Without question, history books will remember the GameStop short squeeze that lasted from January to March of 2021. The event is still rippling, perhaps in ways we will only discover in the upcoming months. But how will it be remembered? Is it a story of David upending Goliath? One of good intentions? Or of greed spiralling beyond the confines of rationality?

The ‘little men’ wielding power

It has since become difficult to talk about r/wallstreetbets (WSB) — the initial centre of the GameStop stock escapade — as though they are the little men. With a community that has since grown to include over 10 million members, it has real power. For reference, that is about the same as the population of Sweden. Yet WSB has always relied on that image. Indeed, it was the basis of their campaign against hedge fund managers. The community had something to rally behind through this image: sticking it to the rich man. Stories cropped up all over the subreddit as users explained why they were taking part. Their parents had suffered in the 2008 recession, their families had gone hungry, people had lost their houses, and now was the time for revenge. The backstories were heart-warming, and the intentions once upon a time admirable.

Retrospection is not so kind to that image of WSB, however. In any movement, a slogan is crucial to marketing and sharing a message. WSB caught on quick: ‘hold the line’ became the signature mantra, and that’s what the community promised to do. They hoped to replicate the 2008 Volkswagen short squeeze, wherein Volkswagen stocks rose to a value of almost €1000. ‘To the moon’, they insisted. Some members were desperate to beat that figure. And when others got doubtful about the chance of prosperity, they were gently reminded of Volkswagen and provided with infographics. Prior to the rocket to €1000, Volkswagen simmered at around €200. ‘You are here’ infographics served to dispel the fears.

Yet perhaps the more anxious members of the community had been right. The GameStop stock didn’t reach the illustrious €1000 mark. It never even breached $500 outside of the pre-market (even if it had, when converted, that would be just over €400).

False claims to stoke populism

Upon reflection, these fear-dispelling images take on the appearance of propaganda. The closer one peers to WSB, the quicker one realises the veneer, and the less the community’s intentions seem so warm. The subreddit’s operations bordered on populism, perhaps nearing cultism, and they drew borders around members of the community to differentiate ‘diamond hand’ believers from the naysayer ‘paper hands’.

Furthermore, despite arbitrary perceptions of punishing rich men, the community was ignorant. Few rich people were wounded by the affair. In fact, many investment firms profited from the rocketing stock price. One hedge fund made $700 million off the back of it. There remains a probable chance businesses and their employees lurked in the community. Even at its peak, the GameStop revolution failed to be a David and Goliath story. For all those who made thousands, there were others who lost thousands. The insistence to ‘hold the line’ hit the target too well, and to this day there are thousands of DIY investors clutching onto vaporous dreams of overnight royals and riches. In a way, they are not to blame. Cynics may consider these people naïve, but ultimately, they were the victims of trickery. They bought into promises the community made. WSB became a microcosm of unfettered optimism and pressure to keep your money in the game. ‘You only lose if you sell’, they would say.

Greed and the financial sector

GameStop may have failed, but the saga has had a dramatic impact on the internet’s interaction with and understanding of the financial sector. Whether WSB will ever admit it or not, greed made up part of the GameStop aspirations, and that greed does not dissipate quickly. Instead, users have shifted into cryptocurrencies and prompted capricious ups and downs in the price of Bitcoin and Dogecoin, as one example.

It isn’t difficult to understand why. We all heard the stories of people making thousands on a silly internet trend. It is almost painfully simple to visualize the logic: ‘if someone on the internet can make thousands, why can’t I?’ The fear of missing out — colloquially called ‘FOMO’ — has spiked in light of GameStop and seems to be the fundamental justification for people newly entering cryptocurrencies and stock trading.

For all intents and purposes, Dogecoin is GME in different clothes. It relies on a similar Reddit userbase and echoes similar vague mantras. Hold the line. To the moon. They have their own share of posts laying out why people got involved. One such example was a plaintive remark about being ‘part of an international movement to take down hedge funds and reform the financial system’. Yet hedge funds are not collapsing en masse. Besides, how can one reform the financial sector if the movement is driven as much by greed as the financial sector? Better yet, how can a movement be earnest in its Robin Hood-style ambitions whilst simultaneously involving itself with Elon Musk, who has frequently faced criticism over worker conditions at Tesla.

Musk had also vocalized his support for the GameStop effort. This association with Elon Musk seems a far cry from the origin of GameStop; specifically, its idea of sticking it to the rich man and those heartfelt stories of economic hardship. Whilst Musk is no hedge fund manager, he was for a brief period the richest man in the world. As we recall all this, it’s almost macabre to see where the movement has ended up.

Ultimately, GameStop and its successors have revealed themselves as shallow attempts to get rich quickly. In consequence, it is difficult to observe the state of internet stock trends as anything other than opportunistic and somewhat exploitative. Promises of ludicrous wealth, with the only requirement being patience — can it be true? Simply put, somebody will always be the one who sells too late or feels FOMO and buys in but never makes a profit. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as a game where everybody gets to win.