On Sunday, following a week when Reddit users drove up the prices of a select few stocks and upended Wall Street’s every expectation of how the stock market should work, approximately 50 demonstrators gathered in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s financial district. They were there to protest limits imposed on “the little guy” — by which they meant retail stock traders who had found a way to make money by banding together on the Robinhood trading app to move the markets. After saying their piece, they took some selfies and left.
It wasn’t a coincidence they chose Zuccotti Park: They were invoking the Occupy Wall Street protests a decade ago, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the park, myself included, in a months-long grassroots response to bailouts of wealthy “one percenters” after the 2008 financial crisis. You could hear an echo of the spirit of chaos and insobriety at those protests in last week’s wild trading in GameStop and other troubled companies, which was launched as an attack on hedge funds. And you could detect it even more clearly in the way the recent “meme stock” run suddenly blew up the establishment’s expectations of who was in control.
The Occupy Movement was a surprising and refreshing new way of building power. It galvanized quickly through then-outsider tools like Twitter, Facebook pages and groups, TinyChat and group texts. Its short-term success was limited by the difficulty of agreeing on policy goals, but its longer-term impact is threaded through our politics, in part through movements that used the same grassroots tools: It spawned organizations like the Debt Collective, which fights for student-debt relief, and the precursor to Black Lives Matter in Justice for Trayvon, where the conference call network created during Occupy was used to plan protests across the U.S. One year later, when parts of New York were flooded by a superstorm, a version 2.0 resurfaced as Occupy Sandy, a grassroots effort mobilizing over 50,000 volunteers and raising over $2 million for families displaced by the storm.
For those hacking Wall Street today, a similar spirit of experimentation and a willingness to try anything has taken regulators, business journalists and financial pundits by surprise and led those groups to unfairly label them irrational and reckless speculators. This is exact kind of lulzy and contradictory reaction sought by “stonk” traders, who see Wall Street in the same light.
At one level, the profit-fueled Wall Street mayhem of the past week bore little relation to Occupy’s core philosophy that income inequality is inherently bad for everyone. But at another level, they’re tightly linked. Understanding them is key to appreciating how broad social disruptions work now: Small groups can exert real power over our politics and economy while using duct-taped technology. Occupy was like a tinkerer’s lab for experiments in democracy, and now some of the gremlins it hatched are gearing up to wreak havoc.
One of those gremlins looked a lot like last week’s Reddit army. When the 2011 protests fell apart, Occupy splintered into many small networks. Some of those who learned about how money and technology worked decided to put it to use. In Los Angeles, one small group of ex-Occupiers coupled their newfound Wall Street knowledge with technological acumen gleaned from planning events in digital hives. By layering together a Facebook group for discussing penny stocks and culling information from finance message boards and business news, they taught themselves how to take control of markets at a small scale. Instead of using Facebook groups to plot the next set of protests, they realized that by working together, they could move markets and quickly capitalize on specific stocks, making enough of a living to keep at it.
At first it felt like an extension of the Occupy ethos, a bunch of underground outsiders almost pranking a rigged system. By the time I lost touch with this group a few years ago, some began to become embarrassed by what they were doing and how their actions betrayed the movement’s core ethic of rejecting Wall Street greed. They named their Facebook group some ridiculous non sequitur, like “Smurf Village,” so that no one would accidentally find out what they were up to.
As GameStop’s stock surged in recent days, I reconnected with one of these Occupiers-turned-traders, Colin. Though he isn’t participating in any of r/WallStreetBets’s hijinks, he did have advice for those who were: “The Feds are watching,” and mentioned he still owns some of those penny stocks.
The traders of r/WallStreetBets feel no such conflict about going public. Indeed, getting noticed is the point. Coordinated action produces real-time instant feedback on the group’s successes on social media. When buying certain stocks catches on like a viral meme, it brings the crowd, whips the frenzied bulging red eyes of the media hounds, but—aside from the short-term winners and losers—falls short of making any lasting impact.
Occupy, in its way, followed a similar arc. On September 17, 2011, when a bunch of anarchists staged a march through New York’s financial district to call attention to wealth inequality and the scourge of capitalism, it barely made the news. On Reddit, there was rustling that something big was happening at Zuccotti Park and that everyone should go check it out. Equipped with cell phones and puppets, activists decided to go and camp out while they figured out what to do next.
What they did next was different from prior uses of the Web or email to organize movements not only because more people were turned on to the action through social media, but because it was also distributed through memes. Adbusters Magazine, which fomented the protest, understood the power of symbols and used the glossy pages of their magazine as a portal, tethering different forms of media to an unmistakable call for absolute chaos in Manhattan.
Weekend attendance at Occupy events in New York City could number in the tens of thousands as hashtags beckoned activists to the camp, drawing in rank-and-file union members, politicians seeking to buoy their campaigns, and a subset of fringe left activists recruiting on every issue from the banal to the truly bizarre. Many of the actions coordinated by Occupy protesters were not necessarily strategic strikes at the banking industry, but rather served to draw attention to the underlying message often chanted at marches: “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out.” While the movement might not have had a clear policy demand, it did know how to generate social-media interest—what we’d now call “engagement”— which in turn brought out a crowd, and made the media swoon.
But the promise of never-ending scale and media blitzing was only a temporary win. Flash forward a decade, and those same tactics were used by Donald Trump and allies to spread misinformation about the election. Memes like #StopTheSteal seemed like fringy virtual movements until, suddenly, they weren’t. They built a hive on Parler, informed by YouTube videos, and physically swarmed Washington. They had an immediate goal—an attempt to overturn the outcome of a free and fair democratic election—but, like Occupy, they didn’t have an endgame.
Weeks later, as the Capitol insurrectionists began facing criminal charges, the r/WallStreetBets community stormed the virtual gates of the finance industry. Banging on the glass of mobile phones, its posters wondering what happens if they build a hive over on Reddit, informed by TikTok explainers, swarming the market, they managed to have fun, break a few hedge funds, and have the breathless experience of realizing that power doesn’t just come from “power,” it comes from the willingness to show up and do something together.
January 2021 may go down as a turning point in social media history, where meme stocks were used to shift billions overnight, and meme misinformation was used in an attempt to violently overthrow the government. And neither group had any idea what to do once it got past the barricades.
Late Sunday night on Clubhouse, the “it crowd” social platform of the moment, Elon Musk interviewed Vladimir Tenev, CEO of the trading platform Robinhood, which was the main app used by Redditors to drive up the price of the GameStop stock. “Is anyone holding you hostage right now?” Musk asked in a moment of levity in an otherwise difficult-to-understand conversation, jokingly suggesting Tenev blink twice. “No. No,” Tenev laughed. “Thanks for asking.”
In reality, the r/WallStreetBets community had effectively held the platform hostage: The trading of GameStop was happening with such speed and volume that Robinhood had to pause activity on certain stocks. “Robinhood stands for democratizing access to stocks,” Tenev said. “But we had no choice in this case. We had to conform to our regulatory capital requirements.” Musk, scarred by years of battles with the Securities and Exchange Commission, expressed his exasperation that an institution like the government could tell a CEO what to do.
Squeezing billions out of hedge funds, as the GameStop traders first set out to do, may not impact the economy significantly, and it’s up for debate if any of the super-rich will even notice this outside of a funny story. In fact, while some hedge funds lost money, big investors are likely to be the biggest winners as well. Wall Street, in itself, is a kind of technological bricolage too, where those who know how to game it often benefit the most. It could very well be that the mass coordination inherent in this particular duct-taped Redditor-discovered configuration will work until authorities figure out what kinds of laws were broken, like they did with Occupy. It took 60 days for mayors to figure out how to rid cities of Occupy, and nearly 8,000 people were arrested in the raids on encampments. In this sense, the Feds are always watching.
The masses are feeling the power of new technological configurations, matching the old with the new, and are experimenting much faster than the speed of law. From the last decade of social media, one outcome seemed assured: A future of institutional destabilization by any memes necessary.
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