January 2021 saw not one but two semi-spontaneously mobilised armies of radicals take on the US establishment.
On 6 January a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the White House.
Their actions were violent and surreal by turns. Lawmakers hid under their desks. The US Capitol was locked down. Several people died.
On 28 January traders from a popular subReddit drove up the share price of troubled US retailer GameStop to near-$500, from less than $20 weeks earlier.
They’d already caused one hedge fund to seek a $2.8bn bailout. Soon brokers were shutting down trading in GameStop, citing a threat to their platform’s operational viability. Meanwhile the market was tanking and there was talk of a revolution on Wall Street.
Whose riot is it anyway?
Depending on what gets your juices going, you may see my associating these two events as offensive in one of many different ways.
Some people will see good – ordinary traders taking on hedge funds – lumped in with evil – right-wing fanatics attacking democracy.
Some will see freedom fighters – battling for a different election result – versus greed – boys in their basements getting rich quick.
Alternatively you may see similarities between the principle agents, but they too will be contrary to the similarities seen by others.
Maybe you see the same angry white male faces in both groups asserting excess privilege.
Or sex-less young men unfairly demoted by society, casting about for meaning.
Or a pandemic that’s made all kinds of people lose touch with reality.
Or a shared frustration with the 1% capturing 99% of wealth creation.
And so on.
How can we all think so different about the same reality – let alone the (il)legitimacy of the events themselves?
Rage in cahoots with the machines
We all know by now the answer is social networks and echo chambers.
Did Trump incite the Washington rioters? Hard to see it otherwise from here.
But his words fell on ears that had selectively funnelled a distinct view of the world to the brains between them for years.
Fermenting a well-fertilised conspiracy myth whose time had come.
Were those amateur traders really trying to strike back against Wall Street and revenge the financial crisis?
That rhetoric pervaded their posts and interviews, even if to outsiders it looked like an old style pump-and-dump. It’s not obvious why they’d say it if they didn’t believe it.
Both groups inhabited online spaces with particular self-evident truths, immutable laws, creation stories, and private jargon.
Which brings me to what these events really have in common.
Tik tok boom
Forget your own version of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Let’s get down to the technicalities.
Because what I perceive are two civic spectaculars spun-out of the unrelenting iterations of algorithms.
Algorithms that forever sift, test, promote, highlight, and propagate the most compelling narratives that emerge about all our social ills.
Making the best – most transmissible – story stick within different self-selected communities.
Creating feedback loops that encourage us to pile-in and promote, highlight, and propagate whatever best fits our own evolving intolerance about how the handbasket is hell-bound.
Hitherto most of the fallout from this sort of thing has been suffered by individuals in the form of online persecution.
Women harassed, threatened, and driven offline or worse by battalions of angry gamers, many of whom apparently believed they were just standing up for unbiased journalism.
Or woke students righteously de-platforming academics and others whose opinions or work falls outside of what their faction currently deems to be a speakable truth.
This was quite terrifying enough. (All that protects anyone from an online hate mob is good luck and obscurity.)
But with the White House insurrection and the GameStop short squeeze, we can see the invisible hands of these algorithms mobilising real-world happenings on a grander scale.
Not through any conspiracy or masterplan.
Just as a by-product of totally understandable commercial imperatives.
This may seem fanciful.
There are deep political divisions in the US, after all. And there have been frothy share discussion boards for decades.
History is replete with semi-spontaneous uprisings, too.
What’s different, you might ask, except for faster and wider communications, and the much deeper integration of the substrate by which these narratives spread into our daily live?
The phones we carry everywhere at all times in our pockets and purses? And check first thing in the morning and last at night?
That host the online platforms some of us seem to derive our sense of self from?
Well that’s plenty enough.
But I also think a big difference is there’s an aimlessness – literally – to all this which is different to say the civil rights battles of the 1960s or boiler room schemes that profit from the rise and fall of penny stocks.
From what I could tell from the news reports, for every super-pumped, weapon-toting rioter at the White House, there were two or three who appeared to be playing some kind of far right-wing LARP.
Photographing the sights, the flags.
Queuing to take part in the insurrection like tourists at Disneyland.
Equally, little thought had been given as to what was supposed to happen next when the GameStop share price did soar 70-fold and hedge funds started faltering.
Very few of the traders (at least of those who made it to the top of up-ranking discussion algorithms) talked about selling at the highs.
They had ‘diamond hands’ and would hold until GameStop doubled again and again.
And, um, again?
Boring old farts like me warned that a short squeeze is finite, and that you didn’t want to be holding the bag when the move turned.
I guess our dull story was slow to go viral.
Days when decades happen
Viewed through this lens, such events seem like almost random happenings that emerge from the excesses of social media mechanics.
With participants who mostly never set out to end up there.
True, perhaps this isn’t entirely unprecedented.
It took months for the French revolutionaries to decide what to do with King Louis XVI once they had him, for instance.
And that revolution continued along its murderous way in unscripted chaos for years.
Maybe the real difference is just that these things seem to pop-up and attract global attention within weeks, rather than over decades.
Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was published in 1867. More than 50 years passed before the Bolshevik’s established the Soviet Union – communism’s first State-level touchdown – in Russia.
You wonder if it would now take a summer.
Then again, there’s a lot else to be going on with these days.
Every week some new unparalleled mania.
Maybe what protects us is the sheer noise of it all. A new Marx might not be heard for long enough for anyone to really listen.
Or maybe it would happen quicker, like everything else does these days, as we spin towards the singularity?
If that thought bubbles to the top of global consciousness, just remember you heard it here first.
p.s. A friend mentioned the Arab Spring of late 2010 when we talked about this theory. My memory was it had involved more peer-to-peer communication – direct messages between young people – rather than having been nurtured by algorithms. It seems social media played some disputed role, however. So this has potentially been going on for a decade.