Twitter can help investors get ahead. Photo: AFP
Whether it is on Twitter, Facebook or more of a niche platform, interacting through social media has become a big part of the way we organise our lives and access information. But can it make you money?
A variety of providers promise to harness the online chatter of friends and strangers to allow people to invest more successfully. At the most basic level this includes forums on which amateurs or professionals swap news or stock tips, while more sophisticated users can copy star traders or harness Twitter sentiment to help them make trading decisions.
Professional investors have used social media for several years as part of their trading strategy, as was illustrated neatly last month when a hoax tweet suggesting an attack on the White House knocked 0.9 per cent off the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.
The "flash crash" was caused by algorithms that react to social media. Algorithms are computer programs that automate trading decisions.
Using Twitter and its rivals has become more common of late among the big banks that move the markets. Last month, financial information group Bloomberg added Twitter to its terminals. The company's specialist computers are used on every Wall Street trading floor.
Companies such as Dataminr analyse social media cues for financial firms and the government, processing them and turning the Twitter chatter into cues for buying and selling.
For private investors, getting social media sentiment to guide their investments has not been so easy.
One hedge fund, Derwent Capital Markets, launched a Twitter-fuelled fund that later bit the dust. It then launched a betting platform that was meant to allow you to spread bet on stocks and currencies, but this has also closed.
However, there are still ways to use social media to invest.
StockTwits, an online platform using Twitter that allows amateur day traders to communicate information to each other, describes itself as an "indispensable sentiment machine".
StockTwits, and now Twitter too, uses "cashtags" instead of hashtags, meaning that you can track how many people are talking about a stock on social media by searching for the dollar sign as well as the name of the stock.
If a stock is being talked about, for good or bad, it is likely to be more volatile, and quick-minded traders may be able to make a profit. Those with less expertise might like to try a platform called eToro, which allows customers to copy "star traders" directly, and can make traders of even the least informed of punters.
The company, which celebrated its 50 millionth trade last week, allows its clients to link their portfolios to so-called "guru traders", who are paid per month for the people who follow them. When the guru trader invests, his or her copy traders mirror the trade in real time.
The company – which has an Australian site – makes its money by taking a cut of each of the trades through a "spread" – the gap between the price at which an asset is bought and sold.
The guru trader makes up to $10,000 a month, depending on how many people act on his trades. And the copy traders – ordinary investors – make cash if their trades go well, and lose it if they don't.
Alon Levitan, head of marketing at eToro, said the platform allowed people to see "the human side of investing".
Guru traders engage with their copy traders, explaining why they carried out a certain trade. Currencies are particularly popular on the platform, but eToro users also trade shares and commodities.
"These people are trading with their own money," Mr Levitan said. "They aren't fund managers sitting elsewhere and working with yours."
For guru traders, he said, the responsibility of having followers moderated their risk taking. Traders with many followers adapted their trading strategy from high risk to medium risk and lower.
With Currensee you pay a 2 per cent service fee on the average capital in your account and a success fee of 20 per cent of the profits. This goes to the "trade leaders" who, like the guru traders of eToro, allow Currensee members to follow their trades.
The company said its trade leaders had delivered nearly 25 per cent profits over the past 12 months on average, compared with an 8.6 per cent rise in the S&P 500 index.
Alexander Thirlby, 37, has been trading stocks and currencies on eToro since completing a financial trading course. However, instead of executing his own trades based on his own research, he sets his account to copy the actions of successful traders.
"I find it an easier way to trade, compared with complex systems like Bloomberg," he said. "It gives you the chance to speak to people who know what they are talking about as well.
"I know a lot of people are sceptical of stock trading, but I would say it is for everyone. It is very easy – you put in what you like and get what you like out."
Mr Thirlby, who is from south London, has bought and sold stocks including Amazon and Google in recent months, as well as dealing in currencies.
"I would say this is a hobby, but I have a screen open all day with eToro on it," he said. "When you have money in something you want to know what it is doing."
Daily Telegraph, London