Like jokes, dreams, and teen culture, it’s uncool to explain a meme. Explanations take effort, and effort is antithetical to an art form that begs to be perceived as effortless.
r/MemeEconomy is a quirky solution, a subreddit in which people discuss memes as if they’re real-world commodities. If a meme is just beginning to bubble up online, you say you’re going to BUY. If a meme has peaked, you SELL, SELL, SELL. No real money is involved. The game is just an artifice with which to vocalize your commentary as a knowledgeable insider. It’s intentionally tongue in cheek, talking “investments” without seeming too invested.
But now a 12-person team of Redditors (led by Brandon Wink and Ron Vaisman) is taking the idea behind r/MemeEconomy and making a working, interactive meme stock market. They’re calling the trading tool NASDANQ, a cheeky financial system for an alternate universe adjacent to our own where meme is king.
A meme economy doesn’t mean anyone with cash to burn will be able to gamble with Dat Boi shares on Wall Street. The market will operate on its own fictional currency — as on the subreddit, no one participating will actually use or make any real cash. Even without any dollars in play, the most important and difficult part of Wink and Vaisman’s project has been assigning a stock price to memes. “The idea is to give this usually intangible thing a value, so that people can feel like they’re earning something when before they could not,” Vaisman told The Verge. That means coming up with an algorithm capable of determining the value, based on a combination of popularity and growth, of every meme.
But how will a fixed algorithm take what Wall Street does with real-world commodities and apply it to monetarily valueless art form? Or, as Vaisman puts it, “How do you distinguish something as unique on one end and then how do you objectively quantify it?”
The answer is less about explaining the joke than it is breaking the joke down to its core parts.
Essentially, for a meme to appear on NASDANQ, someone needs to determine it has made or will make some cultural impact. But who makes that call? It’s a sticky situation, so Wink and Vaisman are leaving that up to the people they feel are the meme experts: the fans.
After creating an account, each trader will be gifted 1000 units of NASDANQ currency. By paying a specific (and undecided) amount of that fictional currency, a group of people will be able to create a “firm,” which will allow them to submit memes for NASDANQ consideration. Vaisman and Wink say if enough firms submit the same meme, it will factor into the algorithm’s decision to allow the meme onto the market.
Once a meme has been approved, it needs to be categorized. For example, do Hooded Kermit and Tea Kermit both count as Kermit Memes? Or are they separate entities with distinct trajectories and distinct NASDANQ values? The proposed solution here is something the team is calling a “three-market system”: multiple markets that exist under the NASDANQ umbrella. Memes will be distributed among these markets based on their particular characteristics. The three markets will include penny stocks (low-end, not very popular memes) text-based memes (where the text is always the same, but the image will change, i.e., the Rick Harrison Pawn shop meme) and image-based memes (opposite of text-based memes, like Hooded Kermit).
It still has some wrinkles. Tea Kermit, for example, complicates this categorization, as both the image and part of the text remain the same. Given that some of the text does change, it could be considered an image-based meme. Then again, the text can standalone without the image. So maybe it’s a text-based meme.
Only after a meme has been found worthy of a place on the market, and assigned one of the three verticals, will the valuation take place.
At this stage, several roadblocks arise. First, there’s the issue of platform scale to consider. A meme might begin its life on Twitter, then move over to Facebook, or it might begin on Tumblr and migrate to Instagram. Some platforms won’t intersect; a meme may live out its entire existence on 4chan, never to feel the warm rush of a mother’s Facebook share. But the size of a platform can have a huge impact on how many times a meme is posted. Just because a particular meme had the good fortune to exist on Facebook instead of on Tumblr, does that mean it’s inherently more “valuable” than a Tumblr-only meme?
Vaisman and Wink don’t think so, but they need to contend with the fact that, in a stock market, growth naturally increases value. “We want to keep it objective,” Vaisman says. “If we figure out a system where when we have X amount of this meme and Y amount of this meme, how do we make sure they’re properly represented in terms of popularity?”
Then there’s the issue of perceived value. Different groups define the “peak” of a meme by different standards. A meme’s lifespan is the opposite of a startup’s: when a startup goes public, it usually means an influx of money, or the founder cashing out and moving to a private island. When a meme goes public (that is, hits the mainstream), the early adopters declare the meme dead in the water and move on. At the exact time a meme might be the most valuable in terms of popularity — when it is being shared the most — others would argue the meme’s bubble has already burst. “The culture itself is very resistant to legitimacy,” Wink says. “It’s just this general feeling that going big is a death sentence. But in other communities, for example people who only visit Facebook, to them it’s not like, ‘Oh if I see this it’s dead,’ it’s like ‘Oh this is just the beginning and I’m going to be seeing this a lot more often.’”
And because memes can have different lifespans on different platforms, they never really die, which is important to consider if you’re in the market to sell. “Memes have a tendency to resurge,” Wink says. “You’ll have a meme gain popularity, die out in a month, and then a year later suddenly it’s very popular again. Kermit has had three iterations that have died and then come back.”
You might imagine that Wink and Vaisman are hoping for some real-world impact, given the mental resources they’ve dedicated to this project. But NASDANQ will be a self-sustaining economy, and the value of these memes will only exist internally. Wink and Vaisman see it as a sociological project — NASDANQ will be a visual representation of a very specific portion of our online selves. But the nature of assigning value to the things we share online means that a meme’s value will be taken personally by some. And so the backlash seems inevitable.
Any backlash won’t come until after NASDANQ is live. The team has been working on the project since August, but Vaisman admits “it’s taking some time.” He says once the NASDANQ website launches (at a to-be-determined date, with a mobile app coming later), the algorithm will probably have to be tweaked several times before it feels accurate. Wink says the ultimate goal is to find “the equation for one meme across every website and every platform.”
As the enormity of that goal hangs in the air, he adds, “We’re pretty close.”