Once in a while, a story plays out that captivates us, forcing us to reflect on the state of the world. What has happened this past week in the US with Gamestop ($GME) is one such story for me.
It has caused me to reflect deeply on the direction society is taking and how professional communicators should pay close attention. There are many lessons to learn and questions to ponder.
The most powerful stories are those that are more than the sum of their parts.
I think back to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fires in London. The tower was home to mainly poorer, ethnic minority residents in the heart of one of the world's most expensive real estate neighborhoods. The catastrophic result of the building’s faulty infrastructure, and the 70 deaths it caused, became a symbol of social division in the UK.
I, like many others, felt outrage watching the tower burn like a tinderbox, wondering how such a thing was possible in our modern age. The symbolism was stark: the poor were burning in a tower in view of the 1% living around them.
This week there's been a very different but in many ways similar story playing out in the US, centred around retail company GameStop.
The flagging company, losing its customer base because computer games can simply be downloaded rather than purchased in stores, suddenly found itself at the center of the biggest financial news story in the world.
A large group of Reddit users and other public investors pushed GameStop's shares to major heights, jumping from $20 to $340 in the space of weeks, forcing Wall Street hedge fund short sellers to pay up huge sums of money. The markets watched in disbelief and panic as social media investors made the ‘meme stock’ go through the roof.
The story gripped me. It’s layered with so many signs and symbols indicating where we are in the world today, and also what it tells us about how people operate, as both individuals and within tribes.
For communicators, I think there are some very deep fundamental lessons we must take note of, namely ideas surrounding how society taps into myths, how groups of strangers can come together and risk their life-savings, how memes move billions of dollars, and how people aren't as selfish as we think.
Story and myth
For my entire career I have had to bang the drum for stories. Experts, armed with all the evidence and facts one could imagine, often sit dumbfounded that society and leaders do not act on today's crises in a logical way.
The reason is often because these experts have failed to present their truths as a compelling story. We live in a story economy: stories are what lead political, economic and social change.
Obama did not capture the imagination of the world because he spoke of cost-benefit analyses. He spoke of hope, tapping into the public's imagination.
The human race is successful because we are able to cooperate on an unlimited scale, and the thing that binds that system together is story.
Story is reality. Gods, nations, money and organizations are created and exist because billions of people have collectively agreed to believe in them.
What is striking is how similar the structure of stories are throughout history and across cultures.
Soviet scholar Vladimir Propp gathered 100 Russian fairy tales for his 1928 'The Morphology of the Folk Tale' to demonstrate how all of the story structures and cast of characters were nearly always the same. These tales, so similar across cultures, form the basis of so much of the media that we consume.
Such structures are sewn into the fabric of our cultures and are imprinted inside us starting the day we are born.
Professor Joseph Campbell also spoke to the power of myths and how they are linked to our psyches in 'A Hero with a Thousand Faces'. He mapped out the journey of the hero in stories, naming it the monomyth, later to be better known as the hero's journey:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
Campbell leaned heavily on the work of psychologist Carl Jung as he saw how story arcs were more than just entertainment. Stories develop meaning and understanding and act as our frames on the world. People need stories to make sense of the world, and indeed themselves and their place in it.
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell.
Gamestop is the title of a new myth for millions of young people.
Characters: Retail versus the suits
"Investing is not the study of finance. It's the study of how people behave with money, and sometimes those behaviours are incredible." - Morgan Housel.
Since COVID-19 hit, the New York Stock Exchange has signalled to the world that it has decoupled from the real world economy. While the US government handed out checks to help families survive, the stock market hit highs never before seen.
The public is witnessing this and, with the previous financial crises not bygone enough yet to be forgotten, has decided that the government and Wall Street are responsible for the problems in society.
Add to this a young generation that has less money and more debt than their predecessors, we are beginning to flesh out the two sides of this story. The Rebel Alliance versus The Empire, Spartacus versus the Roman Republic, Snow White versus the Wicked Witch.
Part of the recent Wall Street boom was powered by 'retail' investors - non-professional traders - using trading apps like RobinHood which had 13 million users in 2020.
The app targets young, first-time investors and uses the symbolism of Robin Hood to great effect, with the slogan 'democratizing finance for all'. Robin Hood, you will recall, is famous for taking from the rich and giving the poor - a powerful example of the anti-hero.
During the 2020 crash and subsequent boom on Wall Street, a cohort of users began to see a market that was in fact a game.
"Free money, free access, boredom paired with instant gratification - it has all the elements of appeal for a risk taking young man," Peter Atwater, expert on investor mood.
To this group, there was no relationship with economic reality and they began to play a very different game to traditional traders - Tesla being an early example of this.
Elon Musk's fledgling company caught the attention of users on the /WallStreetsBets channel on Reddit, and elsewhere.
Some hedge funds wanted to make a profit by 'shorting' Tesla - meaning the worse Tesla stocks did, the more money they would make. But there is an inverse effect on such bets: if the shorts aren't met, those same hedge funds lose their bet and have to pump more money into the stocks, making them rise. Reddit users smelled an opportunity and began pumping money into the stock.
Tesla symbolised a sci-fi future: a greener, high-tech world, taking on the established players like Ford Motors, all under the leadership of a hyper-intelligent, charismatic and eccentric chairman.
A story was neatly and perfectly formed and the stock rose from around $75 in March 2020 to $8-900 today, helping Elon Musk become the richest man on the planet. Finance reporter Matt Levine succinctly explains how this started:
"Tesla Inc. is the paradigmatic fun stock: it is run by a cartoony billionaire who sends rockets into space and messes around with flamethrowers, it has a huge and volatile valuation that often seems disconnected from its financial results, it is beloved by message-board day-traders."
There is of course more to Tesla than this - there is a strong vision.
It represents a different future and breaks from the norm, and if successful could help keep the world safer in face of climate change, and in a sleek high-tech car to boot. A vision many people can get behind because they, as a group, feel they are investing in their futures both financially and environmentally – and sticking it to the suits in the process.
Tesla traders ignored traditional valuation models - they are invested in the story. And that investment is helping make Musk's vision become reality.
Meme stocks like GameStop bring with it a myriad of myths. It is a chain many young Americans interacted with in the 90s and early 2000s, connecting with their childhoods and a different era. It was a company that was in financial strife and could perhaps be saved. It was being heavily shorted by the villainous short-sellers - the enemy.
A hero's journey was mapped out, now heroes were needed to walk the path.
Much like a fairy tale, online memes can carry more than the sum of their parts.
A meme is something that carries symbolic meaning and is deeply rooted in culture. Memes are vessels for carrying ideas, knowledge and practices and can spread either through social media shares or by being mimicked. TikTok is so successful precisely because it understands how to connect people through memes.
These vessels need seas to travel and the larger the ocean, the farther they can spread. Memes need voices.
One such voice is Twitter personality 'Davey the Day Trader' (David Portnoy). A larger-than-life character, Portnoy throws money on stocks for no other reason than that's what he feels, on a whim, because YOLO (you only live once).
“It took me a while to figure out that the stock market isn’t connected to the economy. . . . I tell people there are two rules to investing: Stocks only go up, and if you have any problems, see rule No. 1.” – David Portnoy
This is not, needless to say, wise advice. He recently lost $700,000 dollars chasing meme stock (warning: crude language).
The character of the retail bro, shouting 'stonks to the moon', was born out of stress in society.
If you are a young person, saddled with debt and a low paying job, it is comforting to hear those words from someone like Portnoy. He is unapologetically outside the system, playing with stocks, gambling on sports, and raging against the machine.
He is also tapping into popular meme culture, using language and signs that the audience use, who in turn transform Portnoy, or rather Davey the Day Trader, into a living meme. And, he's making millions of dollars doing it.
Like him or not, it's not hard to understand why he would attract a following at a time when society in the US is fracturing, and young people feel as if they will be left to pick up the remains.
Campbell spoke about people needing a hero - dead or alive - to give voice to the deeper longings they possess, and guidance on how to get out.
Icarus flew too close to the sun, while his father Daedalus flew the middle path and made it to shore. Icarus tends to be remembered, and Portnoy is certainly more of the Icarus YOLO type.
Portnoy and millions of retail investors following the /WallStreetBets channel see it as a rigged game where the real-world economy is irrelevant.
In their eyes, whenever crisis hits, the Fed pulls out its money printer and buys stocks to keep the giant Ponzi scheme alive. Therefore, ‘stonks’ will always go up and that means you should 'always by the fucking dip' (#BTFD).
Reddit user DeepFuckingValue, otherwise known as Keith Gill, a 34-year-old father who, until recently, worked in marketing for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. in marketing, is another important lead in this story.
He saw the chink in the Death Star's armour and reportedly turned $50,000 into $29 million by betting on GameStop. He shared his thesis online and thanks to platforms like Reddit and Twitter his message travelled to millions of people, making his plan become reality.
Two things are striking about him and how he is portrayed.
One, he encapsulates the 'it's not about the money' attitude. GameStop stocks have been fluctuating violently and on some days he would be losing millions of dollars. But each day, amongst his postings of cat gifs, memes and YouTube streams, he'd post a screenshot of his profits and losses, a statement to the world that it's not about the money.
If you look at the /WallStreetBets forum or search on Twitter, there is a lot of language around it being 'not about the money'. Instead, it's a statement against 'the suits' and the system. It is David versus Goliath, a moral battle.
Second is the use of signs and symbols to frame Gill as a hero.
The Wall Street Journal recently photographed him for a story in a way that could be described as 'saintly'.
Sitting at his computer, looking across the camera suggesting he has a vision, his trademark bright red Rambo bandana, and his hands on his mouse and keyboard - his weapons against the system and channel to speak to the people.
The composition and lighting gives it a slightly otherworldly feeling, that this is more than just a mere mortal. Pick any number of paintings of statues of saints and you'll see similar compositions.
Imagery also drew heavily on modern culture and mythologies.
The below example of using the style of a classic Hollywood movie poster cast Gill as the hero against the dark forces - clearly inspired by Star Wars (Elon Musk has a supporting role).
Star Wars creator George Lucas consciously leveraged mythologies and Campbell’s work, as he explained:
“It came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology… The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science fiction… so that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe's [Joseph Campbell] books. It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs… So I modified my next draft according to what I'd been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.”
A more recent icon who tapped into the socio-cultural imagination is Barrack Obama.
His most symbolic poster was recycled for the current generation who were told to 'Hold': hold the shares and hold the line against the enemy.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of such examples of stories being created.
Good stories have false heroes, and one was found last week to help add fuel to the flames. Just as it looked as if retail investors were about to take down some hedge funds, RobinHood suddenly blocked the purchasing of meme shares. They were unmasked as the false hero - not taking from the rich to give to the poor but instead a puppet of the suits.
This boosted the virality of the story and increased and entrenched its followers further.
Here's how Portnoy is framed as the leader of the /WallStreetBets crowd versus the RobinHood CEO and the system at large, using a scene from Game of Thrones.
Reality and story begin to fold in on itself and the social media hype machine began to churn out more and more memes to keep up with the surge of supporters for the cause.
Hyperreality, it seems, is becoming ever more hyper-active.
Welcome to hyperreality
Cultural theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard outlined the idea of the world living out different levels of hyperreality, a world dominated by what he described as the spectacle where what is real and what is fictional begin to blend together.
Much of what I have described above is an example of this.
A popular meme spreading on social media over the last month is using clips from the movie 'Wolf of Wall Street', the story of rogue trader Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, taking on Wall Street. This was an example of how reality and fiction was mixing - but then it went one step further with this video:
This is hyperreal: the real Belfort playing DiCaprio playing him. Reality into fiction into reality with fiction. I'm not sure if Baudrillard would be excited or scared.
People raised in the social media age are completely comfortable sailing the seas of the hyperreal.
Instagram, TikTok and Twitter enable millions of people to share memes and trends, often without knowing from where they came or even why they are doing it. It is just happens to speak to the reality they live in.
If you live in this hyperreal world, able to jump from TikTok to RobinHood in one swipe, why couldn't trading also be hyperreal? Could it not be part of the same game? Just numbers on a screen and a story to share.
While some argue that social media is a reflection of the worst of humanity, that it shows people only care about chasing likes and money, I would beg to differ.
I view what is happening now as a demonstration of people searching for meaning and community. They want places to congregate with like-minded people and to feel empowered, to feel like they have some kind of control of their own destiny, and a sense that their place in the world has some meaning.
These are all truly human desires and something is going wrong if so many young people feel these are not being met. The GameStop saga gave many a sense of taking collective action and taking back control.
In the case of Tesla, it was bringing down the bad guys and supporting the hero with a vision of a greener future. In the case of GameStop it was defending the retail chain against the evil short sellers.
People risked (and some lost) a lot of money in these endeavours, and many of them felt the ticket to participate was a price worth paying to feel part of this movement, this story.
Cryptocurrency works in a similar way. People can push against it but if enough people believe in Bitcoin, it becomes reality.
What this demonstrates is that people aren't turning inwards. They are not selfishly looking to make their own way. Many are in fact desperate to feel part of something that makes a difference.
How do we move forward?
Martin Gurri's 'The Revolt of the Public' explores how ordinary people in recent years are now actively trying to take down authorities. This, he says, is due to a tsunami of information which is fracturing cultures into broken pieces.
2001 was a turning point in human history. It was the year when humanity produced more information in 12 months than in the whole of human history prior. 2002 doubled the amount created in 2001.
Information changes hearts and minds, and since the early 2000s the information tsunami has left those in power all across the world in crises, sweeping away control of how information moved, once vested in authority as a scare resource.
The public unites when going against established ruling institutions, according to Gurri. Yet they often offer no alternative. Destruction, he says, is progress for the public.
I would counter that people do want an alternative, but they struggle to find a powerful myth to get behind. Simon Sarris' book 'In Praise of the Gods' offers some light at the end of the tunnel in this regard.
In earlier times, those who could access schooling had mythological education. Mythologies like those of heroes in Greece were used to teach understanding, values, and help develop intuition.
Stories like these create meaning across many levels, and it is important that due time is spent reading the stories, and soaking up the images, metaphors, and allegories.
Without this, says Sarris, it is not only difficult to build intuition, but it is also difficult to learn how to learn and to reason. Every child, for example, will read 100 stories that teach them about the unintended consequences of any action, something years of modern schooling will fail to achieve.
“Myths give us shared art and common culture—a set of characters with which we can play in and enjoy together. In any culture rich with myths, their vocabulary is enlarged far beyond words, to allegories and metaphors. The quality of thought follows.” - Simon Sarris
Great stories have a deep value and we have been taking them for granted for too long. George Lucas saw the importance of such values and that is why Star Wars endures.
This puts the spotlight on communication professionals like us and how we read these messages and how we create stories. Memes may seem trivial and light, but if we pay close enough attention and cast our nets wide, we will begin to see what stories and myths are being built in society today.
There is a gap that needs filling inside millions of people.
Joseph Campbell said that we lost the power of myth in the modern world, and that is leading to feelings of strife and lostness among young people. It's striking to see how young people today flock to flawed characters like Jordan Peterson and how books about Stoicism are flying off the shelves.
Ultimately, this teaches us that we need to take more seriously how younger generations communicate with each other and work harder to understand what the story behind the story truly is.