Wall Street has long been plagued by a very special type of communication problem: All too often over the last couple of decades, the words and images Wall Streeters have transmitted electronically have come back to bite then in the, umm, assets under management.
You know what I'm talking about. Henry Blodget calling a stock a P.O.S in an email. Libor traders slapping each other on the back for rigging the rates via instant messaging. S&P analysts rating cows. Goldman (GS)'s Fabulous Fab trying to impress a girl by saying he would be the only potential survivor of the coming CDO collapse. The list goes on and on.
Those are the more famous instances. There are far more obscure-and arguably less important-instances of Wall Streeters blowing themselves up with help from the Internet. There was the Goldman associate who set up his own blog and was fired for lifting Bloomberg screenshots. Another Goldman associate was secretly a famous sportswriter at Deadspin. A trader at Fortress (FIG) was fired for emailing a well-known Wall Street blog a picture of one of the firm's traders asleep at his desk.
Somehow Wall Street never seems to learn the lessons of these moments. Be careful whom you email. Stay off the work email account for social conversations. Watch what you say. Things that are jokes in context are the stuff of criminal indictments out of context. (Hint:Text messages from your personal phone are still somewhat safe).
Perhaps the pressures of Wall Street-as well as the loneliness of long hours-are such that it is inevitable that they'll turn to electronic communications to blow off steam.
Suddenly, this summer, many seem to have found that Snapchat is the best way to do this.
"I'd never used Snapchat until I saw the interns using it. Now we're on it every weekend, sending ridiculous pictures of the beach, the clubs, whatever," one private equity guy told me.
"I use it to show how lame I am. Taking pictures of myself, alone at my desk on the weekend," a Goldman associate said.
Kevin Roose at New York magazine says that Snapchat is "taking Wall Street by storm."
In an industry where a stray Facebook (FB) photo of a drunken escapade can get a junior banker fired on the spot, Snapchat's disappearing photos have made it a useful tool for Wall Street's party crowd.
"It's absolutely blowing up right now," a former banker and current business school student said. "People are generally sending shots of cubicles, laptops, airports and other motifs of corporate life."
"Over 75 percent of the snaps I get are from bankers," concurred one frequent Snapchat user. "It's usually the way we use texts-like, 'at a bar,' drawn over an image, to show that they're out."
Of course, as Roose points out, there's no real way to measure this. All the evidence is anecdotal. And, for now, it's mostly confined to the younger set on Wall Street. But it is ubiquitous with them. Every summer intern I've encountered is on Snapchat, as are quite a few analysts and associates. At the vice president level, usage drops off dramatically. I've never met a managing director who knows what Snapchat is-which is exactly the way the junior employees like it.
Snapchat, for those of you who don't know, lets users send pictures over your mobile device that self destruct after a few seconds-leaving no trace. There's no permanent status update that your boss-or the SEC-can find. Some phones can take a screenshot of the image, however, so you still have to be careful what you send around.
A few years ago, Snapchat's popularity would have been impossible. Back when most people only carried phones-mostly Blackberrys-supplied by the firm where they worked, the software could be blocked, messages could be tracked, and everything was monitored by some algorithm in the IT department. But these days nearly everyone has a phone of their own, so the Wall Street firms have lost much of the ability to track people.
By the way, I'm on Snapchat. Feel free to send me your snaps-of work or play. You'll find me under the username humansubject9.
-By CNBC's John Carney. Follow him on Twitter @Carney .
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