Social media's runaway train
We either give in to the ride, or dismantle the track.
Tear social media down.
Last June, Michael Solana, a VC at Founder’s Fund, said—I think—the same thing. In a frantic essay on misinformation and mass hysteria, he warned that social media may one day compel the entire world, in a fit of rage and blinding groupthink, to jump in the air and land at once, dislodging the earth (metaphorically, not scientifically) from orbit and sending us all spiraling into oblivion. Though Solana didn’t explicitly call for bulldozing social media, it’s hard not to read his piece as a choice between it and us.
Since then, two cataclysmic events—the January 6th attack on the Capitol and the Gamestop circus last week—have made that choice even more stark. As they made clear, knocking the world off its axis takes far less than “a billion people...in a temporary state of madness.” All it takes is social media, at a global scale, operating as intended.
Both events trace similar outlines: Internet forums frothed up crowds of people with stories about evil cabals shutting them out of the halls of power. Partly out of righteous anger and partly just to troll the system, the crowds conspired to take action. On their days of reckoning, egged on by the most powerful people in their worlds—the literal president of the United States in one case and the literal richest man in the world in the other—they sacked the superlative centers of their ire. And while neither fully succeeded—Biden is our president, everyone in Congress is still alive, hedge funds still won—both put cracks in America’s institutional bedrock.
Of course, there were obvious and important differences. The bedrock attacked on January 6th was democracy itself, and the drill was murderous violence. The rioters were also, as Solana predicted, motivated by conspiracy and lies.
We’ve known about these dangers for a while. It’s not controversial to say that social media spreads misinformation and breeds extremism. If the entire world can be every liar's and grifter's mark, at some point we're all going to get conned. The 2016 election made that painfully clear.
The Gamestop saga, while not exactly noble, certainly leans more towards justice than sedition. WallStreetBets, the Reddit community at the center of the whole spectacle, moved against an unquestionably unfair, if not outright corrupt, financial system. The forum’s members weren’t driven by misinformation, but by a desire to outwit financiers at their own game, while making some money along the way. Though there was a conspiracy of sorts—if you put all your money into Gamestop, you’ll get rich—if enough people acted on it, it became true.
In other words, WallStreetBets’ conspiracy, true to its progenitors’ crypto-loving form, was decentralized. The January 6th rioters failed to overthrow the U.S. government in part because they put their faith in some central authority—Trump, Q, Dan Crenshaw skydiving out of Mission: Impossible—to overturn the election and tar everyone in Congress for being pedophiles, or something. True to his form, Trump didn’t show up, and his attempted coup turned into a lot of milling about. Had the plan, such as there was one, not relied on central action—had QAnon been built on an army of faceless insiders modeled after Guy Fawkes or Robert Paulson, had “we all been Q”—the rioters may well have burned the building down.
WallStreetBets didn’t need anyone other than themselves to show up. When celebrity ringleaders arrived, like Chamath Palihapitiya dropping $150,000 on Gamestop stock and selling a day later just as all of Reddit was declaring “HOLD THE LINE!,” the show went on, sustained by the momentum of the story and the hordes of onlookers flocking to it.
Though the SEC may eventually disagree, as a social media community, WallStreetBets operated exactly as it was supposed to. It brought together people with similar hobbies to trade stories, tell jokes, and eventually, root for each other in the fight of their collective lives. It was a community, organizing. The best way to summarize the whole affair may come from Margaret Mead’s famous line that’s more often used as cheap background noise in college voter registration drives than to describe the mobilization of irreverent day traders: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Consequently, the story became larger than Redditors banding together to get rich off of some comically bad hedge fund positions; it became a “populist revolution,” irresistible to Ted Cruz and AOC alike. (Hedge funds are more agreed upon enemies than Nazis, apparently.) Rather than left versus right or right versus wrong, it was insiders versus outsiders—and everyone loves an underdog.
But decentralized is not the same as democratic, and outsiders are not the same as the masses. Compared to the earthquake it caused, WallStreetBets was a small community—prior to last week, WallStreetBets was roughly the size of Jill Stein’s base—and an even less representative one. Though there’s no way to know who its members are for sure, the group’s style of humor and its overlapping subreddits (according to the New York Times, the top 20 are about finance, crypto, gambling, and one called FrugalMaleFashion) strongly suggests it’s mostly young men.
Their success came not from the breadth of their appeal, but from, as Margaret Mead predicted, the commitment to their cause. It turns out, to make the world wobble, a lot fewer people have to jump than we thought.
That, ultimately, is what ties January 6th and Gamestop together: Despite their motivating ideas remaining essentially fringe, the scale of the platforms on which they grew made it possible for each movement to attract a critical mass of true believers willing to risk their livelihoods to turn their online cause into a very real one.
Though passions like these are not new, with global social media platforms, all forms of people can now find each other at staggering scale and speed. Want to find 80,000 other people interested in vintage baseball photos? It took me 45 seconds. Want to find tens of thousands of men who’ve turned their dating frustrations into a dangerous hatred of women? Though I’d rather not Google it, I’m certain I could find incel communities faster than I could find a misplaced set of keys. And want to find a million people willing to YOLO significant portions of their life savings on some Gamestop stock? It took less than 6 months, which, as far as paradigm-altering revolutions go, is the blink of an eye.
Though it’s hard not to root for the Redditors—I mean, how could you not—January 6th showed that every movement won’t be so well-meaning. Or, as the case may yet be with WallStreetBets, something that begins with the best intentions can spiral out of control. Curious observers can get “caught up in the moment” and become revolutionaries—like Elizabeth, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who seems as likely to take a selfie with Mike Pence as try to kill him, and me, who went from checking the stock market once a week to pinning GME, Gamestop’s ticker’s symbol, on my Chrome tab bar the moment I bought a few shares.
There could also be more threatening aftershocks. After Robinhood, the popular trading app used by most of WallStreetBets, shut down trading on GME last week, hedge fund schadenfreude turned to genuine outrage, and the outrage turned conspiratorial. The real reasons behind Robinhood’s actions (they claim innocence) probably aren’t that material: Given the concentricity between other male-domintated Reddit communities (gaming, dating) and white supremacy, there’s a well-worn groove that could connect WallStreetBets to Rosthchildian antisemitism. If enough people find each other—which they almost certainly will, especially if GME comes back to earth and Reddit’s diamond hand warriors are the ones holding the bag—off we’ll go again.
At this point, we have two choices: Give in to the ride, or dismantle the entire track.
The state can’t commandeer the train; plenty of authoritarian regimes have made the dangers of that deadly clear. Targeted solutions like moderation and deplatforming—though clearly effective in preventing a second coup attempt—are temporary, impossible to administer, and, most of all, require repeat offenders or dangerous content. As WallStreetBets showed us, chaos requires neither.
Perhaps, the problem is simpler. Perhaps, just as a society in which we’re all issued an assault rifle when we turn twelve is an inherently dangerous one, a society in which anyone can find and talk to everyone in an instant is an inherently unstable one. Perhaps, just because we can build it, doesn’t mean we should.
Undoubtedly, social media has social benefits. And it may, in the long run, arc us towards a more equitable—and, frankly, fun—world. But, to borrow from a gleeful Redditor watching the world turn upside down and paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, social media may stay irrational longer than we can remain fixed in a habitable orbit.
As an extended footnote, it’s hard not to see the Gamestop story, like so much else in America, as being tinted by race. Rather than comparing the event to January 6th, you could also compare it to the Black Lives Matter protests: In both, people, angry about a system rigged against them, organized and rose up in collective against that system’s worst actors to take back the power that’s been stolen from them, prompting a panic among the elite and revealing deep, fundamental flaws in once-venerable institutions at the heart of our society.
But in many circles, it was the Reddit “protest”—the carnival, the irreverent joke turned unexpected allegory—that drew more unqualified praise.
Was it their methods? WallStreetBets was celebrated for responding to financial pillage with even more financial pillage: “The only way to beat a rigged game is to rig it even harder.” In the face of corporeal pillage, Black Lives Matter protesters would’ve been condemned or killed for responding in kind—which they didn’t, but were blamed for anyway.
Was it “property damage?” The whole point of the Gamestop trade was property damage. The more Reddit siphoned billions away from hedge funds, the more they were commended (and their tally is estimated to be $19 billion, nearly ten times the estimated damage from the events surrounding the protests.) With Redditors reveling in how high a price they paid for GME, it’s clear this wasn’t about their gains, which will mostly deflate with the stock price anyway, but about hedge fund losses.
No, the condemnation of Black Lives Matter’s tactics and the celebration of Reddit’s was yet another reminder that no matter how solemn the stand or profound the problem, black people’s protests will never be sober enough. It’s almost as if the problem isn’t the protest, but the protestors. But of course, we already knew that.