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Memes are serious business with their own stock exchange

Memes are becoming mainstream. Now a dedicated group wants to find out how much they're worth.

A look inside the Nasdanq closed beta.
Alfred Ng/CNET

With my best "My Dad Will Sue You" outfit on, I was ready to strike it rich buying and selling memes.

It was 9 a.m. ET on a Thursday, early enough that Donald Trump memes hadn't rolled in yet. Feeling lucky, I bought 30 shares of $TRMP. They immediately tanked 21 percent. But I wasn't fazed -- there was plenty of time for the president to, you know, be Trump.

I'm not living in a fantasy land. I'm logged in to Nasdanq, a site that lets you to wager on the value of internet memes, similar to how you might punt on shares of a company. Sure, you don't use real money to play, but there's still the satisfaction of knowing you're internet savvy.

Memes aren't just digital amusements. They brought Rick Astley's career back from the ashes and sent Oculus founder Palmer Luckey into the shadows. They've seeped into international diplomatic efforts; the UK's Russian embassy posted pictures of Pepe the Frog and netted thousands of retweets in the process.

The stock market represents the current value of a company based on expectations of how it will perform in the future. Similarly, the Nasdanq can give you an idea of which meme is about to go viral.

Mock markets aren't new, and dedicated fans have created exchanges to turn their knowledge of a subject into games. The Hollywood Stock Exchange lets players "invest" in actors, rewarding those who find hidden stars before their big break. The University of Iowa developed its Iowa Electronic Markets for its business school students to learn how the economy works. It's now used to forecast elections.

Memes are a logical step.

The Nasdanq traces its origin to the Meme Economy subreddit. It started out as a joke about six months ago, but now members use it to hash out the latest trends in web culture. SpongeBob memes are still blue chips, just like Intel shares, while the hooded "Evil Kermit" meme has been on a downward spiral since January.

The value of viral

Brandon Wink, one of the Meme Economy subreddit's moderators, teamed with seven people he met there to build the meme market for wannabe wolves of Wall Street. It launched Wednesday as a closed beta.

The name is a play on the Nasdaq stock market and "Dank," a slang term that originated in the marijuana community and morphed to mean just about anything.

The team set out to take something that's subjective and give it a quantifiable value. While companies on the stock market have quarterly sales and profit to measure, a meme's value is in relevancy and popularity. Who's to say the bottle flip challenge is better than the mannequin challenge?

"That's the tricky part. It's something that we're actively working on and trying to figure out an algorithm for," said Kyle Stratis, one of the software engineers behind Nasdanq. "Part of our goal is to make it a little more objective and make it more concrete."

Nasdanq stocks are supposed to rise using algorithms looking at the meme's popularity and sentiment analysis. Pepe the Frog memes might be really popular, but the cartoon's negative connotation means it wouldn't do well on the market, Stratis said.


The Meme Economy subreddit, where the idea for Nasdanq started.


The pricing on Nasdanq is determined by data scrapers that go through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. The more popular a phrase is, the more value it has on the simulator. $MRKL, the ticker for Angela Merkel memes, surged 9,826 percent during a rise in mentions of the German chancellor's name on social media after she met with President Trump. It quickly dropped after.

The current formula on Nasdanq's beta takes its cues from the way the real economy functions, even though memes don't work that way. In a real economy, popularity of a company's products means growth for the stock. But if a meme goes mainstream, its value tanks since everyone is on the joke. Think about how funny the Crying Jordan face initially was, and how tired it felt once you started seeing it everywhere.

Memes, like $PND2, can be bought and sold. Every player starts with 1,000 GBP (the Nasdanq's virtual currency, not the Great British Pound). The simulator has trading firms like Goldmeme Sachs, where groups can get together to buy and sell meme securities. You need 1,500 GBP to start one, and after my Trump memes investment rebounded, I created Lehmeme Brothers. Wink hopes firm members will scour the web and hunt for hidden gems to "invest" in.

Even if the market crashes, Nasdanq would teach valuable economic lessons, he said.

"The skills are actually transferable if you learn how to look for trends and the sociology of how the internet works," Wink said. The 23-year-old graduate student said he's seen friends use lessons from World of Warcraft's auction-based economy in real-life situations.

Time to go positive?

Stratis said he's devoted all his free time to working on the meme stock market, spending 12 to 16 hours a day on the weekend. Still, it's buggy. You can't refresh a page without getting a 404 error message, and the Sell button and comments section don't work.

Stratis is looking to iron out those wrinkles before Nasdanq is released to the public. His goal is to make a fun game, with data analysis on memes as an added bonus. He and his team are aiming for an official launch by December.

"Everyone has a sense of what's popular in their own bubble or their own circle," Stratis said about memes. "We're giving it a hard number."

If you're hatching a strategy for when Nasdanq goes public, Wink recommends putting your investments in wholesome memes, that is, inspirational and positive posts.

As he puts it, "2016's depressed nature will make the pendulum swing the other way. I have a really good feeling about wholesome memes."

Let's hope it doesn't cause a Great Meme Depression.

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