Jason Morley needed advice. The public relations executive wanted to invest in residential real estate, but he didn't know which market to choose.
Though reading the news gave him statistics, he wanted a firsthand account of the real estate market in South Florida from people who lived there.
He turned to Twitter.
After reading tweets by people struggling to get good offers on their Boca Raton homes, he decided not to invest in the area.
"I think everyone's kidding themselves when they say they don't pay attention to the public," Morley says. "If everyone else is doing it by nature, then that affects the market."
As investors continually look for an edge, social media sites like Twitter have become a popular tool for raw information—and rumors. Morley says that finding out how the public feels about a company or market definitely carries weight.
Twitter enthusiasts argue that the service is so immediate that market-moving information can surface before it appears on regular news Web sites.
"Maybe you get a $2 jump on a stock," Morley said. "It's not a guarantee, but you might beat the news sometimes."
Investors need to be careful, however. While news from the maintstream media outlets like CNBC.com (which tweets some of its headlines) is reliable, Twitter is open to anyone who wants to pass on rumors—or even false information. Some liken it to stock chatrooms during the 1990s dot-com boom, where stock tips and rumors were passed around without any verification.
A recent tweet from a user reported that AT&T charged him $11,000 for a few hours of Internet use in Canada. AT&T subsequently became one of the top feeds of the day, with users angrily chiming in on the company's incompetence. While the tweet may have been exaggerated or falsified, comments like these could cause traders to make poor decisions.
"For the dedicated, there are probably gems out there," said independent technology analyst Larry Tabb, CEO and co-founder of TABB group. "[But] you're trying to find a needle in a haystack."
Still, banks and hedge funds have noticed the trend. StreamBase Systems, a company that creates and provides software tools that synthesize information, was approached by about 10 of its clients to develop a program that mines Twitter for news and investment tips, said Justin Fry, the company’s vice president of marketing.
StreamBase engineers encode the software, and each company's employees choose what information to search for, Fry said. For example, a fund could choose to filter through the site for information on Apple , but only receive an alert if a certain phrase is repeated 100 times. They can alter these search fields at any time.
Since sending out a press release on the program's Wednesday launch, StreamBase has received more inquiries from interested clients, but Fry wouldn't specify how many. He also would not disclose the specific clients who have invested in the program, which costs in the $100,000s, depending on the size of the operation.
Some of the company's clients include the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Royal Bank of Canada.
But when it comes to individual investors, the Twitter strategy can be daunting — and dangerous, Tabb said.
It's copious for the average person to weed through billions of tweets to decipher what information is valuable and unique, and adding to the challenge is Twitter's lack of a business model, Tabb said.
Most people who are qualified to offer investing tips reserve their advice for paying customers, and until the site develops a method to compensate people for fresh ideas, the information will mainly come from amateurs.
For interested investors, Tabb suggests finding some sort of filter to make the process easier. That way, users can more easily sift through massive amounts of information for tips that will be useful — not to mention credible.
One such device is StockTwits.com, a Web site where users can monitor tweets on stocks, forex or futures. They can then choose to view a mass feed featuring all information that passes through the site, or they can specify a ticker for tweets on one particular company. StockTwits alone has more than 80,000 followers.
Morley prefers to subscribe directly to the feeds of companies he's interested in, which helps on the credibility front, he said. He also follows media organizations, CEOs and people he knows, or he searches for key words such as real estate. And most importantly, he follows up his Tweeting with extensive research.
"If it's not making the decision, it certainly makes you think about decisions," Morley said.