“LIKE 4CHAN found a Bloomberg terminal.” This is how WallStreetBets, a forum with 8.5m followers on Reddit, a social-media site, describes itself. 4chan is an older site with a looser moderation policy that results in discussions ranging from the hilarious to the illegal. Bloomberg terminals are expensive computers used by professional traders to access financial data. The self-description is accurate. The worlds of online discourse and finance have collided in spectacular fashion over the past two weeks, dominating headlines and swinging members’ fortunes up and down.
The forum has already become a subject of study. A paper published on January 28th by sociologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology concludes that, despite appearing chaotic and offensive to outside observers, to its members WallStreetBets represents a real and valuable online community.
The researchers spent hundreds of hours reading posts and interviewing members. They say that the forum’s foul language and crass memes, mostly in the form of humour, serve as a barrier to entry—new arrivals who are not committed to learning the community’s memetic language are swiftly driven out. They also act as social glue. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, who has expressed support for the forum, features heavily in its memes, accompanied by statements of devotion, such as “Daddy Musk is taking us all to Mars.”
Financial markets are the perfect focus for the community because they are ever-changing, constantly offering new material for commentary. As The Economist went to press, the forum was coming to terms with the crashing price of one of its favourite stocks, GameStop. The “degenerates”, as its followers call themselves, urged each other not to sell their holdings, calling on the community to continue sticking it to the hedge funds short-selling the stock. Those who hold are “diamond hands” and heroes. Those who sell are pathetic “paper hands”.
It is tempting to dismiss WallStreetBets and the GameStop saga as a one-off outburst from the murky corners of the internet. That would be a mistake. The researchers say the forum is an example of a “third place”, a term in social science for a hub that is not home or work; churches, cafés and barber shops are all examples from the physical world. It may be baffling, but understanding the community is worth the effort. Not least because, as one user pointed out, even if the collective holding of stocks hasn’t worked this time, it can always try again.
This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the headline “Meme team”