To the moon: The GameStop stock story reveals a dynamic shift in consumption culture
Photo: Chris Liverani
“Mortgage-backed securities, sub-prime loans, tranches… It’s pretty confusing right? Does it make you feel bored, or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you just to leave them the f*** alone.”
So explains The Big Short’s Jared Vennet, played by a fourth-wall breaking Ryan Gosling, in the 2015 film about the 2008 financial crisis. While the film is eerily prescient in 2021, in one respect things have changed irrevocably: never again will it be an assumption that only the upper echelons of the financial sector know how the stock market works, and the idea of “leaving them alone” has become outdated naiveté.
The GameStop short squeeze at the hands of subreddit r/WallStreetBets has shaken our collective understanding – or lack thereof – of the intricacies and presumed stability of the stock market. Watching a coordinated collection of armchair day-traders accomplish a financial market-moving strategy, which until the arrival of the combination of transaction-free trading apps and online forums was the exclusive territory of the hedge funds, which have since lost billions, was dramatic enough on its own. The ensuing shutdown on trading by commission-free trading app Robinhood (a name which has since aged ironically, if not poorly), subsequent litigation, and careful monitoring by the White House has further heightened matters. Regulation could be on the way – but for whom, and to what extent, remains broadly uncertain.
The bigger picture, however, is fascinating: the normalisation of trading, and the ideological implications championed by the redditors.
The GameStop Stock Event of 2021 (or as Elon Musk has termed it, GameStonks) has been several evolutionary landmarks in the making. The popular rise of cryptocurrency, despite its faults, has been almost entirely separate from corporate interests (Facebook’s Libra being a short-lived exception) and as a result was mostly studied, championed, and participated in by individuals. A key functional barrier between financial derivative instruments and daily life was thus permanently removed.
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The in-tandem development of trading platforms functioning both for crypto and stock alike, like Robinhood, Revolut, or Bitpanda, eroded the barrier even further. It became entirely possible for the average person working a normal job to day-trade during their lunch break. Meanwhile, the rise of forums on the likes of Reddit allowed for the free sharing of information, amateur and professional alike, helping to democratise financial speculation for the average consumer.
Cut to 2020, lockdowns, redundancies, and shaky economic prospects. Those casual lunch break day traders suddenly had a lot of time at home, and potentially a pressing need for income in a stagnant job market. The 2008 crisis is not so long ago as to be forgotten; to say Wall Street has a branding problem would be an understatement. A looming second recession, already being felt by the largely younger users of Reddit, has combined with a pandemic response where health concerns were subjugated and, in many cases, superseded by economic needs. This is in the context of a political environment characterised by mistrust and a popular perception of lobbyism being more influential than democratic will. Together, a perfect storm has emerged with an anti-corporate focus. GameStop in particular has large sentimental value for the mid-millennial, capital-holding day traders of Reddit creating a negative sentiment which last week was given a rallying cry.
The GameStop stocks event is not, for most of the individuals involved, about getting rich. Many have invested only what they are willing to lose, and the subreddit is full of motivational posts to “hold the line” and “stick it to the man”. Rather than profit, it is about making a point.
In many ways, this goes along with the tech-driven democratisation of entertainment. Streaming has enabled music artists to build small, powerful fan bases. Video services now cater to lower price points and diverse content propositions. Apps like TikTok have promoted a lean-forward content engagement that fosters creation rather than consumption. Gaming has boomed in popularity – and apps like Robinhood itself have seemingly gamified the stock market, enabling skill transfers and lowering the psychological barriers to participation. The broader trend of consumer collectivist involvement in what was previously the dominion of incumbent corporatist create-and-serve strategies has fundamentally changed the marketplace across the board. Perhaps this is why the GameStop stock event has been so captivating; it is a signpost of broader changes, and perhaps the biggest landmark event of what the shift of power can mean.
There are many chapters yet to come in this saga, but 2021 will inevitably be a landmark year of digital battlegrounds between consumer demands and corporate responses.