The stock market is Netflix now

When I started writing this, Gamestop stock was at $347 a share. It’s now at $103, still way up from $21 a month ago. If you’ve missed this story about how Redditors pumped a video game retailer up to a $24 billion market cap during a global pandemic, here’s a recap.

Judging by the flood of explainer pieces, many people are confused about how a seemingly random stock could explode like Gamestop has over the past week. This is understandable. From a financial markets perspective, in which stocks are supposed to reflect a company’s perceived value based on past performance and projected earnings, it doesn’t make any sense. But when you consider how everything else on the internet works, it starts to look very familiar.

How do we pick shows to watch on Netflix? Often it comes down to what’s new and prominent on the homepage, that fresh Netflix Original everyone’s talking about on social media. We watch the thing that everyone’s watching, because we want to be part of the conversation. Think Tiger King. Everyone watches these shows and moves on; they’re a collective fascination that arise for no clear reason then fade away.

The Gamestop situation has worked in much the same way. There are plenty of narratives about why the people buying Gamestop are doing it — collective action to stick it to hedge funds, pandemic-fueled boredom, memes. But regardless of the driving principles, buying Gamestop at this point has become, at its core, a social experience. Buying Gamestop stock is entering a community. The analogy breaks down a little here, because people are also making buckets of money trading this stock. But they can only do that because everyone’s talking about it, deciding to collectively focus their attention on this particular company.

In both cases, people come together for a social experience centered around a discrete digital product. It doesn’t matter if it’s a television series or an extremely risky call option, we all decide to fix our attention, time, and money on that one thing instead of any other thing online. And in both cases, there’s not really a good reason for deciding on one object of fixation over another. Just like everyone has an explanation for the Gamestop trading activity, there were plenty of reasons you could come up with for Tiger King’s early pandemic popularity. These are post-hoc explanations. We all could just as easily have picked another show, another stock, and the supposed driving factors of our fascination wouldn’t carry over at all. Digital attention coalesces and dissipates with an unparsable rhythm.

Here’s the big takeaway: It’s not just Netflix, it’s not just meme stocks. This is how everything on the internet works now. Look at video games, where years-old titles Among Us and Rust have exploded in popularity. Look at the random Amazon products that ripple across TikTok. Every trend now looks like people — whether a large group or a small set of influencers — suddenly deciding to latch onto something, at random, without any clear antecedent.

This makes “manipulation” possible in anything that happens online. Imagine that, instead of pumping stocks, Redditors decided to make Netflix original show “Friends from College” the most watched television program of all time. Or, that the Indianapolis Star should have more readers than the New York Times. Admittedly, the profit incentive in those latter cases is less clear. But at its core, the process works the same way. Redditors are pumping a stock price, but below that, they’re pumping attention. They’re demonstrating a general process by which groups can inflate the very real metrics —stock prices, watch time, pageviews — that fuel organizations’ decisions. The exact same process that’s catapulting Gamestop to the moon works for anything else we do as a group online.

Most importantly, nobody understands what’s going on anymore. Understanding what’s happening, or what will happen in the near future, is nearly impossible when people are influenced by some mysterious soup of group behavior and algorithms. When the stock market halts trading because Reddit users with names like potato_in_my_ass decided Gamestop should be a $50 billion company, nothing is supposed to make sense anymore. We’re all just along for the ride, waiting to latch on to the next wave of attention.

PhD student @ Northwestern University. I worked in digital media, now I study it.

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