This was the week that the stock market became the stonks market. For those of you unaware, “stonks” is an internet meme, an absurdist play on the word “stock” that’s now almost unavoidable on social media. On Jan. 26, Elon Musk, recently the world’s richest man, tweeted “Gamestonk!!”, and received more than 200,000 likes. It included a link to the WallStreetBets forum on the internet message-board platform, Reddit.
WallStreetBets has become the communications hub for a phalanx of bored-at-home, stick-it-to-the-man retail traders who have cast themselves as the heroes in a David-vs.-Goliath battle against hedge funds, big banks and other avatars of America’s elite. These include the “blue checks” on Twitter , talking heads on CNBC, even Robinhood, the trading platform on which many of them had been buying options, until it halted some of those trades Thursday morning. (The financial machinations of this battle have been described in fascinating detail by my colleagues, including an interview with the man who started, then subsequently lost control of, WallStreetBets.)
But this is a tale of something much bigger and more consequential than the fate of a single stonk, I mean stock, or even, as homebound day traders look for other quick wins, a handful of them. What’s happening on WallStreetBets is of a piece with other internet phenomena, from bitcoin mania to the online conspiracy theories of QAnon, and the events leading up to the Capitol riot.
Research on how innovation happens has revealed that small groups of people, not large networks of them, are often the best at incubating new ideas, which only later spread to the world at large. But in the case of recent collective manias, people are developing ideas that may carry a kernel of truth, but are largely fictions, often crafted in defiance of authorities—and of authoritative information.
Once cultivated in small, anything-goes online forums, these fringe ideas-turned-movements are amplified by a powerful complex of social-media giants, including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube. The algorithms on these platforms that select for the most engaging content—that is, content that moves, inspires and/or terrifies us—push these notions in front of as many people as possible, and eventually into the mainstream.
This content was originally published here.