Having grown up on the internet, from Club Penguin chats to teenage Omegle hangouts to Tumblr, Twitter and Reddit, I’ve learned that internet subgroups you’ve never heard about can be some people’s entire world. It’s the content they absorb on their lunch break, the people they talk to after work, what they look at while brushing their teeth and the last thing they see before bed. Communities like these are powerful: they can transform an amalgamation of lonely people with seemingly little in common into a tight-knit group with real consequences in the outside world. That is what happened with GameStop this past month when users on the subreddit r/WallStreetBets (WSB) purchased large amounts of GameStop stock (GME) and subsequently drove the stock up by roughly 1,900 percent. The coordinated buy-out of GME stock caused Wall Street hedge funds, who were betting on the fact that GME would go out of business, to lose almost 900 million dollars. Despite its jokes and political infighting, r/WallStreetBets represents a larger trend in the growth and power of online organizing.
Though it’s hosted on a site as large and popular as Reddit, WSB has the feel of a corner of the playground that has escaped the teacher’s view. When reading through the subreddit, I was reminded of myself during my time on Tumblr in the mid-2010s, eagerly waiting for school to end so I could rush home and talk with my friends online. Much like people on WSB, we all shared a sense of camaraderie through the screen that we couldn’t, for whatever reason, replicate in real life. However, instead of teenage girls interested in fashion and music, WSB is populated mostly by young men who like gambling.
WSB bros are not professional stockbrokers or activists, and many are just that: regular bros. According to a user poll, almost half of the subscribers are 18–22, and more than 90 percent are male. Slurs, jabs and off-color jokes are the norm. Just to get a feel of the place, there is a “No-Meme Mode” button on the sub that brings you to a compilation of posts flagged as “Sh*t Posts.” The whole thing comes off as if your high school class clown suddenly became extremely invested in something they called “stonks” (read: stocks), which is why it’s all the more remarkable the group managed to thwart the stock market and stop what would have been a fairly straightforward short sale by hedge funds, including Melvin Capital. Wall Street certainly did not see it coming. If someone had told Melvin Capital CEO Gabriel Plotkin six months ago that he would be losing hundreds of millions of dollars to people who called themselves “dumbledoreRothIRA” and “bigpapa901” he would have laughed them out of his sleek Manhattan office.
Users on the sub also don’t seem to have political consensus on what they wanted out of the GameStop stock bets in the first place. On the one hand, the subreddit has some camaraderie around class politics with users often mocking Wall Street or major news outlets for their inability to take the subreddit seriously. Though a lot of the jokes are self-deprecating — users often refer to themselves as “smooth-brained” and other slurs — there is also a lot of support between their bets and their stories. User u/Hungry_Freaks_Daddy shared the post, “A message to everyone on Wall Street from somebody with nothing to lose. You only think you’re in control,” which outlined that, because they grew up working-class, they wanted to avoid selling their stocks in order to keep the price of GameStop stock high and retain their gains.
On the other hand, many users on the sub applaud Martin Shkreli, an honorary member of the sub famous for driving up the prices of insulin. In a post hailing Shkreli, who is currently serving seven years jail time for defrauding investors, u/goosefacekillaz wrote, “When I buy options or stocks it’s solely to make money.” This is a sentiment shared by older veterans of the sub: there is no attachment to the Robin Hood label; in fact, some regard the title with disdain. u/storander called WSB the “greediest group of f*cks on the internet,” writing in another comment, “We’ve never been some bullsh*t bag holding, occupy wallstreet [sic] BS before six million newbs stormed the place.” Contrary to the media narrative of the sub as virtuous class warriors, this side of the sub is essentially running a large meme account with money instead of likes. They have no interest in changing the money flow of the United States, unless it’s flowing into their pockets.
That is why it’s astounding that WSB did what it did — stock market heavy hitters with Ivy League degrees and decades of experience were thwarted by a bunch of kids with an internet connection. Media outlets such as Time Magazine downplayed the importance of the GME stock upheaval when they argued that this moment would be short-lived, writing, “GameStop is running out of extra lives, its batteries are dying, and its parents are telling it to go to bed because it’s got school in the morning.” While Time is right that GME stock eventually fell, they are glossing over the fact that internet trolls who use the word “cuck” made hedge fund employees and portfolio managers cry.
These groups are not going anywhere: WSB represents the strength of nascent internet communities that have been denied media attention for too long. To write them off is to ignore the moment we live in. While poking fun at and infantilizing WSB is certainly entertaining, the fact of the matter is that the sub has the power of 9 million angry, self-proclaimed “degenerates,” who have just realized that they too can have agency in their financial lives. Whether or not it’s intentional is beside the point: people online now have massive organizing powers at the tip of their fingertips. It doesn’t matter if they’re activists or asinine — people on Wall Street (and in other positions of power) should not be joking; they should be scared.