Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Ehrhardt ’22: The Squeeze that Never Squoze: Cultural Reflections on the Gamestop Story

It seems almost poetic that the first significant financial explosion caused by digital communities was centered on, of all things, video games. Reddit, colloquially known as the social media platform most concerned with video games and nerd culture, made headlines in the last few weeks when the investing community r/wallstreetbets rallied around a money-making opportunity in a short squeeze of Gamestop stock. For my academic areas of study, this was a revelation: The digital communities that I study in my Modern Culture and Media concentration and the markets that I study in my Economics concentration simultaneously broke into the news cycle in epic fashion. 

When, a couple of days later, I scrolled through the previously-jubilant r/wallstreetbets and saw post after post of multi-thousand-dollar losses, I was devastated. What was supposed to be the retail investor’s moment in the sun — when the little guy finally figured out how to beat Wall Street at their own game — quickly became a gallery of lost savings accounts, retirements and borrowed money. In economic terms, what happened in the last few weeks is relatively simple: An unprecedented amount of young, first-time investors (almost 50 percent in their first year of investing) saw what looked like an easy opportunity to hurt Wall Street and make a load of cash. They piled into a complex short squeeze, forcing Wall Street’s short sellers to buy back, at remarkable losses, their shares of Gamestop’s stock, GME — without any exit plan for themselves. Now that most of the losses have been taken, it might be worthwhile to view the Gamestop saga as less of an economic moment and more of a cultural one.

The first unique factor that led to GME’s rise and fall relates (like nearly everything in today’s world) to the COVID-19 crisis and specifically to the speed of virtual communication. For the last year, since the first lockdowns of mid-March, the majority of social interaction in the world has shifted online, mediated by virtual networks and communities. As a result, trends that previously took weeks to come to prominence and subsequently die out have turned into games of minutes. We’re all spending unprecedented amounts of time on social media, so we all saw Gamestop start to climb, and knew about it early enough (or so we thought) to jump in. GME’s price jumped over 200 percent in one day as it reached escape velocity from its r/wallstreetbets origin and crashed in value by over 100 percent just a few days later. Fed by optimism from 2020’s miraculous stock market rally and the simple fact that social media is now the world’s primary public forum, the speed at which first-time investors were able to jump on board was unprecedented. It was like a personal TV game show, and the highly-gamified UX of modern brokerages gave people something to watch — but this time it was more exciting because it was your money at risk! GME was a materialization of the way that COVID has hit fast-forward on trends; once our social lives can move out of entirely-digital spaces, it’s unlikely so many people will be on the same page about something so quickly again.

The second unique cultural structure that helped GME reach fever-pitch was the propensity for digital spaces to eradicate a message’s context. It shouldn’t be ignored that GME really took off when it left the relatively niche world of r/wallstreetbets and became the subject of millions of tweets, posts and videos. People touted GME as “easy money” and a way to “get back at the big guys” — language that conveniently eliminated all mention of the risk so clearly communicated in the context of the location where it began. The very name of the subreddit — “wallstreetbets” — insinuates that it’s a place for gambling, not for sure things. (Some of the most popular posts of all time flex enormous financial loss, with the implication that if you play the same way, that might just be your “loss-porn” someday). Following advice on social media is like playing a game of telephone in elementary school. Taking advice from r/wallstreetbets without knowing the context is like sitting next to the class clown and not getting suspicious when they whisper something naughty in your ear. This digital mediation and remediation is also unlikely to be so impactful when the speed of trends returns to a pre-COVID pace. Perhaps people will revert to their old, less indulgent internet habits, affording themselves and the world more time to re-examine phenomena like this in more context.

The final unique cultural constraint that led GME to glory (and back again) was the way that this exact story so perfectly fit an anti-establishment and anti-finance narrative that has echoed in digital spaces since 2008. Gamestop is an icon of childhood joy for many young millennials, and it was being leveraged to failure: Wall Street was literally attacking your childhood, but this time, they made a mistake! This was a chance to take out the frustration that had been brewing since Occupy Wall Street, only compounded by 2020 — a year in which millions experienced economic hardship while the markets continued to help the rich get richer

In some grand coincidence, in the exact week GME exploded a class of mine had a reading by Marx that claimed that all great historical moments happen twice: “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” If Occupy ended in tragedy, then GME undoubtedly ended in farce. Fueled by the echoes of 2008, first-time investors put the fear of their unfamiliarity with the markets aside to participate not in a money-making operation, but an ideological movement. This was a reason that the saga ended so poorly: The “I’m down 70 percent but I’m holding to show them they didn’t beat me” sentiment proudly displayed on r/wallstreetbets echoes Occupy’s mission. Ironically, this strategy ended up giving a lot of money to the very people these amateur investors were protesting. . For example, Senvest Management, a hedge fund, rode the wave individual investors created for it, making over $700 million on GME. At the end of the day, hedge fund managers didn’t quake in their boots — they took out their notebooks and wrote, “note to self: don’t short over 100 percent,” and continued on their day.

If there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s not one of a “new market paradigm” or the inevitable rise of the retail trader. Sure, digitization has caused grand shifts in the way finance works, but there was a litany of cultural aspects of the GME story that seemingly got ignored in favor of economic analysis. It’s likely that GME not only generated a huge number of first-time investors but last-time investors as well. This is perhaps the biggest tragedy of the whole story: Without increased financial literacy, cultural movements that become economic movements (or the other way around) can end up hurting more people than they help. If we want to usher in a new generation of smart, savvy investors, we have to examine not only the economic story but the cultural one as well.

Evan Ehrhardt ’22 can be reached at evan_ehrhardt@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



Popular



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2021 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.