It’s January 27, 2017, and over 15,000 YouTube viewers watch as a man in a wolf mask gambles away his inheritance.
The man in the wolf mask goes by the name “fscomeau,” and he’s already lost over $1.5 million with ill-timed market bets, which he posts to Reddit over a period of two years. Today, for his “final YOLO” (a big, ridiculous, potentially life-destroying gamble) he has shorted Apple stock, and is live-streaming himself as he waits to know if the bet will pay off.
It doesn’t: Apple recovers and rises by 3 percent. “Fscomeau” starts shouting “No” and “What the fuck.” He mutters, “Oh no, oh god.” He shrieks in agony and throws his phone, blasting a tinny version of Katy Perry’s “Firework,” on the floor. His reaction is captured in myriad “Epic trader fail meltdown” videos, drawing users to his favourite subreddit, /r/Wallstreetbets, where this kind of behaviour is apparently normal.
In the past /r/Wallstreetbets has been portrayed as Reddit’s riskiest, troll-iest stock trading community (the subreddit's tagline: “It’s like 4chan found a Bloomberg Terminal”), a place of sick gains and staggering losses, online bravado and real life trades, where the burn-it-all nihilist of 4chan is obliged to put their money where their mouth is.
But is /r/Wallstreetbets really as YOLO as it seems? “Fscomeau” later revealed his trading career to have been a long-running, extravagantly detailed hoax. Between the layers of in-jokes and YOLO traders, it’s hard to know how much of the sub is actually real.
Initially, when I approach the mods of /r/Wallstreetbets for an interview they respond with dick jokes and requests for verification (“Can you please submit a picture of yourself nude holding up two tiki torches?”). But when I join one of their IRC channels the conversation turns abruptly sincere. Most members, the mods say, avoid hyped-up “meme stock” and only make a few risky trades per year. They also suspect that a great deal of the wins posted there are faked using Photoshop. The reckless image is created by newbies, dilettantes who flock to the sub to get rich quick. “They’re like lemmings falling off a cliff” says one mod, using the name “1.”
The mods tell me that /r/Wallstreetbets was founded by one of their team, “Jartek,” in 2012, after he was run out of /r/investing for advocating risky bets. The rivalry lives on today and extends to other finance-related subs.
“We think a lot of people in /r/investments are idiots,” said one moderator, “swiss.”
“And they think we’re idiots,” adds another, “TK.” “It’s mutual disrespect.”
Yet another mod, “Damsol,” tells me “/r/stocks is a bunch of cunts with ponzie schemes,” while “1” sums up their ethos as such: “r/finance is filled with ‘average’ people. WSB [Wallstreetbets] would rather die than be average.”
Newbies are directed to a Discord channel, where they maintain an archive of rare Pepe memes, along with plans for the economy of Kekistan, 4chan’s fictional nation of shitposters. Long-term members, meanwhile, operate across a network of private IRCs, and this is where the mods claim the real action of /r/Wallstreetbets takes place. “We’ve had people go to jail,” claims “Swiss.” “1” adds, “There’s been blackmail, SEC investigations, insider trading, false identities, fake trades… A lot goes on behind the scenes.”
They also claim the IRC has been infiltrated by feds, and that the subreddit has its own legal team. “FXZombie,” another mod, tells me the legal team “is quality. They are barred in many states.”
It’s hard to believe anything /r/Wallstreetbets' mods claim, not least because they don’t even trust other people using the subreddit not to fake their wins by Photoshopping screengrabs. Hyperbole is custom here, and trolling is standard; the “history” of the sub is detailed in the “WSB Weekly Herald” (produced quarterly, rather than weekly), a fictional newsletter which details an elaborate chase scene with John MacAfee and tales of Martin Shkreli’s adventures behind bars.
It is failure which endears WSB members to each other: for all the bravado, the pervading tone is one of dejection, neurosis, and commiseration.
Shkreli-worship is especially strong on this sub. /r/Wallstreetbets’ prodigious increase in subscribers between 2016 and now—from just under 13,000 in mid-2015, to 197,700+ at the time of writing—mirrors the rise to infamy of their “Pharma Bro” poster boy, who rumours claim was once one of /r/Wallstreetbets’ moderators. They pray to Martin Shkreli. They personally identify with him, and long for his release from prison. “He’s a self-aware, arrogant asshole, which is how a lot of WSB members view themselves,” “Swiss” explains. “TK,” who links to a picture of his “FREE MARTIN” T-shirt, says, “He’s a real-life experiment of what happens when a channer makes millions of dollars.”
/r/Wallstreetbets is like a scrappier, more foul-mouthed version of the startup community, where the rate of failure is placed as high as 90 percent. The startup world, with its seeming preoccupation with the repeated-ad-infinitum Beckett quote, “Fail again, fail better,” paints failure as a trophy, a way to gain entry to the club. Similarly, taking risks is how you make a name for yourself on /r/Wallstreetbets, even if they don’t pay off. There’s an undercurrent of gallows humour—quite literally, as members make constant reference to investing in “$ROPE”’—with frank discussion of losses and their emotional fallout. If we’re to take this as a predominantly young, male sub (and it would appear to be just that), then /r/Wallstreetbets reveals something interesting about online masculinity: that it’s OK to lose face, provided some idiot a few comments up has made an even worse mistake than yours.
The trading floor and the seedy “boiler room” have given way to people sitting alone at their computers, using online forums to share the emotional ups and downs of the stock market, the proverbial mixture of greed and fear, to which we can now add a near-pathological need for trolling. “I think WSB happened because most people are terminal traders,” a mod called “SwineFluPandemic” tells me in a Reddit message, painting the subreddit as a place where people go mostly to commiserate on their losses. “I think of trading like getting leprosy. Once someone has the bug you have no idea if they'll make it. Sometimes it costs them an arm and a leg.”
Rather than success, it is failure which endears WSB members to each other: for all the bravado, the pervading tone is one of dejection, neurosis, and commiseration. The reactions to “Fscomeau”s faked tales of woe illustrate this. Under one post, titled “Can’t stop crying,” commenters try to comfort him: “Shit happens. I know we joke around here and on WSB a lot but if you're really feeling bad man, hmu we can talk about it,“ one says. “Don't do anything you'll regret.”
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