It’s hard to overstate how big the WallStreetBets group has gotten. With 8 million members — as of this writing, and the group is still growing — it’s as if 1 in every 40 Americans is standing in a giant room talking. And, at first glance, they’re speaking a foreign language.
Tendies, rocket ships, diamond hands — this is the language of WallStreetBets (WSB), the white-hot subreddit powering the GameStop (GME) frenzy on the stock market. Strings of rocket emojis signify how the group wants to send GME’s price “to the moon.” Users encourage each other to have “diamond hands” (represented in emojis, of course), a riff on the strength of diamonds and a user’s strength to last through big market swings.
They insult the “paper hands” who crumple and sell their shares at the first taste of money or scary drops. Commenters call themselves “degenerates” or “apes.” Reddit posts hype up how many “tendies” a person will get from their investments, a phrase that comes from old 4chan greentext stories about manchildren living in their mom’s basement. In the joke, a manchild relies on his mom for everything, throws tantrums, and is rewarded for good behavior with “Good Boy Points” (GBP), which he redeems for his favorite food: chicken tenders, a.k.a. “tendies.”
The group’s potential influence is enormous. So far, followers have created two original songs and bought emoji-covered billboards across the country touting their stock picks. Entrepreneurial heavyweights like Chamath Palihapitiya, Elon Musk, and Mark Cuban have stood up for WSB (Cuban even did a pep talk AskMeAnything in the subreddit on Tuesday morning). The news coverage is both constant and global. Oh, and there was that little stock rally. But what does it all mean?
I spoke with a dozen people, from WallStreetBets members to professors to human behavior analysts, to try to understand what makes up the unique culture of WSB and what the group might mean for society at large.
No group is a monolith, especially one of this size. There is a wide spectrum of opinions, beliefs, and experiences. The users I spoke to were quick to point out that the group’s dynamics have changed at light speed over the past two weeks.
For anyone wondering whether WSB is part of the alt-right or a harbor for neo-Nazis, it doesn’t appear that way. Although the subreddit’s controversial ex-founder — who was banned from the group for violating community rules himself — has accused moderators of racism off-site, after a week and dozens of hours spent on the forum, I haven’t seen any evidence of hate speech or alt-right imagery.
Political posts barely make it past the moderators, let alone political extremism, even with the recent massive influx of users. WallStreetBets’ language is crass and offensive, the humor is self-deprecating, and the culture is a little strange, but it is not an organizing ground for hate. Instead, what I found is a complex, multifaceted group. There is mutual aid, gambling, inequality, community, creativity, masculinity, humor, humanity. It’s a microcosm of America.
Beyond the rocket ships, there are real stories
Like many GameStop retail investors, my week has been full of late nights, deep dives into Reddit, and obsessive stock chart checking. I don’t yet have diamond hands; I only just signed up for Robinhood, throwing $100 into GameStop stock at 2 am last Tuesday to see what happens. I felt the frustration of every canceled buy order, the anxiety of steep drops in the stock charts, and an odd affinity for a bunch of strangers on the internet.
I’m not a frequent Reddit user, and I thought the anonymity of the platform might bring out the worst in people. WallStreetBets often uses problematic language, but buried beneath piles of rocket emojis and cuckolding jokes and homophobic and ableist insults, there is some vulnerability and heart.
Jimmy Lee, a 20-year-old college student in Southern California and member of WallStreetBets, told me his GME holdings could help his family buy another car. Lee’s father is a janitor, and his mother is out of work due to the pandemic. Depending on what happens with GME stock, his earnings may be the largest lump sum his parents, who moved from Vietnam after the war, have seen in their lives.
Tutu, a WSB member who requested that I refer to him by his nickname, reports turning his initial investment of $35,000 into almost $278,000 as of Sunday — also to help his family. He tells me they immigrated from India roughly 15 years ago, and Tutu worked full time through high school to help provide for them. Now he wants to use his GME gains to help pay off his parents’ mortgage. If his family were still in India, Tutu’s dad would have retired by now. Instead, Tutu says he works six days a week, managing a 7-Eleven.
This is not to glorify struggles or paint over pain with a rosy “rags to riches” brush. But there is more to WallStreetBets than the story that’s been told so far, and it’s the story that some commenters are telling about themselves: Dishwashers, gas station attendants, and minimum wage workers have all posted publicly about how the gains from GME stock could change their lives. Commenters have shared tender stories of siblings or children with cancer, losing partners to overdose, or fighting addiction. Some subscribers have parents who lost everything in the 2008 stock market crash. Many Redditors say they see this as a chance at revenge against the people on Wall Street who ruined lives but suffered no consequences.
Sure, it’s Reddit. It could all be a troll. But is it really so hard to believe?
There’s also a core group of WallStreetBets members that is more experienced than the news media gives them credit for (and there’s even reason to think that these investors may be comparatively well off). They have sophisticated investing ideas (alongside lots of memes) and want to make money. They’re also well aware that the stock market — and the group — is a casino. “Bets” is in the name, after all. William Callewaert, a portfolio manager at the financial services firm Multipli, has been a member of WSB for about a year and thinks the original WSB members probably fell into two main camps.
“The first is the 25- to 50-year-old professionals who are longtime Reddit users and probably have significant investments. The other would be 14- to 24-year-olds who probably spend a lot of time on 4chan, etc., and are interested in finance and investing (and understand the power of 100,000 plus people doing the same thing),” Callewaert surmised.
Chris Barnes, chief product officer at Escalent, a behavior and analytics firm, notes that while the GameStop surge didn’t start as a way to push back against billionaires, low levels of institutional trust in America and simple, clear messaging made the cause easy to rally around.
Thomas Shohfi, an assistant professor of finance and accounting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thinks this subset of WallStreetBets may also be using their investor power to point out the greed of Wall Street. “There’s a good portion of the retail side that’s saying ‘The stock market is the pinnacle of capitalism and capitalism isn’t working for a lot of people. We want to show people that we don’t even care about the money. We just care about not driving companies into the ground,’” he hypothesized.
To be clear, if inequality weren’t rampant in America, or if we had stronger social safety nets, wage growth, and cheaper health care, weren’t facing potential climate catastrophe, and didn’t have deep generational angst — or if a hedge fund hadn’t shorted so much of a single stock — we wouldn’t be here. To paraphrase entrepreneur Jeromy Sonne’s think piece, people don’t burn down a system that’s working for them.
What WallStreetBets shows us about masculinity
Clear demographics on WSB members don’t exist, but roughly 70 percent of Reddit users are men and approximately 65 percent of Redditors are between the ages of 18 and 29. These aren’t exactly the people I’d expect to open up and be vulnerable online, but InverseInception, a frequent Reddit user and longtime member of WSB who asked that I not use his real name, thinks Reddit, in particular, offers a safe space for people to share things they can’t or don’t want to share on other social media sites.
“No one wants to see a post about antidepressants on Facebook,” he said, but the anonymity of Reddit and the way the pandemic has opened up conversations about mental health allows people to share their stories. Indeed, dozens of comments on the WSB subreddit share how the group’s humor and community are helping users climb out of depression.
At the same time — sometimes within the same post — users often refer to themselves as “autists,” “degenerates,” or “smooth-brained.” They also use homophobic terms to refer to bearish investors (those who expect stock prices to fall), particularly Gabe Plotkin of Melvin Capital, the hedge fund at the center of GameStop’s short squeeze. The same vulnerability that gives WSB heart may also help explain the problematic language used in the group.
C.J. Pascoe, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, has researched teenage boys, young men, and masculinity for 20 years. “When I talk to teenage boys and young men, what I hear them say about masculinity is that to be a man, you have to be dominant, competent, unemotional, and heterosexual,” Pascoe said.
One way she sees this type of masculinity play out, both online and off, is in the way men talk. First, men “insult other men using feminizing insults,” Pascoe explained, which is often illustrated in homophobic language similar to what’s used in WSB. By tying another man’s identity to gay culture, you are feminizing him. At the same time, Pascoe said, “you head other men off at the pass by making a joke about your own masculinity before other men can insult you.” This helps explain the group’s cuckolding jokes.
“My wife’s boyfriend” is typical of the self-deprecation heard on WSB. It stems from yet another meme. Is there a bit of pure humor in these jokes? Absolutely. Is every poster using each joke in the same way? Of course not. But Pascoe’s research helps show us where the culturally acceptable boundaries of masculinity are and why people may be acting the way they are within those boundaries.
If WSB users are largely male, they’re joking about their masculinity to protect themselves. And the joking is key. Jokes serve as a sort of shield in male adolescent culture, Pascoe has found, demonstrating how unemotional you are. (This is also illustrated in Peggy Orenstein’s writing on young men.) Even if the young men in WallStreetBets are no longer teenagers, they grew up in an internet culture soaked in this humor.
The narrow path of masculinity we’ve laid out for young men, one focused on dominance and competence, Pascoe explained, also helps make sense of the zeal of WallStreetBets. Wall Street suits might have money and power in America, but now, millions of men on their computers have access to information and crowdsourced leverage. If WSB can beat Wall Street at its own game, these men demonstrate their own dominance and competence.
Pascoe is also quick to point out that constricting ideas about masculinity aren’t due to men’s personal failings. It’s a structural problem.
“We’ve set up these impossible standards for men to achieve,” she said. “Boys often get teased and harassed by other boys for not being manly enough. And so then what happens? You end up with these young men who have a deep need for connection — because they’re human. [WallStreetBets] is a place for these guys to connect in a really great way, but that connection also leaves them vulnerable.”
Hence, the self-deprecating humor. If WallStreetBetters advertise themselves as tendie-seeking degenerates who live in their mom’s basement playing video games their “wife’s boyfriend” gave them, there’s not much other men can tease them for.
Perhaps, most encouragingly, Pascoe’s research has shown that the jokes or shock-value statements men make in a group setting don’t necessarily reflect their internal desires or feelings. Her analysis of more than 1,000 tweets with the phrase “no homo” found that it is mostly used as a shield that allows boys to be fully human, a sort of “inoculation against insults from other guys.” It is our job, as a society, to create new definitions of masculinity that allow men to connect without these insults.
The pandemic is driving WallStreetBets — and their donations
Since 2010, fintech startups like Robinhood, Betterment, and Acorns have launched easy-to-use mobile apps that welcome a younger generation of investors. Robinhood also gamified trading, transforming the stuffy UI of “boomer”-favored platforms into an exciting interface with simple green and red lines and confetti rewards for trades. In October 2019, in part spurred on by Robinhood, behemoth broker Charles Schwab dropped its commissions on stock trades. Every major online broker quickly followed. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus market downturn that young people piled into the markets in record numbers.
Like so many events in the past year, the pandemic was a catalyst for this moment. If the rise of fintech, the gamification of trading, and zero-commission trades were the kindling, the pandemic was the spark that started the fire. Barnes, the CPO and researcher from Escalent, notes that retail trading increased months before the GameStop rally.
People who haven’t been financially impacted by the pandemic have more cash on hand than in pre-pandemic times since they aren’t able to spend on travel or social engagements, Barnes explained. And, with the increase in remote work, people have more freedom to trade throughout the day. Government stimulus checks could also be propelling trading. Numerous WSB comments mention investing their “stimmy checks,” as the group calls them, into the stock market.
But the pandemic hasn’t just impacted WallStreetBets in financial ways. Loneliness, increased isolation, and a need for community all probably helped WSB go viral. InverseInception thinks “people are desperate for community right now” and just want to laugh. And WSB is nothing if not a form of entertainment, from the “loss porn” posts to intricate memes about “J-Pow” (Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, savior of stonks).
The pandemic also inspired InverseInception to give away “tendies with his tendies.” He donated 100 lunches from a chicken tenders chain to the staff at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minnesota. He wanted to support health care workers who “are stressed and have been through a hell of a year.” He hopes to set an example for other WallStreetBets subscribers to follow. “No matter how big or small your account is ... you can make an impact.”
It seems to have caught on. Subscribers want to give back and make a positive impact on their local communities — always with a touch of WSB humor. One person donated $5,000 to a children’s hospital, two have donated Nintendo Switches (bought at GameStop, of course) to local hospitals, another donated $500 to St. Jude’s Hospital, yet another sent Buffalo Wild Wings to their local GameStop. After a year when Americans donated to charities more than ever and mutual aid was in the mainstream news, it’s hard not to see WSB’s donations as an extension of a positive trend.
Pascoe, the researcher on masculinity, welcomed the spirit of these donations. “There is a delight and a playfulness there,” she said. Perhaps WallStreetBets and these donations show us a broader version of masculinity that “involves generosity and humor that doesn’t come at the cost of somebody else.”
Where does WallStreetBets go from here?
It’s impossible to predict what will happen with GameStop or the WallStreetBets group moving forward. Opinions are divided. Barnes thinks we may see the larger group fade away, only to come back as smaller, more concentrated groups. These smaller groups may focus on environmental, social, or governance investing they’re passionate about. Callewaert, the portfolio manager at Multipli, is more bullish.
He thinks WSB can successfully harness the power of the group and is confident meme stocks aren’t going anywhere soon. Shohfi, the RPI professor, doesn’t want to see retail investors get crushed. He worries the economic concept of prospect theory, which is “the idea that losses are more painful than gains are pleasurable,” could deter individual traders who may have seen their holdings decline from GameStop’s record highs last week — even if they’ve still made money overall — from investing in the future.
Tutu, one of the WallStreetBets members I spoke with, left me with a plea. “Most of us are regular people who are just trying to make a quick buck out of this GME craze so we [can] pay off some bills or get someone something special. Wall Street has been playing this game for years, messing with the regular folks. This one time we have the chance to get back [at] them. Don’t tarnish this movement, please.”