The Semiotics of Stock Tickers

Living in New York, one sees stock tickers quite often – crawling along the bottom of a TV screen, scrolling around a building in midtown, even crowning the burger flippers at the McDonalds at 160 Broadway. What are they for?

One theory has it that people find stock tickers genuinely and intrinsically useful. You can be watching TV or eating your burger, and find out that INTC is +1.10 on the day. Hey! Nice little datapoint! But really, I can’t quite get my mind around the idea that enough people really care about what a more-or-less random selection of individual stocks is doing on an intraday basis. And if New Yorkers cared, you might expect to see stock tickers in other financial centers, too – but they’re much rarer outside NYC.

So my theory is that the main purpose of a stock ticker is not to impart information, so much as to send a very New York kind of message. A stock ticker is up-to-the-minute! It’s for people who are on the ball! It’s for strivers and sophisticates! Someone watching a ticker has the opportunity to congratulate himself on being in the kind of place where people watch stock tickers, and that makes him feel good.

Then again, I might be entirely wrong about this, and there might be some functional purpose to stock tickers which people like myself who don’t even have television simply don’t understand. I’m not talking about customized tickers on one’s computer: I’m talking about the big public tickers which purport to have a large audience. Is there something I’m missing here? Is there actually a reason for their continued existence? Or are they just relics of a pre-internet age when people really couldn’t get stock prices any other way?

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