The Occupy Wall Street of our generation is here, but it’s living through memes and the internet rather than protests on New York streets. For decades, financial markets have been a game enjoyed only by the white–collared and wealthy. Now, it’s Gen Z’s turn to play.
Unless you’re a finance major or an amateur trader yourself, the headlines about Reddit, Robinhood, GameStop, and all of the stock market chaos probably have your head spinning. The stock market has been upended by a group of Reddit users, mostly organized around the subreddit r/wallstreetbets to effectively lead a movement against market domination by institutional investors. It all started with hedge funds short selling GameStop shares. When r/wallstreetbets realized the hedge funds were shorting, they couldn’t help but band together to play the big guys at their own game. They collectively bought up all of GameStop’s stock—called a short squeeze—causing Gamestop’s value to skyrocket. The hedge funds were forced to buy back the stock at astronomical losses. The Redditors made millions.
In the midst of market downturn and pandemic angst, amateur trading became the perfect pastime. “One of my quarantine things was picking up on the stock market,” says Jared Rogers (E, W '21). It started out with long–term, stable investments for Jared, until about a week ago, when he got into day trading through r/wallstreetbets. “It’s fun to be part of something this large. The idea of sticking it to the big guy and also making something for yourself in return is kind of awesome.”
That’s kind of the thesis of r/wallstreetbets: make memes, make money, and troll the financial institutions. Like much of Reddit, it’s a niche corner of the internet dominated by meme culture, but it certainly isn’t made for everyone. It’s constructed on internet slang, vulgarity, and a subtle Dave Portnoy brand of white–gamer–guy toxic masculinity. “It’s definitely a white male–oriented space ... I didn’t vibe with [r/wallstreetbets] before, but now that they’re doing something of actual consequence, I’m on their side,” says Gebran Abdulhai (C '23).
Gebran’s in it for the memes and the cash, but most of all, the justice. He was originally going to send his stimulus check to his family in Ethiopia, but when Reddit started trolling Wall Street, he decided to invest it instead. He’d been watching r/wallstreetbets and other trading subreddits, but ultimately invested in cryptocurrency, specifically Dogecoin. “It’s kind of the same thing. It’s just another meme.” But memes, nevertheless, that are taking the form of radical wealth redistribution. Gen Z may be more leftist, less materialistic, and more socially–conscious than past generations—but it doesn’t mean we’re content with our lack of economic mobility determined by the 1%. “The system as it stands was never designed to serve the people,” says Gebran. In the Gen Z mindset, it’s a rich man’s world—sometimes you’ve just got to play the game.
And that’s where the other key player enters: Robinhood, the simplistic trading app popular among amateur investors. When major hedge funds were going bankrupt after the r/wallstreetbets short squeeze, the popular brokerage app halted sale of GameStop stock, resulting in major backlash from both Robinhood users, politicians, and even Elon Musk. So why'd Robinhood do it? The platform is backed by some of the financial industry's biggest players—and they couldn’t stand losing at their own game. “They were intentionally changing the rules because they were losing money. That’s not fair,” says Derek Nhieu (W '23).
Derek had $1000 invested in GameStop and was doing well. Then, when Robinhood restricted GameStop trade, its stock value plummeted, and Derek decided to cut his losses. “I sold my three shares and lost $500, which is, like, half of what I put in.” When the stock rallied again, he realized he’d lost the money for no reason—all thanks to Robinhood’s sudden trading limits. Robinhood claims restricting GameStop trade was a move made to protect its users from an unstable market, but the reality was that the instability wasn’t a product of Reddit, but of a legacy of market manipulation orchestrated by the wealthy.
And there’s an even darker underside to Robinhood beyond its blatant corruption. Though initially a proponent of the app’s accessibility, Ollie Law (C '23) has grown disillusioned with Robinhood in the past week. “It’s set up in kind of a game–like way. It’s a colorful display, you get notifications when things are going your way. It’s too easy for people to do very risky transactions without knowing the full consequences, especially around options trading,” says Ollie. This past June, a 20–year–old Robinhood user died by suicide after an interface issue in the app led him to believe he had incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Robinhood promised it’d do better and institute more user protections, yet it still preys on the naivete of the young people to whom it allows market access. At its best, Robinhood has made trading more accessible, but at its worst it's a dangerously corrupt and manipulative platform à la Black Mirror.
But some young people weren’t so easily lured by Robinhood’s gimmick to begin with. Jessica Riedman (W ‘24) trades on the platform StreetSmart Edge through Charles Schwab, a more sophisticated trading software than Robinhood. “As retail traders, the odds are already against us and in favor of the institutions, so having less information to work with on basic apps like Robinhood puts us at a disadvantage when we really need an edge,” says Jessica. In other words, the game is stacked against anyone who’s using simple trading apps like Robinhood. It’s like a carnival game—it seems easy enough to win, until you realize the game is rigged. But the millions banning together through Reddit are standing up to the institutions’ crooked system. Despite Robinhood’s corruption, economic justice is the name of the game in the meme stock revolution—and it’s giving many hope for big change.
“Occupy Wall Street was a physical movement where people were congregating outside of Wall Street offices to try to intimidate them. But this online Reddit thing is impacting them much more, to the tune of billions and billions of dollars,” says Jared. “It’s hilarious to be a part of something this big.” Gebran, too, is hopeful about the impacts of the movement spurred by r/wallstreetbets. “Even if it's wrapped up in memes and stuff, it is a unique way to go about raising awareness for the cause of economic justice.”
So, what comes next? Reddit certainly isn’t stopping any time soon. The whole saga is reportedly even being made into a movie. Bank of America described Gen Z as “the most disruptive generation ever.” And with this, we’re certainly manifesting that. In this case, the way to overthrow the system is to keep playing the game. And it’s a hard game to resist: When Robinhood relaxed restrictions on GameStop, Derek went back in, buying one share. “Some people are saying the real squeeze hasn’t even happened yet. I’m hopeful. Maybe I’ll make it all back!” he says.