In early 2021, a group of retail investors realized that GameStop shares had been recklessly over-shorted by major investors. Big funds, certain that the retailer was about to collapse, had shorted 140 percent of the company’s entire public shareholding. Individuals, who co-ordinated their efforts via a subreddit called r/WallStreetBets, knew that they could exploit this vulnerability. They bought up all of the outstanding GameStop stock and drove up the price, forcing the big funds to pay over the odds to avoid losing a fortune when their bet spectacularly backfired.
It’s this story that is outlined, more or less, in MSNBC’s new documentary, Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets, which debuted at SXSW 2022. It tells the story from the perspective of some of the individuals who signed up early and held on to their stake. Some used the squeeze to make a fortune, while others came away with a more modest, but still fantastic, profit. The decision to focus on these personal stories makes for an engaging tale at the human level, albeit one that’s very one-sided.
The film’s general thesis is that the short squeeze took place mostly thanks to the internet and what it has enabled. Without Reddit to coordinate the trades and Robinhood acting, at least at first, as a way around the stuffed-shirt brokerages, none of this would have happened. There is a suggestion that people were motivated to get into investing as a consequence of the stimulus checks. Which I don’t agree with, mostly because people weren’t sinking thousands of dollars into GameStop if all they had was a spare $600 to their name.
It also affords, as far as I’m concerned, a surprising amount of time to talk about the broken social contract most millennials feel hurt by. As useless as the term is, since “millennial” means anyone aged 26 to 41, it’s weird to see MSNBC allowing those under 50 to talk about their plight. Perhaps this marks a new and refreshing change as people who have lived through the last twenty years of utter turmoil are now deemed respectable enough to appear on the news.
The other noticeable thing is the lack of expert commentary from the usual types of Very Serious Men in Finance. The big money fund-types that lost their shirts on GameStop chose not to appear in the film, and so their story isn’t told here. Similarly, you get about five sentences from Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, who became the internet’s most hated figure when his app chose to restrict trading on the platform, potentially prematurely ending the GameStop squeeze. The inequitable screen time makes the documentary’s coverage of some of the major players fairly merciless. Given Robinhood’s launch coincided with SXSW in 2015, it’s interesting to watch nearly 90 minutes of people saying that the app screwed them over at the same festival seven years later. We also don't get to speak to Keith Gill who, as Roaring Kitty, was at the heart of the effort to craft the initial short squeeze.
There is one annoyance that it’s worth being aware of is the film’s decision to create a visual style that apes the language of Reddit memes. Lots of gaudy iconography, remixes of old viral videos and the sort of amateur kitsch awfulness you see a lot online. It reminded me of an experiment Charlie Brooker did on the excesses of youth TV. He piled a bunch of teenagers into a screening room and told them to signal when they got bored while they watched a bunch of clips from screechy, in-your-face teen TV shows. What held them in rapt attention, however, was a sequence from an Adam Curtis documentary, with its slow narration and lack of any visual pizzazz. The point being that just because a subject deals with kitschy, out-there imagery from the internet, you don't need to jazz up the visuals to make your story entertaining.
Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets premieres on MSNBC on April 10th at 10pm ET.