On March 18th, just before lockdown was announced in the UK, I received a long (600 words or so) text from a family member. I have no idea where they had got it from, and I suspect they hadn’t read it; they certainly hadn’t read it carefully.
In January 2021, members of the /r/wallstreetbets subreddit made the stock price of GameStop ($GME) soar. As the saga drew international attention, media outlets tried to explain why an online community was now in an open conflict with Wall Street traders. For the layperson, little of this made sense. How can Reddit users dictate share prices? What do terms like “short” and “positions” mean? Outlets like Ars Technica, ABC News, The New York Times and Polygon all attempted to retrace the events through timelines, definitions, and explanations. An NYT article summarizes, in a few lines, one of the core dynamics behind this conflict:
Shorting a stock essentially means borrowing shares from a broker and selling them, with the agreement you’ll return the shares later. When the price falls, you buy back the shares and pocket the difference. But shorting a stock is risky — if the price rises, you can lose big.
If someone swoops in, unexpectedly makes shares valuable, and prices don’t fall, then borrowers (in this case, hedge funds) have to pay back a hefty sum. The folks swooping in—such as a Reddit community—can also make a tidy profit, since they got involved when prices were low. In other words, /r/wallstreetbets saw an opening, purchased GameStop shares by the thousands, and put the hedge fund Melvin Capital (among others) in a position where they’d have to pay way more than they could afford. Enough to sink them.
This is one way to tell this story. Arguments over what this is really about (as if it were about one thing) and whether this conflict is good (as if “good” in this case could possibly mean the same to everyone) raged on social media platforms for weeks. In a particularly sharp Twitter thread, journalist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow acknowledged not only a multiplicity of interwoven narratives, but that many of the popular takes could be right. This is a tale of “average joes,” as Doctorow puts it, who are angry at megacorps and late-stage capitalism. It is also the story of hopeful retail investors hacking their way into profits. And it is a tale of hedge funds against hedge funds and colossal forces tearing at each other, with Reddit posters only playing a miniscule part.
In foregrounding money and profits, these stories miss key cultural elements of why the $GME phenomenon occurred. In fact, focusing on asking “why” and “how” thousands of people rallied around the name of a near-defunct video game retailer in the wake of the whole debacle misses one much more useful question. Why GameStop?
Communal tales and hegemonic myths
In a thread titled “This is personal. For all of us,” /u/benaffleks called the moment a “tug of war between tradition and the future.” On the surface, the tug of war is about the condescension of “old school institutions'' who, as gatekeepers, push retail investors out of the wealth they hoard. But this conflict reflects larger tensions, as mentioned by u/ssauronn in An Open Letter to Melvin Capital, CNBC, Boomers, and WSB:
This is personal for me, and millions of others. You can drop the price of GME after hours $120, I'm not going anywhere. You can pay for thousands of reddit bots, I'm holding. You can get every mainstream media outlet to demonize us, I don't care. I'm making this as painful as I can for you.
This is, indeed, personal. A chance, as /u/ssauronn puts it, “to punish the sort of people who caused so much pain” during the 2008 financial crisis.
This anger, the desire to make it painful, stems from the myths retail investors once believed in—until there was nothing to believe in. Dead myths are central to the GameStop saga because, in a matter of weeks, /r/wallstreetbets exposed the shoddy narratives sold to them by hegemonic forces. The Free Market is not free, and never was. When hedge funds panic, Robinhood and other trading platforms can immediately put a halt to trading. Ultra-wealthy groups can throw around billions of dollars to bail out their friends. Small fish and big fish are not allowed to play by the same rules. Algorithms and apps supposedly meant to give the small fish a chance actually do the opposite. Such realizations aren’t new, but their urgency should be obvious if we keep the community’s name in mind. Does betting on Wall Street mean anything when the house always wins? As one story frays at the seams, the foundations of other myths are tested: if they’re lying to us now, how long have they been lying to us for? What else isn’t what it seems?
What is at stake, then, may be the community itself, and the stories they choose to tell in the ruins of the future. One thing is clear: the subreddit no longer believes in the myths fed to them by external forces. Pushshift.io searches reveal that, between January 1 and February 5, the term “bullshit” was used in over 20,000 comments. Similar expressions (“lied”, “lies”, “lie”, “lying”, “rigged”, etc.), although less common, still return thousands of hits. These utterances don’t always target Wall Street, governments, politicians, Robinhood, or media outlets, but they often do. If both tradition and future are no longer valid, then what can the community cling on to? Is it possible to subvert tradition, and re-write the future?
Digital histories and temporalities
Another word with thousands of hits offers a way forward: “History.” Tensions between past and future, and the spaces forged from what could have been, are nothing new for online communities. The internet, perhaps more than anywhere else, is haunted by the memories of what could have been. Although coined by Jacques in Derrida in Specters of Marx, the term “hauntology” was popularized by Mark Fisher. In a 2012 article, “What is Hauntology?”, Fisher describes hauntology as such:
What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate … More broadly, and more troublingly, the disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live.
Hauntology is a pun on “ontology”, that is, the study of being - of what is, what exists (just try saying it in a French accent). Hauntology, then, is the study of what is not: of ‘the agency of the virtual’; how the dead possibility of a lost future can continue to exercise an enchanting pull over an airless, sickly present. Derrida’s original example of a hauntological presence is Marx’s specter of communism which was “haunting Europe” in his 1848 manifesto: a state of affairs which did not exist, which was not yet even properly articulated (which might not even be adequately articulable at all), but which was nevertheless causing all “the powers of old Europe” to enter “into a holy alliance to exorcise” it.
Make no mistake: specters are key players in this saga. How does a community react when their future, a construct designed by hedge funds and corporations and politicians, vanishes? The answer, in this case, is clear: they resurrect their ghosts. The community rallies around the (hi)stories woven by its members, their voices channeling the ghosts of other times and places. It makes sense: these stories cannot be erased as easily. Accordingly, one of the questions central to this article (“Why GameStop?”) can only be answered by tapping into the hauntologies that make up /r/wallstreetbets. They can be found in the subreddit’s description: “like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal.” Ghosts can be felt when certain terms reappear, such as Battletoads, stonks, or tendies. If those words mean nothing to you, that’s understandable: they weren’t part of your history. Since I intend to clarify them, it may be more accurate to say they weren’t part of your history until now.
Can we have Battletoads back?
The term stonks originated in 2017, when a picture captioned with an intentional misspelling of “stocks” was posted on Facebook. The meme includes a figure known as Meme Man, who first popped up on Facebook in 2014. Memes like “stonks” are highly intertextual, multi-temporal objects. It may be impossible to assert when they appeared, their authors, or the influences that shaped them. They are repeatedly shared, edited, forgotten, and rediscovered. Meme man is a classic internet specter: at once creepily futuristic and alarmingly dated, he haunts the subreddit perhaps as much as GameStop does.
The goal isn’t the return of a physical game retailer, or a fondness for the 8-bit version of Snake preloaded on Nokia phones, or pining for Blackberry’s presence in the tech ecosystem.
Other meme-specters abound too: To channel the spirit of GameStop is to express nostalgia for other times, when the future looked different and, perhaps, more hopeful. It is an invocation of countless specters, such as the ties between the Something Awful forums and 4chan, or jokes about Battletoads. Cut back to November 13, 2007, the day an entry was added to Urban Dictionary by SwanyZOMG. Rather than a series of video games, Battletoads was described as a “Popular subject of prank calls to electronics stores, such as best buy, gamestop and wal-mart, started on 4chan.” Snap back to February 2021, and consider some of the thread titles found on /r/wallstreetbets: “Do you have Battletoads?”, “When should people start pre-ordering Battletoads 2 from GameStop again?”, or “They are selling shares of Battletoads!”
Among these titles, a poignant request stands out: “Can we have Battletoads back?” But in 2007, the /r/wallstreetbets subreddit did not exist. The nostalgic, memetic fondness for GameStop prank calls predates the 2012 community by half a decade. In other words, there was no “we.”
I doubt anyone is truly fighting to bring back the Battletoads of old. The goal isn’t the return of a physical game retailer, or a fondness for the 8-bit version of Snake preloaded on Nokia phones, or pining for Blackberry’s presence in the tech ecosystem. Yet we can’t ignore the parallels between prank-calling GameStop and sticking it to Wall Street. Distracted by the targets, we minimize the importance of communal yearning and collective actions. When we talk about myths and false narratives, as I did in this article, we are talking about mass-scale disinformation sustained long enough to become canonized. Obsessing over foreign interferences and government responses occludes what the community has meant, and still means, to its members. A place of self-expression and recognition, where trading memes is as invaluable as folklore. A place of support too, as evidenced by members of /r/wallstreetbets paying off their debts and booking urgent medical procedures. We cannot pretend this isn’t happening during a global pandemic overseen by familiar voices telling us, this is fine.
Discussions solely framed around profit motives can’t retrace why people outside these communal walls cheered, chose to contribute, or even decided to become part of the community. Why do so many relate? One way to see it: our own groups are threatened or have already been destroyed by those recognizable voices. One group, in response, mounted counter-narratives. They turned digital, memetic formations and lost futures into weapons pointed outward. There is no joke here, regardless of the memes and shitposts involved: the material damage is as real as ghosts, or the stock market.
Questions such as “is this good or bad?” or even “is this revolutionary?” may be worth asking, but not as ways to fractionalize then tether people and events to deterministic origins. That is how we, all of us, got here. What remains to be seen is what comes then, before yet after, as we rummage through the remains of futures never meant to be ours.
Axel Hassen Taiari is a writer and narrative designer from Paris, France. He is currently working as a contributing writer for Neurocracy, a sci-fi hypertext game. He also runs Spaces Left Blank, a newsletter about digital, interactive texts.