of social media–talking understanding first, strategy second, and then the application of the tools and the process.

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  • Interesting thoughts. The analogy does have some parallels. And I think it’s a good reminder to social media zealots: Step off the soap box and rethink your campaign to cajole others on board.

    Lose the jargon. Don’t talk like a social media professor. Talk like a business person. Focus on solutions to problems and pathways to growth.

    You’ve got to have an easy to understand case for change. Don’t expect others to get it right away. Don’t expect their enthusiasm to match yours. Chances are, they’ve got other problems on their minds. Focus on those problems and make the bridge to social media, if indeed that’s the right bridge for the problems at hand.

    I like the reference to empathy, and I submit to you that it’s always been like that.

    “Resistance is futile. You must be assimiliated.” That doesn’t work.

    Let’s face it… most in the business world are scared of change that’s disruptive and revolutionary. Why? Because that kind of change is perceived as involving significant risk.

    Which brings us back to the analogy. People don’t like risk. That said, that’s what business leaders do everyday. They manage risk.

    So, how do we sell the notion of social media to our clients and organizations? Well, to use the stock investing analogy, you don’t say: “Here, just give me $50,000 and I’ll set you up. Hakuna Matata. Isn’t this great?!”

    No, first you find out what the client’s goals and concerns are. You listen. You offer insights. You listen some more. You talk openly about the risks and what changes may be needed. You talk about the benefits, potential payback and value. In the spirit of social media itself, you engage, educate and collaborate.

    Thanks for the post. Will be interested to see where the dialogue goes from here.

    • onbrands – You’re absolutely right. None of this is really new — when we get down to it, it’s all about resistance to change and risk mitigation. You’ve also got me thinking about jargon now, too… I understand the necessity for shortcutting language, but never when it’s a shortcut to actual thinking. Thanks for the comment!

  • atul chatterjee

    One of the reasons to participate in a social network is to develop friends. Not everyone is looking for a bargain or development of their own business. For a company to immediately look for ROI is unreasonable and it is the social media proponents who are responsible for it.
    As for fear of the stock market there is another reason. People have lost large sums in stocks and it is losses which are remembered rather than moderate gains. There is some asymmetry between the impact of losses and gains. You’ll have to delve into theory for that, but intuition tells me that I am right.

    • Atul,
      It’s true that people often join social networks to develop friendships, but as much as it is a social place, the Internet is also a marketplace. Even though our brains like to categorize social and market experiences as separate, the two are usually pretty inextricable.

      I’m not saying that the reasons to be fearful of either aren’t warranted. There are always reasons to be fearful of anything – logic can be manipulated to justify any feeling – positive or negative. However, I am suggesting that the way to overcoming fears is to empathize with the feeling rather than try to argue it away.

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  • Jared O'Toole

    Lack of a BS meter. It’s so hard in both worlds to know what is true and relevant and what is not. And then you don’t even know if the people who are supposed to make that all clear are telling the truth. Tough battle on both sides but there never will be a set meter. Its all about us individuals and hopefully shaping each person that comes through the doors the best we can.

    • Jared,
      True, there will never be a set meter — but I’m hopeful that they can become more savvy.

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  • The BS meter is so important and yet sticky at the same time… it goes beyond the simple one or two time interactions on the computer. There is so much intent lost when we sit on opposite sides of the world that it’s important to really develop those relationships, especially when it’s a company and a consumer. Onbrands hit it that, as with so many other things in life, we need to listen, listen, listen. I follow @unmarketing on twitter and he’s constantly reminding me to take 5 minutes and retweet, reply and engage others, nothing about myself. Those things are so key to getting through the BS.
    Great little read, Shannon. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Matt,
      Context and intentions are definitely lost in so many of our online interactions — very important to keep in mind.

  • I wonder if Stock Technical Analyst didn’t hit on another analogy that ties into your post. It seems that many people just want to make money in the stock market, and don’t care how the markets function. Likewise, it seems that many companies just want to use social media to increase sales/grow their business, and don’t really care about how the tools work, as long as they work.

    Of course, since they never take the time to understand HOW the tools work, their efforts probably won’t.

    Does that make sense?

  • Jamie Favreau

    I have to agree with Mack on this one. The companies want to just have the tools but they don’t want to take the time out to use them properly. I am going to be teaching someone how to use them and why they should. But will they have the manpower or will they actually use them to their advantage time will tell.

    We do need to educate everyone on them and realize that this is not a sprint but a marathon. Much like the stock market people lack the patience to wait out the bad times and see what happens when things get better.

    WeSeed seems like a great way to learn as your blog is another way to discuss Social Media and educate people on how to use it properly.

  • cportocarrero

    The analogy also seems to hold true when it comes to teaching new people how “it” works. In social media, there are a lot of people that will help you out when you’re getting started, but there’s also an attitude of “Newbie, you’re doing it wrong!”

    Same in the stock market. It seems that those with knowledge revel in it and always want to remind the newbies who’s boss.

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