If you were to ask a random sample of acquaintances what exactly happened in the front-page financial fiasco involving GameStop, Melvin Capital, and the New York Stock Exchange in January 2021, I expect you’d get a mix of ecstatically overfamiliar and financially illiterate answers. A bunch of weirdos from Reddit, uh, made a lot of money but also forced a bunch of assholes on Wall Street to lose a lot of money by, uh, making memes about the stock market? This is all articulated much better than I can manage in a riveting glossary/explainer written contemporaneously by my colleague Katie Baker: Indeed, a bunch of amateur traders from Reddit bought and held shares in GameStop, resulting in several short sellers experiencing huge losses on a subsequent spike in the company’s stock price. This was a righteous troll for the history books and a startling demonstration of the breakneck pace of social media mobilizations. It took only eight months for Ben Mezrich to rush the first book about the fiasco, The Antisocial Network, onto bestseller lists. Now, nearly three years after $GME peaked at $500 per share (up 1,800 percent from $17.25 a month earlier), we’re getting the big movie adaptation, Dumb Money, directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Paul Dano as the r/wallstreetbets ringleader Keith Gill, a.k.a. u/DeepFuckingValue.
I’ll leave an exploration of the movie to another colleague. Let’s talk about Reddit. Let’s dwell here for a moment on both the “antisocial” in the title of Mezrich’s book and the “dumb” in the title of Gillespie’s adaptation. These characterizations are expressions of disbelief about the big reverberating strike on the stock market coming from, of all places, Reddit—home to so many maligned web archetypes, subject of so much hand-wringing about content moderation and reactionary boys, and yet also, apparently, the staging ground for a substantial revolt against capital and the investor class. Fucking Reddit!
For many years Reddit suffered an only slightly overstated reputation as a social media platform preferred by edgelords and morons. There are stupid people on every platform, of course, but I’m convinced Reddit is so condescendingly regarded in polite society in large part because it operates a lot more like a traditional web forum and a lot less like the profile-centric, user-as-attraction model of most other social media. Facebook and Instagram were explicitly designed to flatter the individual user, and while Twitter loosely gestured at the deliberative ideals of a “town square,” realistically it was an attention economy with social hierarchies and professional stakes, political clout, personal brands, and “main characters.” Reddit, in contrast, is the vestige of a now very old-fashioned and tragically half-dead web ideal: low-stakes anonymity. Who you really are doesn’t really matter on Reddit. u/DeepFuckingValue was just some guy, and r/wallstreetbets was its own little subculture.
Twitter homogenizes; Reddit fractures. r/wallstreetbets is one of more than 130,000 active subreddits, each with its own backstory, norms, and quirks. There are two different subreddits for saxophone enthusiasts, and I’m not entirely sure why there isn’t just one. TIL r/grilledcheese (1) exists and (2) has nearly half a million members. Do most posters on r/redscarepod even listen to Red Scare?! I have so many other questions for so many other subreddits, but the truth is, Reddit is rather positively defined by its chaotic coherence. It isn’t Twitter, with its pseudo-celebrities and borderless discourse, but it also isn’t 4chan, with its janky layout and lawless degeneracy. No, in fact, Reddit has despite itself become an indispensable suffix to search engine queries and the preferred social media platform of normies.
Reddit was once a den of inflammatory conversations about subjects now collectively regarded as “the culture war”: Trumpism, progressive gender norms, ethics in video game journalism, and so on. This made Reddit off-putting and dangerous to a lot of people, but it also reflected a distinct willingness to let subcultures flourish on their own terms. Reddit’s senior leadership in recent years has more aggressively sought to turn the platform profitable, but also, in a more nebulous sense, make it respectable on the eve of a long-delayed, much-anticipated IPO. Back in 2014, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong notoriously promised not to ban “questionable subreddits” in a since-deleted company blog post about r/TheFappening, titled “Every Man Is Responsible for His Own Soul.” Just months later, the company conspicuously rescinded the policy under his ill-fated interim successor, Ellen Pao.
In the decade since r/TheFappening, Reddit has cleaned up its act and at long last ingratiated itself into mainstream web culture. It is no longer the “weird” social media platform, flattered only by comparisons to its utterly obnoxious cousin, 4chan. It’s still a place for nerds, it’s still a hobbyist hub, but now it’s also the site of so many celebrity AMAs and viral AITAs. It’s also a website buckling under the weight of its restored reputation. In June, moderators took more than 8,000 subreddits private with the intention of reducing overall web traffic to Reddit, in protest of the site’s leadership implementing usage caps and pricing plans for access to the previously free API. This protest failed, as Reddit implemented the changes anyway and ultimately pressured even the most stubborn subreddits into reopening. These subreddits were protesting the proposed changes to the API, yes, but they were also, in a more abstract sense, trying to preserve this endangered ideal of Reddit as a federation of self-governing subcommunities. Reddit may well be a vestige of some lofty ideals about anonymity and democracy, but it’s now also clearly succumbing to the reality of social media platforms as for-profit enterprises.
So far no one has escaped this fate: expanding reach and seeking profitability without the inevitable enshittification. Elon Musk has play-acted at making Twitter a more egalitarian platform than it once was, but mostly he’s just managed to turn the app into a multilevel marketing scheme dominated by right-wing antisemites. (In doing so, he’s at least bucked the trend of making social media platforms more appealing to advertisers.) Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg has struggled to sustain the early momentum of Threads, as Meta has slow-walked the release of user features that might make Threads more appealing to defectors from Twitter. Reddit remains a frequently dysfunctional and chronically underachieving platform in its own right, and yet it still is the last great web community.
United and empowered, a subreddit can do great things, like shuttering a $7.8 billion hedge fund. r/wallstreetbets is a (movie) poster child for the Reddit that once was, but not for the Reddit that is coming to be.