a meme showing a character next to a graph labelled "stonk"

The Conflicted Interests of r/WallStreetBets: Political movement or “degenerates gambling?”

14 minutes to read
Article
Lucie Chateau
02/02/2021

The Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets has been wrecking havok in the financial world by investing in failing video game retailer, Gamestop. Built on memes and an irreverent attitude to trading "stonks", these Redditors are turning heads in the world of retail investing. This is a pivotal moment that is built on irony. Is there method in this madness?

r/WallStreetBets

Over the past few days, a spotlight has been shone on a Reddit community that has been making headlines in the world of finance. Created for the purpose of bringing together private investors, otherwise known as retail investors, r/WallStreetBets is a Reddit subforum that has now accrued 6 million members and is currently upending the Wall Street Exchange by trading short stock in the video-game retailer Gamestop. Gamestop shares (GME) have risen by over 1000% since mid-January due to the forum's interest in them, but skyrocketed this week, drawing the attention of institutional short-sellers and investors.

On Thursday the 28th, stock brockerage application Robinhood, which allows retail investors to buy and sell stock, restricted trading in GME stock. This meant that retail investors were only allowed to sell stock, and not buy. This enraged the community of retail investors, driving them further in their mission to demonstrate their power over finance professionals - but most of all to make unprecedented amounts of profit from “the wildest short-squeeze” in the history of the stock market.

The so-called "Reddit rebellion" is now in full swing. All eyes are on redditors from the forum r/WallStreetBets that are waging war against “boomer” investment professionals like Melvin Capital with the power of “memestocks”. Preying on market volatility and the speculative game of stock trading, these retail investors are more united than they have ever been. Enciting each other to “hold” and providing emotional support to each other throughout this chaotic week, they represent an unparalleled collective force. In the media, r/WallStreetBets users' common desire for something akin to “revenge” seems to be widely cited as the underpinning of their financial movement. Looking underneath the surface, however, the volatility of their own political allegiances is about as unstable as the market. What I look at in this article is the memetic bonds of the r/WallStreetBets community and how they underlie their collective action.

A movement built on memes

To understand the origins of the movement that is responsible for this Gamestop frenzy, it is worth going back in time to inspect the foundations of r/WallStreetBets. In the past decade, technological advancements have meant that the growing accessibility of the free market to retail investors through apps like Robinhood, alongside the increasingly wide volume of financial advice online, most notably found in forums such as this one, have popularised retail investment.

The subreddit itself was created in 2012 by information technology consultant Jaime Rogozinski. Early on, the aim of the game was to make short term money. Treating WSE like gambling, the very name of the forum “wall street bets” subverts the legitimate practice of trading on the stock exchange. Indeed, the motto of the forum in its early days was "YOLO," meaning "you only live once". This was part of their irreverent attitude that made legitimate investors look down on the r/WallStreetBets community early on, enraging investment professionals because the "term undermines the central point of investing" and "this 'roll the dice' mentality is amateurish."

The motto of the forum in its early days was "YOLO," meaning "you only live once".

As the community of r/WallStreetBets grew, steadily but eventually to 1 million users at the start of 2020, the success stories kept on coming. Redditors who had made considerable profit through financial advice they had received on the forum showed off their gains, and thereby legitimised the guidance from other users. Crucially, they revelled in their position as small investors with nothing to lose, but everything to gain, as long as they trusted each other.

As such, a community was formed, not necessarily tightly knit, but holding each other in high esteem. Their connective tissue, like for many internet communities, were memes. However, taking memes further than anyone before, memestocks became their lifeblood. Memestocks are “investments made that don't make sense by traditional metrics but simply catch-on online”, (Asarch, 2021) and whose popularity on the forum turned memes from cultural capital to financial capital. The investments that r/WallStreetBets made, then, were calculated more for how popular they could be online, giving the meme economy a whole new dimension. 

Superficially, you can tell that their community is bonded by their languages and memes. Calling their gains “tendies” (money for chicken tenders), and investing their “stimmy” (stimulus check) in “stonks”, this community builds itself on the back of an ironic attitude towards investing. Diamond and hand emojis used together signifies “diamonds hands” (diamonds being strong), which means holding or not selling stocks that users have bought, as opposed to “paper hands” (paper being weak), which means giving in and selling. Regularly referencing to themselves as “smooth brained”, "idiots", "retards", and "autists", their attitude is irreverent and self-deprecating but still, the recurring thread is that “apes stronger together”. Indeed, they take pride in their lack of knowledge, but most of all in their collective coming together. To be sure, there are definitely members of the forum that know exactly what they are doing, but the connective bonds that are behind the collective power of hundreds of thousands of users investing in this movement are undeniably built on memes.

They take pride in their lack of knowledge, but most of all in their collective coming together.

However loosely connected, their collective action has proven to have undeniable effect of the Wall Street Exchange and could potentially change public perception of financial trading forever. Even if this was not their intention, it is irrefutable that the rules of the game have been changed. To be clear, redditors are playing by the rules of the game. It is by stepping in to restrict trade that Robinhood changed the rules, and lifted the veil on the undemocratic nature of the game at hand. It is also through this act that Robinhood catalysed the movement into one that would eventually have to align itself politically, or not.

The divides of WSB

We can identify r/WallStreetBets as a financial movement, but is there a recognisable entity behind it? In fact, the very lack of cohesive political identity is instrumental. If the r/WallStreetBets GME investment was not a loose collective of private interests that align themselves along the logic of memetic investing, but a coherent recognisable group with a common financial interest at heart, they would be accused of market manipulation. The specific brand of volatily that has brought together the community allows them to continue to exist. This isn’t to say that the bonds at the heart of the r/WallStreetBets community haven’t been solidified by the Gamestop action, but they are motivated by different logics and political ideologies. What we see here is a massive number of users with private interests coming together to exert their power publicly, in the sphere of finance, driven by the strong cultural identity that binds them.

The crux of the Gamestop debacle is the opposition between the “YOLO" or gambling mentality of the Reddit forum against Wall Street actors that see this as a delegitimising attack on their profession and the public value of trading as a whole. The tension between these two attitudes shows that the stakes here are much more than stocks. However, the community is undecided on what is truly being gambled here; their subversive autonomy, manifested through irony, or their political agency. What is true though, is that both visions are rife in the community, and manifest as one movement.

“The Funniest Place on the Internet”

On the one hand, a sentiment that echoes with r/WallStreetBet users, seen through the popularity of the post in Figure 1 (we can determine this through the high number of awards or icons above the title, and the high karma rate to the left of the the post), is the refusal to be politicised. The resounding cry of this user’s manifesto is that irony is an escape from traditional mainstream politics because it refuses representation. Memes and sarcasm were the last remaining bastion against the politicisation of issues. It seems as if the money being used to invest isn’t “dumb” money, it doesn’t count at all.

Fig 1. One Redditor argues against the politicisation of the issue

For these redditors, the legitimacy of their subreddit is in the subversion. r/WallStreetBets is an ironic attitude to finance. In this vision of memetic retail investing, the contemptuous attitude that users hold is symbolic enough. It symbolises the point that users have reached in their alienation from the market and themselves; there is nothing left to do but laugh. It is a bitter laugh, one that echoes with painful tinges of being left behind. These users have abandoned all hope of their actions having any meaning at all. Everything they do is reduced ad nihilo by the logic of the market. Therefore, they have nothing to lose. Having real agency, real political gain risks real political loss. What they prefer is their autonomy, and their memes. But what irony more often than not hides is a very real anxiety and pain caused by financial instability.

 “We have nothing to lose but our chains”

On the other side of the debate, we can see clear motivations and a political agenda. These views are held by users who came to the trading table because they had been depoliticised and bankrupted, and have there re-discovered a way to have a voice. While some redditors see the only value of r/WallStreetBets as being their derisive attitude towards the mainstream, others are mobilised because of everything they have lost. The anti-establishment attitude of fighting “the suits” and the financial institutions that are held as largely responsible for bankrupting the middle class has been brewing for a long time. In these posts, the resentment has grown untenable, and rightful anger is turned into political manifesto.

Fig 2 & 3. Political motivations within the movement.

Underneath these posts, comments include “this is REAL democracy” and redditors saying they felt like they’ve finally woken up after a year-long stupor of being disconnected from mainstream politics. Buried under a pile of medical debts, student loans, lethargised by low interest rates and an economy paralysed by a pandemic, these retail investors have nothing to lose but finally something to gain symbolically; a voice in the free market. Therefore, political agency is not only the right to subversion, but the symbolic justice of shaking up the “criminal” world of finance.

Therefore, caught between contrasting narratives of resigned irony and re-discovering their political voice, these redditors demonstrate different motivations for participation. What they don’t realise is that the texts they produce and circulate represent them far more accurately than the manifestos they publish. What I turn to now is how memes continue to bind the community together, in what could ordinarily be an extraordinarily divisive time for a community in the middle of an exponential userbase boom.

Heroic memetic narratives

We’ve established how memetic bonds weave the connective tissue of r/WallStreetBets through identification mechanisms and imagery. What has experienced a surge in popularity throughout this week, though, is meme-making centered around heroic narratives in short-video formats. This type of content places its viewer within recognisable stories of the demonstration of individual will. They do not place the collective as the driving force, but only a background one. The recurring motif here is “holding”, or resisting the urge to sell GME stock to keep on driving the movement forward. In this narrative, every user becomes the hero of the movement. Indeed, the fate of the entire community is placed on the individual user, because it is only by all participating in the movement that the community will survival.

In this narrative, memes become a form of ritualised sanctification.

The power of holding is represented up in short videos from classic action films ranging from subversive masterpiece The Matrix to blockbuster Avengers: Endgame. These videos are labelled and remixed to suit the current situation, with different characters and elements labelled as different actors of the Gamestop saga. The references themselves don’t matter, though (The Matrix holds a lot more power as a critique of capitalism than a mainstream superhero franchise). These are traditional scenes of heroism, of overcoming the odds through sheer power of will, of facing inconceivably over-powered antagonists and still finding power within oneself to fight back.

In The Matrix example, Neo’s consciousness having reached transcendental levels of knowledge is able to fight back against the villains labelled as Melvin, CNBC, hedge funds, Robinhood, SEC or Citron Research, simply through the power of “holding”. In the Endgame video, the reference is more obvious, being the final battle of r/WallStreetBets against the hegemony of hedge funds. In this example, other heroes come to the aid of r/WallStreetBets, including mainstream politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, billionaire Elon Musk, other investing communities such as on different subreddits and platforms, and what is seen as the public as a whole, from celebrities to “fucking Europe”.

Fig 4. The Endgame is Redditors against hedge funds.

Unbroken: The will to hold

An interesting case study in the narrative of “holding” is a short video posted by user u/HoldUntilYouDie featuring a scene from the film Unbroken aptly captioned to represent the current situation. Looked on by the 3 million new members of r/WallStreetBets, the protagonist goes through the journey of holding the entire value of GME on his back. The protagonist is not just one, but every user of r/WallStreetBets. Titled the “retard thinking of selling”, he represents the individual will that each user must exert in order to create collective action. We see him struggle with an unbearable load; that of GME stock. Faced with a character labelled as “scumbag hedge funds", he remembers the symbolic significance of everything he is fighting for with Gamestop; the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing bailouts of massive institutions, the bankrupted middle class, fighting Robinhood’s limits on stock purchasing and the above the law attitude of the elite financial class.

Fig 5. Unbroken: The individual redditor

Though prompted by the “scumbag hedge fund” to sell his stock, the message is clear; he cannot under any circumstances succumb. The sole user must embody the weight of the community as a whole. If one user fails, we all fail, is the mentality. The individual user is therefore placed in a heroic narrative. Finding strength once again in his political purpose, he is able to continue holding, a symbolic act allows him to lift the weight of GME, a heroic feat captioned with “Autistic Screams”.

Fig 6. Unbroken: What GME represents to WSB

These instances show exactly how r/WallStreetBets create their memetic bonds. By placing each and every user in heroic narratives, they cultivate a culture of rugged individualism but unavoidable interdependence. Therefore, they accept the diverse viewpoints and different political ideologies behind users' individual reasons for investing. Though this particular iteration of the Unbroken narrative does have a political agenda, its reason for existence is to create memetic bonds between users. Therefore, it serves both the interests of the ironic or subversive half of the forum, and the explicit political agenda of the other half. In this way, we see how memes continue to underlie the fundamental structure of r/WallStreetBets by mediating the inherent tensions within the community.

The Endgame

Redditors only have a nothing-to-lose mentality because they see themselves a loose collection of private interests. They therefore have no public identity to defend, whereas the public legitimacy of the Wall Street Exchange is at risk if retail investors can be seen as having such a massive impact. When the impact of a grassroots movement participating in the public sphere is treated as a risk then, we can begin to question whether the game is democratic at all. What the r/WallStreetBets investment in GME stock reveals to us is the private nature of the supposedly public realm of the free market, and the tendencies of users getting together on private internet platforms to veer towards behaving like a public. Most of all, it shows us how memetic logics underlie any collective action online.

That these individual users, for the most part claiming little knowledge of trading or the stock exchange, could band together through sheer numbers, power of will and memes, demonstrates tremendous political power. r/WallStreetBets is far from a solution to a systemic problem. Their bonds are connective but their action is collective. As long as this division does not tear them apart, and they use the connective power of memes to overcome it, then the r/WallStreetBets community could continue to turn retail investors into major players on the financial market.

 

References

Wilhelm, Alex and Shieber, Jonathan. "GameStop, meme stocks, and the revenge of the retail trader" January 27th, 2021. Techcrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2021/01/27/gamestop-memestocks-and-the-revenge-of...

Landsman, Stephanie. "Reddit rebellion is ‘another epic parabolic bubble’ that will burst" January 28th, 2021. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/28/reddit-rebellion-is-an-epic-parabolic-bu...

Asarch, Steven, "The history of WallStreetBets, the Reddit group that upended the stock market with a campaign to boost GameStop" January 28th, 2021. Insider. https://www.insider.com/wallstreetbets-reddit-history-gme-gamestop-stock...