Imagined Digital Communities

Aebjohn Tomas
4 min readMar 22, 2021

The Gamestop saga is the sign of an awakening. Wall Street Bets, or “The Redditors’’ as they’ve been dubbed in the mainstream media, are not just some niche, fringe online community. They are the manifestation of a shared consciousness between different digitally-native groups. With the average age of a Robinhood user being 31, the members of this imagined community lived through the Web 2.0 period of low interest rates, digitization, and the growth of social media. As such, their anti-short movement too is uniquely digitally-native. Whereas preceding mob-like events sparked by social media translated into physical action, the short squeeze orchestrated by WSB was solely in Amazon’s public cloud.

In the words of anthropologist and linguist Benedict Anderson, “communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness, but in the style in which they are imagined.” While it’s impossible for each Reddit user and/or $GME buyer to know one other, they believe in their shared communion. They are the unified front against the malicious hedge fund shorts. Just as individuals were willing to die for their nation, today’s digitally-native folks are willing to risk their personal capital — in some cases their life savings — just to stick it to the Wall Street “suits.” In this instance, the WSB avatar and the phrase “Diamond Hands” resemble the conventional flag and anthem.

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

“It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

- Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities

In his seminal text, Anderson attributed the growth of “national consciousness” to the printing press. Written texts, first and foremost, were platforms that facilitated a unified medium of exchange. Consuming the same physical printed media made it easy for different groups to perceive their communal belonging. Secondly, texts gave “a new fixity” to language. As such, notions of antiquity or the past had a frame of reference only limited to these texts. Finally, “print capitalism,” subsequently gave rise to a dominant language, rendering more localized dialects secondary.

Similarly, memes have catalyzed the emergence of a digitally-native consciousness. Just like books and newspapers, memes serve as a standardized platform for communication. We see the image of the air balloon man in a suit and the phrase “Stonks” automatically comes to mind. Michael Bloomberg even tried to pay for memes during his short-lived 2020 Presidential campaign. Memes are in fact essential to the delivery of news for some of the most popular business newsletters today, such as the Morning Brew with over 2 million subscribers. Furthermore, just as different text-based storytelling arcs are rehashed, the same trending images are reused many times over to convey different message themes. Consequently, I believe that memes as an idea delivery format have ignited the same type of fundamental belief in a common existence as print media.

Screenshot: https://www.instagram.com/p/B8fR4xnlqw6/?utm_source=ig_embed

Source: Instagram (@Tank.Sinatra)

Communicating the potential conflicting incentives in Robinhood’s payment for order flow business model.

Source: Morning Brew Twitter

Furthermore, thanks to the creativity unleashed on the Internet, memes are in constant production. This means that the memes themselves have become temporal frames of reference. Just take a look at Time Magazine’s 2020 in memes. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying that they’ve become cultural signposts. From political blunders to iconic movie character expressions, they are markers for certain noteworthy moments in the shared history of the internet. For example, memes produced over the COVID-19 pandemic period document and convey different snippets of cultural information to those posted in the early days of Reddit. Rickrolling circa 2008 versus Jonathan Swan’s confused gaze in 2020. In that regard, memes will inescapably be an integral source to historians crafting the storytelling narrative of Web 2.0 and beyond.

The Andersonian view on memes and stock trading yields a specific perspective that does not simply revert to narratives of social media virality and amplification. There is indeed an ongoing melange of profound technological, economic, and cultural shifts. The communication of these changing paradigms through a new idea delivery format is resulting in a meaningful manifestation of a digitally-native shared consciousness. Memes are essential components to the infrastructure of our financialized culture stack. The memeification of “YOLO” investing coupled with a passionate disdain for institutional financial actors is collectively effervescent, particularly for the individuals in WSB’s digitally imagined community. They truly buy into the greater purpose driving their — at least by conventional wisdom — seemingly irrational deployment of personal capital.

Special thanks to Cameron Lowry & Ben Miller for reviewing.

--

--

Aebjohn Tomas

Tech. History. Healthcare. UChicago Senior. VC Fellow @ Dipper. Incoming @ J.P. Morgan. More about me: aebjohn.github.io