The GameStop saga was a war of vengeance – waged via memes
This is a piece about internet culture, so we should talk in memes. How to explain the GameStop frenzy in memes? It is the Disaster Girl meme (the Redditors are the girl; the hedge funds are the burning house). It is the Confused Anime Guy meme (the butterfly is the Redditors crushing Wall Street, Katori is the little guy screwed over by the 2008 financial crisis, and the caption reads, “Is this… justice?”). It is the Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man meme (Spider-Man one is Wall Street bankers manipulating financial markets for personal gain; Spider-Man two is small private investors manipulating financial markets for personal gain).
What happened with GameStop: a community of personal finance enthusiasts on the Reddit forum WallStreetBets collectively decided to invest in an ailing bricks-and-mortar video game chain. They drove up its stock price, which was trading at $7.65 on 1 September 2020, to $483 on 28 January 2021. They did this for three reasons. Firstly, because they felt the company was undervalued: there were rumours that executive Ryan Cohen, who turned around the struggling pet chain Chewy, was primed for a hostile takeover. Secondly, to screw over the Wall Street hedge funds that were shorting GameStop’s stock, effectively hoping for it to fail. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, for the lols.
It is on this third imperative – the lol imperative – that I will focus. The GameStop story was filed under the finance pages of many broadsheet newspapers, when really it was an internet culture story. Much-laurelled economics writers scratched their heads and struggled to make sense of this rag-tag team of amateur investors, which led to bizarre and very bad takes, including a New York Times article featuring sombre-looking short-sellers insisting they were actually the good guys. (Suggested meme response: the Kim Kardashian cry face.)
The best way to understand the GameStop frenzy is to see it as a shitposting troll brigade’s revenge on Wall Street. That these Redditors managed to move global financial markets armed, at least in some cases, with little more than a slingshot full of memes and modest personal savings accounts makes for a rollicking tale. But we shouldn’t see the GameStop story as an isolated incident. It marked the beginning of a broader trend, namely, the memeficiation of the stock market. The internet has discovered personal finance, and there’s no going back.
Before there was WallStreetBets, there were the message boards 4chan and 2channel. WallStreetBets describes itself as “Like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal”: it intentionally evokes these internet forebears. The Japanese messageboard 2channel came first, emerging out of the disaffection of the “lost decade” financial crash of the 1990s. Although 2channel was originally a space to discuss anime and video games, the anonymous message board quickly devolved into toxic hate speech, birthing some of the internet’s earliest trolling campaigns.
After 2channel came 4chan, which replicated the site for an American audience. “When 4chan started it was just nerds on the internet wanting to celebrate Japanese video games,” says Dale Beran, author of It Came from Something Awful: How A Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office. But the site also began to reflect a growing disenchantment with American capitalism post 2008-crash. The mostly male community that coalesced around 4chan in the 2000s felt locked out of the economy. They traded currencies or stocks because it was a better option than taking one of the shitty, low-paid jobs on offer to them. Beran himself was one of these men. “Getting a 9-5 job wouldn’t have made me as much money as trading the digital assets,” he says, “because jobs only paid $8 an hour.”
Both 2channel and 4chan emerged out of conditions of economic malaise, and both came to reflect a nihilistic worldview born out of a profound dissatisfaction with a society that did not seem to be working for most people. 4chan would go on to achieve global notoriety in 2016 after claiming credit for shitposting Donald Trump into the US presidency.
Enter WallStreetBets: the latest rebellion of the disaffected online, a new iteration of a story that we have seen repeatedly in the four-decade lifespan of the internet thus far, and will likely replay many more times in our lifetime. 2channel, 4chan, WallStreetBets: communities of people shut out by an increasingly globalised economy, determined to exact their revenge. “Why do we have all these angry, idle men on the internet?” asks Beran. “It’s really just economics. Rising inequality in the US; this post-industrial economy. It’s a generation that’s worse off than their parents, and they’re on their laptops all day, watching giant corporations make money.”
Out of this alienation, came the meme stock run. The WallStreetBets/GameStop story was the third act in a Jacobean revenge tragedy: avenge WallStreet, for the ruinous harm it inflicted on the global economy with the 2008 crash. (Even if the short sellers weren’t ever actually bailed out – that’s an unnecessary detail.)
“They’ve been abusing the system for so long,” says Thomas*, a 30-year-old web developer from Birmingham who bought £190 worth of GameStop stock on 27 January this year. (The stock is worth around £50 now; Thomas is sanguine about his loss.) “It felt like a moment in history when people were taking a stance.” Thomas attended the counter-culture festival Burning Man in the Nevada desert in 2019, where he learned about the principle of “decommodification”: effectively finding a way to exist as a person outside of market forces, without having to sell your labour. “It’s like sticking a big middle finger to ‘the man,’” he says. “Letting everything go. I suppose that’s built in me a little bit now.” Or as a WallStreetBets user RubberRaptor put it charmingly on Reddit: “FUCK WALL STREET AND THEIR BS. GME IS LEAVING THE GALAXY, FUELED BY OUR SPITE.”
This gleeful anomie in watching Wall Street momentarily burn collided with the insidery in-culture of message-board communities. WallStreetBets has a vernacular that is impenetrable to outsiders: users talk about tendies, which is slang for investment returns (a reference to an old 4chan meme about man-babies living in their moms’ basements), or diamond hands (having the fortitude to hold onto investments through market swings). “By memifying the ‘out’ group,” says Sal Hagen of the University of Amsterdam, “basically the hedge funds themselves, as well as the ‘paper hand’ people who sell too quickly, this works to create a sense of closeness, which is required when you have a group of strangers online. People don’t know each other or have a personal connection in the real world. So instead of those networks of friends and followers you have on Facebook, this memetic collectivism stands in its place.”
A sense of hopeless and deep fatigue with powerful elites is the prevalent worldview of WallStreetBets. When the game seems rigged, why not turn the stock market into a real-life, multiplayer video game for bored users stuck at home during a pandemic with nothing else to play? “There’s this sense,” says Beran, “that you’re in a place where you’re willing to play chicken and let the cars crash. You’ll gamble it all because you have nothing. And that to me is the really delightful part of the WallStreetBets thing. They were willing to break the game, by losing all their money. Normally you brag about doing the opposite. But if you have nothing to lose, you can play the game by playing it in a way that’s more aggressive than anything else – by playing to break the game. That’s how trolls work.”
Inevitably, the very act of buying GameStop stock at a sky-high price and watching it crash – losing all your money – became a meme. What better way to express your commitment to the act of shitposting Wall Street than by losing all your money on worthless stock, and breezily posting about it? “That humour and subcultural play is a big part of what holds this community together,” says Hagen. He traces it back to 4chan’s efforts to subvert the election of Democratic nominee and establishment politician Hillary Clinton in 2016. “This was about participating in a historical moment,” Hagen says, “and showing big hedge funds that they don’t hold the keys to power, in the same way that 4chan attempted to topple the liberal hegemony with the election of Donald Trump. It takes the form of a playful ironic culture, but there’s a very real sense of momentum being expressed and experienced by participants online.”
Thomas, the web-developer from Birmingham, invested in GameStop stock for this exact reason: because he got caught up in the thrill of it online. “There was just this whole build up and buzz,” he tells me, sounding vaguely dazed. “And we were going against the man. And there was this community online. I just… went for it.” (It is worth noting that not all WallStreetBet users or GameStop shareholders were amateurs in it for the thrill and the memes, like Thomas – some very shrewd people made a lot of money on the GameStop pump-and-dump.)
Just like with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the destructive collective animus of the WallStreetBets fightback may yet come to bite ordinary consumers. Financial education by meme is no substitute for a Harvard MBA, access to hedge fund algorithms, and the luxury of playing with other people’s money, not your own. Generally, the house wins. “There are real dangers here,” says Dr. Thomas D. Shohfi, a professor of finance at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “There’s a lot of froth in the market. If young people are investing in GameStop or Dogecoin speculatively in a concentrated way and it doesn’t work out for them it can do long-term damage to their life. They may not be able to buy a home or retire. It could ruin their credit rating.” But he understands the impulse to string up the nearest hedge fund short-seller a la lanterne, French Revolution-style. “Their motivation is not about making money on a trade as it is about hurting people who have continued to profit since the financial crisis,” Shohfi says. “Hedge funds just had their best year in a decade. Many think they don’t pay their fair share of taxes. It intersects with that sense of frustration that very little has changed since the financial crisis.”
It is impossible to predict the swinging animal brain of the internet; who knows where this nascent troll army will lurch next? It’s likely that meme stocks are here to stay. “There will definitely be more meme stocks,” says Beran. “Whether it’s alt-right trolls pushing QAnon, or people finding the funniest stock they can pump, if a collective prank is funny enough, the internet does it.” And whether or not it really hurts the “big guy” is beside the point. At the time of writing, Dogecoin – in itself a joke cryptocurrency – is currently being rocketed sky-high, fuelled by Elon Musk’s half-joking, half-serious tweets about buying some for his infant son. Musk, the richest man in the world, somehow finds the time to also be the chief-troll of the meme stock market. After his tweets, Dogecoin increased in value by 15 per cent in 20 minutes. AMC, a beleaguered cinema chain, is also being hyped. Whatever the next meme stock is, it’s certain to be a ride.
The meme stock carnival frightens me, but I cannot say that I don’t welcome it. As a product of the 2008 crash, I say: burn it all down. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, by way of meme. You’ll find me sitting behind my laptop, stuffing popcorn into my mouth, watching the meme stock revolution. (Gif: Michael Jackson in the Thriller video.)
*Some names have been changed.
Illustration by Justin Gerard