A Horde is Not a Movement
Why the GameStop rebellion isn't what you think it is, and how it could be turned into a force for democratizing finance, maybe.
The Internet is good at saying “stop” and bad at saying “go.” That’s my shorthand for understanding how internet-assisted collective action tends to work out in the marketplace of individual give-and-take. If some significant number of people already agree about something, the Internet has made it much easier for them to find each other. But if they don’t agree, it makes it harder, because talking is easier than listening, and the simple tools that we use to participate online make expression super-easy, while simultaneously adding massively to the supply of things we might try to listen to. So, when it comes to taking collective action, the path of least resistance is to rally around something we already agree on. When you sign a petition to do something, you already agree with it. The Internet is very good at making big piles of petitions. But when views clash—as they do constantly because we are humans with different values and experiences—the Internet makes the clash more cacophonous.
That’s how I see the GameStop rebellion. To be sure, it’s a great accomplishment for a subreddit community to convince a horde of individual mostly small investors to embark on a somewhat risky bet against giant hedge funds. It’s delicious to see the hypocrisy of Wall Street exposed. And it’s searing to read the stories of some of these Redditors using the profits on the GameStop short squeeze to payoff their student and medical debts.
But a horde is not a movement. A scream is not a strategy. Figuring out how to game a somewhat complicated Wall Street move—the short squeeze—isn’t all that different from figuring out how to game a Time Magazine online poll for its top 100 most influential people, something that the 4chan crowd did back in 2009. Right now, it looks like the moderators of the original /wallstreetbets subreddit are drowning from the deluge of new participants drawn to their forum, if this post from yesterday is any indication.
“These communities are a by-product of the connected Internet,” Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said on CNBC yesterday, situating the GameStop rebellion alongside the “bottom-up revolution in so many industries.” And now it is happening to finance, he claimed. “The access to world-class technology is now getting democratized.”
Um, you keep using those words, I do not think they mean what you think they mean. A subreddit is not a community, because communities are places where people know each other and feel and act on obligations to each other. And the ability to vote with a few of one’s scarce dollars is not the same as democratizing finance. Actually giving everyone an equal voice in public decisions, like the role of finance in our lives? That would be democratization.
If the /wallstreetbets moderators were now calling on their fans to hold local rallies demanding some kind of action from Congress, that would be significant, in the same way that rightwing organizers seized on a rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli in mid-February 2009 against the Obama administration’s plan to bail out “losers’ mortgages” to launch the Tea Party movement. But that movement got legs not only because it tapped into a populist backlash against bankers; it was heavily subsidized by the Koch brothers, it built itself on the racist fears of older white Republicans against Obama, and, most crucially in my opinion, it took hold because it went from being a media phenomenon and a hashtag to actually creating communities out of the people who came to its first rallies across the country.
The GameStop rebellion against Wall Street could be the seedbed for a more progressive assault on Wall Street, I suppose (though I have doubts about the likelihood of converting day-traders who think they can beat Wall Street into communards). Some smart organizers at Fight for Our Future have pulled together a website called (sorry Mom) “FuckWallStreet.Online” hoping to catch hold of the wave. The website amplifies Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for hearings into the decision by Robinhood, a popular new stock trading app, to block small investors from buying the stock of GameStop and other targeted companies. And it calls on visitors to sign a petition and contact their Members of Congress.
Kudos to Ocasio-Cortez for bringing Alexis Goldstein of Americans for Financial Reform onto her Twitch.tv channel last night (where she has one million followers) to talk about the GameStop rebellion. Goldstein worked on Wall Street at the start of her career, but then dropped out when Occupy Wall Street happened. She was part of one of Occupy’s least-heralded and most impactful spin-offs, a working group called Occupy the SEC which has done valuable work watchdogging federal regulators that oversee the markets. Goldstein argues cogently that what has happened with GameStop is less a tale of small investors taking down an overexposed hedge fund than giant hedge funds at war with each other. (On the other hand, AOC followed Goldstein by inviting Alexis Ohanian on, and his evangelizing for the internet’s role in creating “community” is really quaint.)
-Bonus link: Economist Dean Baker says the key lesson of the GameStop rebellion is to recognize that Wall Street is a casino. And rather than talk about making legalized gambling fair, we should tax it (with a financial transactions tax) the same way we tax casinos. Amen to that.
This ~could~ be a moment that turns into a movement for democratizing finance, but for that to happen, it’s going to have to go local and face-to-face in order to stick around. Can we do that during a pandemic?
Movements and Organizing
Real change is slow. But it’s important to recognize its roots when it happens, because it comes from organizing. So it’s worth recognizing two victories this past week. First, it’s important to note the role of the Sunrise Movement in pulling the Democratic party into a much more pro-active set of positions on climate change. Two years ago, Sunrise organizers were protesting in Nancy Pelosi’s office (with AOC joining in); now they are celebrating not only President Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, and along with a lot of concrete policy shifts, they can look forward to the government’s creation of a Civilian Climate Corps that will put young people to work conserving public lands and waters, increasing carbon sequestration and taking other actions to address climate change. (h/t to Waleed Shahid for the four-part graphic above.)
Second, huge congrats to the folks who built the movements for participatory budgeting and for police reform. As Manjeet Kaur reports for The Appeal, the city of Seattle has just decided to allocate $30 million to a participatory budgeting process to support programs aimed at creating “true public health and safety.” Twelve million of that pool is being directly diverted from the Seattle Police Department. (h/t Josh Lerner, who started the Participatory Budgeting Project more than a decade ago.)
The Facebook Oversight Board, whose members are paid six figures a year for approximately 15 hours a week of work, according to Ben Smith in the New York Times, issued its first set of content rulings this week. I suppose it is only appropriate that this august body felt it important that one of the first cases took up the fact that, as it wrote, “Facebook’s rules treat male and female nipples differently.” The ersatz court, which has serious people on it, should have been required to read their ruling on video so we could enjoy the full effect of their having to live inside of Mark Zuckerberg’s head. But at least they made the obviously right decision, which is that Facebook’s Community Standards (there’s that word again) do allow nudity when the user “seeks to raise awareness about a cause or educational or medical reasons” and specifically allows uncovered female nipples to advance awareness of breast cancer. If only the board was allowed to fine Facebook the cost of its years of suppressing such posts, which health advocates say demonstrably hindered breastfeeding practices among new mothers. I’ll take this board seriously when it has the power to actually cost Facebook money.
Having supposedly paused recommending political groups to American Facebook users around the election, Mark Zuckerberg now plans to “keep civic and political groups out of recommendations for the long term, and to expand this globally,” Karissa Bell reports for Engadget. “People don’t want politics and fighting to take over” their Facebook experience, he says.
Here’s a very bad idea being considered by Facebook: it is considering changing its hate speech policy to treat the use of the word Zionist as a proxy for Jew or Jewish. This would badly squelch conversations about Zionism, which is an ideology, compared to Judaism, which is a religion and a cultural identity. The folks at Jewish Voice for Peace are sounding the alarm against this move. This is just one more example of where Facebook’s refusal to spend the money needed for expert human moderation will keep producing bad political outcomes driven mainly by outside political pressure (in this case, coming from Israel’s rightwing government) than any sensible approach to handling complex political issues.
Building on Tuesday’s Connector focus on the Facebookisation of local life, don’t miss Will Oremus’ excellent report on Medium’s OneZero on how NextDoor, the VC-driven neighborhood forum platform, is “quietly replacing the small-town paper.”
My friend Panthea Lee of Reboot has written a brilliant and subtle essay exploring how we should think about the neo-Nazis who stormed the Capitol, titled, “The QAnon Shaman Reminds Me of My Best Friend, and Other Musings on Saving Democracy.” It’s a long and worthwhile read, and I can’t do it justice with a short summary. But I do want to out myself as the person who, in the course of a breakout conversation during the New_ Public conference a week ago, stated that I had nothing to say to the “Camp Auschwitz guy.” Panthea, to her credit, uses my angry declaration to explore how empathy across the political divide might expose surprising commonalities. Her essay is lingering in my mind, because while I still feel the only sensible thing to do with out-and-out neo-Nazis is deplatform them and marginalize them as far as is legally possible, I too worry about hardening our hearts and our divisions into dehumanization. I’m sure this is a topic I’ll be returning to, as we all wrestle with how to act in an America where 75 million of our fellows voted for Trump, roughly 30% of Trump voters say they support the January 6th assault on the Capitol, and most Republicans in Congress are now falling in line behind their ex-President.
Congress, which is one place where the boiling pot that is America simmers in all its gerrymandered, rigged and multicultural glory, is clearly not past January 6th.
-End times: Check out this video of the first building being put by a “concrete 3D printer” here in the US.