Who will we be after GameStop?
A free extra Garbage Day issue on the r/WallStreetBets saga
Welcome to Extra Garbage Day! Every other week, I send around a bonus Thursday issue just for paying subscribers. Due to the high level of interest around the r/WallStreetBets craziness, I’m making this week’s free for everyone. Hope you don’t mind the bonus email. And if you like this, hit the button below!
In October 2011, I was arrested with 700 other people on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the second real month of Occupy Wall Street and, truth be told, I wasn’t actually there to support the protest. Yes, my family was affected by the recession, but as an annoying 21-year-old punk making minimum wage, I felt like the protesters were just a bunch of bored rich kids LARPing as activists. I suppose, looking back, they all weren’t that. But I had gone down to to Zuccotti Park that day with a big chip on my shoulder, dressed in an Anchorman blazer with the goal of making a terrible YouTube video by doing a bunch of dumb Daily Show-style interviews with out-of-touch NYU students camped out in their trust fund tent city.
Regardless of why I was there, I ended up zip-tied in a van and taken to a group cell in an NYPD precinct with about 50 other protesters. I spent 7 hours in there with them. I called my mom from the pay phone and said, “hey mom, I got arrested.” Everyone in the cell laughed and cheered. Turns out she already knew, she saw it happen on CNN live. She recognized the red jacket.
My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t get out of jail in time to get to my job at VICE. (I did.) That summer, I had been told explicitly by an editor that they would never pay me to write for them, but the Motherboard team was nice enough to let me blog a few pieces for free on my lunch breaks while I worked as a receptionist for the Brooklyn office for $12 an hour. More like Occupy VICE, am I right?
Anyways, a few months before I was arrested, my roommate Jon began mining cryptocurrency in our Astoria apartment. In those days, Bitcoin was effectively worthless, storing it securely was impossible, and the only place you could really use it was on deep web black markets like the Silk Road. But it was neat. I, eventually, for a Motherboard story, tried to use some of Jon’s Bitcoin on the Silk Road to see what we could buy. It didn’t really work, but it made for a fun piece.
My dad became interested in cryptocurrency after my Silk Road experiment. Around 2014, he began saying I should invest in Bitcoin. But after my experience losing homemade coins in Mt. Gox hacks, I didn’t see the point. He is extremely happy to remind me how much money we could have made if I had listened to him. I suppose one of the bittersweet things about getting older is having an punishingly clear list of every mistake you have ever made.
After he retired last year, my dad started using Robinhood. The app, if you aren’t familiar, is essentially the Facebook of stock trading. It has over 10 million users and it has ushered in a revolutionary democratization of financial trading. It is also, like all huge corporate social platforms that usher in revolutionary democratization, a giant pyramid scheme. That has never been more evident than today, when Robinhood froze the trading of all of the stocks currently being targeted by r/WallStreetBets’ DDOS attack, which is now about to end its second week.
Watching Robinhood be a gateway for my dad to learn more about crypto trading and the new Barstool Sports-ified era of finance has been interesting. He’s quintupled his crypto investment in the last year. I’m very proud of him. But it’s also definitely a similar online rabbit hole to traditional online radicalization. Though, as we’ve seen with r/WallStreetBets this week, it doesn’t fit into the typical political binaries we’ve relied on during the Trump era. Yes, r/WallStreetBets’ Discord was shut down last night for rampant hate speech and misinformation, but they are also now effectively leading a populist revolt against the hedge funds of the world. What if Batman and the Joker were the same person, etc.
One of the best people I’ve followed during this whole saga is William Legate. He’s a software developer and entrepreneur who runs an online prediction market called PredIQt. His Twitter threads about the daily drama of the GameStop pump are both funny and useful.
“I've been passive reader of [r/WallStreetBets] for years,” he told me. “It's people taking risky trades and posting what they call ‘loss porn’.”
He said that the GameStop stock pump has been happening for a little while now, but last week it reached escape velocity and has exploded into the anti-austerity movement it now currently resembles.
Legate said r/WallStreetBets’ stock market Zerg rush has been incredibly exciting to watch. “I think it has exposed this whole system and how much it's rigged against average Americans,” he said. “It's an organized yet not organized movement.”
And he’s right. It has and it is. But it’s also all a bit scary, as well.
This could end up meaning nothing in the end. A group of redditors might make a bunch of money, maybe Robinhood is lightly investigated, some hedge funds need bailouts, and we all move on. A few Garbage Day readers have emailed me this week to tell me that they feel like the coverage of this whole thing as a “revolution” is more than a little overblown. Maybe that’s true.
But if we view the GameStop pump through the lens of other internet-led populist movements, the first big one usually isn’t the biggest one. For instance, if this is the election of Donald Trump, we’ve still got Charlottesville and the Capitol Insurrection ahead of us. Gangnam Styles sets the stage for Baby Sharks, and so forth.
I’ve also been DMing back and forth this week with Alex Williams. He goes by @tragicbios on Twitter. His day job is working an as analyst at Employ America, but online, he’s a big node in a network that sometimes refers to itself as “weird left finance Twitter.” His take on all this is as reassuringly simple as it is existentially unnerving.
“I think it's good and fun,” he said. “If neoliberalism means mediating everything through market or market-like structures, why not have dumb parts of those structures be fun?”
Weird left finance Twitter is basically a loose collective of leftists who are taking an interest in the market to better understand how to dismantle the broken systems of late-stage capitalism. I first read about them in this great Business Insider piece. They’re almost like an inverse of r/WallStreetBets.
I exasperatedly tried to explain to Williams that I felt like there was some kind of powerful algorithmic center to what r/WallStreetBets was doing. I feel like we are watching Reddit manipulate Robinhood’s algorithms much in the same way Reddit manipulated Facebook’s in 2016. The invisible hand of the market might be hogwash, but isn’t there a very real invisible hand of the internet built from corporate algorithms following engagement triggers and deciding what we see and do? Could r/WallStreetBets’ meme-pumping lead to a speculation bubble that eventually causes a stock market crash? Are we about to do to the world’s financial markets what we just did to global democracy?!
Once again, his take was fairly straightforward. “That’s pretty silly to me,” he said. “But at the same time I’ve been a bear on the ‘impact of social media on politics’ since the giant botch at the end of the Arab Spring.”
There is a little irony in a member of weird left finance Twitter telling me he’s bearish on the political impact of social media, but he might be right. We simply don’t know where this is going and one of the possibilities is nowhere. Occupy Wall Street effectively brought us into the modern digital era, but it also fizzled out pretty hard.
Last month, I finally took my dad’s advice and put a little money in crypto. It’s a fun activity we can talk about together and sometimes I make some money and other times I lose all of it, oh god, so much of it, Jesus Christ, help me... My main takeaway so far is how much cryptocurrency values resemble web traffic data. At a certain level, it looks like coins are going up and down in value simply due to internet hype. Coins even have Stan armies, like Chainlink’s stalwart link marines. I believe that’s another important piece to the GameStop puzzle.
If you’re a 22-year-old trader on Reddit, you’ve only ever known a world of cryptocurrency. You were 12 when I was watching my roommate show me how he could make fake internet money with his desktop graphics card. Now that fake internet money is worth 32,000 a coin. Anything can be worth anything if the internet wills it.
Also the relationship between social platforms and capital is closer than it’s ever been. For years, virality has, typically, aligned with endorsements, sponsorships, and ad revenue. In a world where anyone can trade stock or cryptocurrency and recruit others to help them via social media, eventually social engagement becomes indistinguishable from the market. Basically, like, what if retweets were money, man. Uh oh!
But this is also what 4chan culture did to politics five years ago. People like Steve Bannon were able to mobilize sites like 4chan and Reddit to convert social engagement into votes. And in the process, it revealed a dark truth about modern democracy — it is a transmedia information war propping up a popularity contest for strongmen.
r/WallStreetBets is currently revealing a similar truth about our modern financial systems. They are not sacred. They are not just. And there are no real experts. They are a video game. The richest 1% play with God Mode turned on and they will try and turn the game off if other players start winning. Meanwhile, r/WallStreetBets is using a speed run strategy and they don’t intend to stop until they have completely ruined the leaderboard. And I suspect they will get pretty far. They’ve already come quite a long way.
But the GameStop pump will end. That much seems clear. And when it’s over, things will be very weird. Power structures will have wobbled and we will have all seen them shake. And it’s no one’s guess what happens after that.
***I tried very hard to make sure this was typo-free, I swear***