First, there were investment clubs. Then came message boards, where anonymous posters could flog stock picks and pans, and later, Marketocracy, an outfit with a market-beating mutual fund based on individuals' picks. These days, a growing number of investors are taking a cue from the MySpace set, forming online networks that allow them to pit their portfolios against those of cyber comrades and to glean investment ideas -- not from brokers or professional advisers, but from a thousand virtual brothers-in-law.
Hill Ferguson, a 35-year-old financial-services-software entrepreneur from San Francisco, recently signed up with Cake Financial, a free online service that launched in September. Cake users can track their own performance, follow what others in their network are doing in real time and track the moves of the best-performing investors on the site. Cake links directly to brokerage accounts for trading data used to rank portfolios. "That makes the information valid," says Ferguson.
Even on fantasy sites, where stock picks are so much hot air, algorithms that rank community members supply proof that they know what they're talking about -- or not. Newly retooled Stockhouse.com has sought to silence spammers and hypesters with a reputation-ranking system for posters. TheUpDown.com, launched in September, plans to run a real-life fund based on members' virtual trading, sharing profits with the top pickers. The test will be if there are any profits.