If you’ve been anywhere close to the financial markets this week, you’ve no doubt seen that the flailing brick and mortar video game retailer GameStop has rocketed in valuation.
You’ve probably learned that this steep uptick for a business thought by many to be dead was brought about largely by Reddit users in a coordinated move to push up the stock price—and to punish hedge funds shorting the stock on the expectation of the company’s decline. But, as antithetical as it may seem, the huge jump in GameStop stock was not only to make money. The collective push by hyper-online investors also sought to fight back against a system that they feel deserves a reckoning and to unleash general chaos.
“This has nothing to do with actual money,” Jamie Cohen, a digital culture expert with a PhD in cultural and media studies, told TIME. “I’ve been tracking it since last Friday, but at the beginning it was likely a game. And then when people start having these back channels of conversations, they start posting secondary information being like, ‘yeah, screw them, we’ve been disenfranchised.’”
Last fall, GameStop announced that it would soon be closing hundreds more of its stores and at the beginning of the year, a share in the company was worth roughly $18 USD. As of Jan. 27, coming as an alarming surprise to those who don’t frequent the r/WallStreetBets subreddit, the stock rose as high as $370 per share. Essentially, users on that subreddit community discovered that many investors were “shorting” GameStop by betting on it to fail, so late last week, WallStreetBets convinced enough people to buy stock in the seemingly-doomed retail store to increase its valuation. The trend caught and spiraled and the stock has boomed against all expectations and reason.
Even though no laws appear to have been broken, the rally has shaken financial overseers with investment firms unsure of how to adjust for the influx. Broker Ameritrade announced that they were putting “several restrictions” on transactions involving GameStop.
While making money is at the heart of the activity, the motivation for it doesn’t stop there. As evidenced by a multitude of posts on r/WallStreetBets, investing in GameStop has become a way to spread a message about the power of that community against a system rigged against them.
“This has to do with ‘can we collectively engage small amounts of money to enforce a power to prove that we have power collectively over a system that we are literally disenfranchised from,’” Cohen says. “And so in order for them to regain agency, they play these games and the games are very similar to the meme economy that was on Reddit for many years. But now they’re playing with actual money. They’re literally affecting the reality of a potentially not-great industry known as short selling. They feel like they have some sort of control over what they feel is the enemy.“
“There isn’t a single thing you can say or do to change my position,” they say about selling their GameStop stock. “I risk my money happily. I am not the least bit scared or worried. You might be a financial expert, I am a survival master. Power to the people.”
“I YOLO’d my life savings”
While some Reddit users have already claimed that they’ve made a life-changing sum of money from the push, the actual financial opportunity of the move seems largely in the background. Instead, what’s come to the forefront on Reddit is to get the world’s attention on their power over an unjust financial reality.
A manifesto of sorts was posted on r/WallStreetBets on Friday by user u/cevin_kahn as an altered clip from the 2019 movie Joker. The altered clip tells the story of the GameStop raid from the Joker’s perspective as if he were WallStreetBets made flesh.
“All you fucking Boomers enjoyed the golden age of America, when high school students could work for a summer and buy a car or a factory worker on a single income could buy a house and start a family. Nobody my age has anything like that,” the altered seven-minute video reads. “I YOLO’d my life savings because I was never going to retire anyway. Half the people I know live from paycheck to paycheck.”
At the time of this writing, the post had received over 27,000 upvotes.
Cohen sees the use of the Joker movie as a potent one, explaining the perspective of the investors rallying around a spiraling business.
“The Joker itself is a nihilistic approach to disenfranchisement. In other words, rather than take collective action to create a real shift, or find some sort of strategies for a usable future, you use the tools at hand in the exact moment,” Cohen says. “‘Because that is the end of the cable, when you’ve tethered that thing down to where nothing’s left.”
Generational anger seems to be a heavily motivating force behind this market upturn. Millennial and younger generations have had their youths marred by two recessions. Studies have shown jumps in “deaths of despair” among the nations’ young adults as they face an uncertain financial situation, made only worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a generational divide that has only become wider, the wealth divide has become wider,” Cohen said. “Their idea of what they do with their stocks is shifting anger. And if shifting anger is done by memes, then they feel that they are doing their work. The OK Boomer meme was like… ‘you guys don’t get us.’ It was like, ‘by not getting us, you’re going to use us for your personal value.’ So [Reddit investors] see it as their revenge tactic.”
The supposed youth of this activism also ties into an outsider mentality against the financial system in which they’re meddling. And Reddit investors, many of them admitted Robinhood app users, identify with the spirit of the Robin Hood character; many posts on the subreddit tout the strength of the “little guy” besting the financial market behemoth. These younger investors espouse a proud disconnection from a system that explicitly serves “Boomers” and exploits young adults. They’re fighting against a financial “Deep State.”
“There’s no insider trading, because they’re not insiders, which is kind of the joy of it. And right now there is this anarchic feeling of like, ‘oh, man, we’re gonna do it,’” Ryan Broderick, author of Garbage Day, a newsletter based around web culture, told TIME. “I was told this morning that my dad has stock in GameStop because he’s a Robinhood user. And he’s like, 70 something and he has no idea what’s going on.”
‘People are angry’
It’s difficult not to see Cohen’s “revenge tactic” in this week’s events, specifically when you look at the stocks the users targeted. Reddit is a longtime haven for video game fans; its r/gaming subreddit has over 28 million subscribers. The idea that investors there would take offense to short sellers betting against the success of GameStop is easy to understand.
Nostalgia, and its defense, may also play a very big role in the financial activism. Feeling targeted by predatory short sellers like Melvin Capital, Reddit users are trying to make them literally pay. And as of Wednesday, Reddit investment rallies have been formed to prop up AMC Theaters and the ghost of video rental stores Blockbuster.
The objects of the stock rallies exist in a “a nostalgia space,” Cohen said. In the 2010s, he argues, the culture has only been given nostalgia. “We haven’t been really given any sense of reality, and so that nostalgia becomes a reason to do these things… They see this as like the last gasp of a troll. You can’t save a Gamestop, you can’t probably save Blockbuster, but what you could do is kind of play around with it before it expires.”
The movement is also explained by what many of us in continued coronavirus lockdowns perpetually feel: boredom.
“I do think we’re seeing a lot of bottled up energy right now because people are bored,” Broderick said. “People are angry. You know, you’re hearing every day about different theater chains closing down or different companies shutting and I definitely think that’s part of it.”
No matter where you divine the source of WallStreetBets’ anger, it’s difficult not to see remnants of other, often far right, meme movements. The reveling in chaos, the delight in upsetting a system, the pride in being inscrutable to mainstream media, it all reflects many of the alt-right meme campaigns that were used in 2016 to tout Donald Trump’s candidacy.
“They use the memes of the far right,” Broderick said about the WallStreetBets community. “I don’t want to go so far as to say that there’s like a fascist or authoritarian bent here. But they’re using the tools that these groups have built. Like it’s the same playbook. They’re just doing it on the stock market, as opposed to the Trump campaign.”
It’s been evident over the past decade that the line separating internet existence and real life is rapidly shrinking, and the GameStop rally should underline that. As the pandemic has kept us home and on screens more than ever before, it’s only hurried the convergence of online and actual life.
Broderick said that the GameStop market manipulation, at its core, is another example of internet trolling that slipped out of web pages and onto Wall Street.
“This started completely as a petty trolling thing,” Broderick said. “But what happens with the internet is that as things get bigger, they have to mean something. Because what the subreddit has, like 2 million people in it. So, if 2 million people are going to do something together, it can’t just be stupid, because it’ll fall apart.”
What Cohen describes as online communities’ need to created agency in the real world has been growing in impact over the past decade. He says the meme campaigns of 2016, and the election of Trump helped online communities believe “that they had some sort of control.” And this actualization of memeing has only become more pronounced.
Before this, perhaps the largest example of bringing a meme to life occurred in the summer of 2019. Then, thousands of people set their energy on storming the Area 51 military base. Hundreds of thousands signed a Facebook pledge, which led to many physically showing up to the base in Nevada, leading to two arrests and an actual Alienstock festival.
For Broderick, the GameStop rally is something different all together.
“It’s the first time that we’ve seen a large internet community mobilize effectively to make this much money,” Broderick said. He compared it to the creation of the Occupy Wall Street movement, only turned inside out. “This is on a whole other level, because this is people on the internet just being like, we’re going to manifest money now and then they’re doing it. And when you get to that level of like, reality breakdown, like the internet’s a very interesting thing, because it’s creating value where there just wasn’t any and it’s glitching.”
For Cohen, it’s a series of exploits that is being manipulated, both the semi-democratization of stock trading through apps and the ignorance of the financial system on the potential of internet mobilization. Both of which must be address, he said.
“I talked to people who are traditional stock market people, a couple of my friends who work in finance and then a couple of people who are just meme lords and I think the biggest thing here is the misunderstanding of each. That there’s not enough financial literacy given to the public and there’s definitely not enough internet literacy given to the public,” Cohen said. “I think even in 2021, we still assume the internet is a separate space than IRL. And they are combined, they are a combined environment.”
Without that literacy training and education, he sees it as a model that will be replicated, maybe on different stocks, maybe on another industry.
Broderick finds it difficult to know where this will lead either internet culture or real life, only that this isn’t the end of internet activism.
“It has reached a level where I’m like, it has to go somewhere like this energy has to go somewhere,” Broderick says. “It could be the GameStop isn’t the end of this… I was at Zuccotti Park, I remember Occupy Wall Street. That same thrill was there, I can tell you, it doesn’t stick around. We’re gonna find out what happens pretty soon.”