The steady drumbeat of the retail trading revolution has been hard to ignore. Thanks to new investment apps like Robinhood, whose mission is “to democratize finance for all,” a new generation of investors, largely young men who populated subreddits like r/WallStreetBets and Discord servers, are rolling the dice in America's next-gen casino, using one-click trades as the next get-rich-quick opportunity. Crucially, this new wave of investors has also produced a new, meme-fied financial lexicon that’s helped to, as Rebecca Jennings at Vox put it recently, “blur the boundaries between what constitutes investing and what constitutes entertainment.”
Investors aren’t looking to financial advice from Charles Schwab or even the E-Trade baby for that matter, they’re eagerly awaiting the price of Dogecoin to move thanks to an Elon Musk appearance on SNL or making a cryptocurrency out of thin air just to troll a congressman who asked, “Will mongoose coin kill crypto coin?” In a couple of days, the coin had a market cap of $18.74 million with under 3,000 holders.
You can’t talk about the new, gonzo era of money—and the language that legitimizes it—without a mention of cryptocurrency, since the two have essentially formed a symbiotic relationship. As the crypto market ballooned to a $3 trillion valuation in March of 2022 (greater than the GDP of the United Kingdom), investors proved eager to dive into new, unregulated financial markets that were a far cry from conventional investment strategies and portfolios. Financial independence is certainly a key incentive for many newcomers (just ask any FinTok influencer claiming that you, too, can fully finance your house with crypto), but so is the pure entertainment value and the supposed allure of being part of a “community.”
A new generation of investors, largely young men who populated subreddits like r/WallStreetBets and Discord servers, are rolling the dice in America's next-gen casino, using one-click trades as the next get-rich-quick opportunity.- Eli Williams, D1A
Investors are concocting new phrases and financial buzzwords in order to build a culturally relevant fandom around finance. Across message boards and private Discord servers, investors boasted of “HODLing” (holding on for dear life) with “diamond hands” (someone who has a high risk tolerance and doesn’t cave under pressure) after they “YOLO’d” their way into buying up coins with no intrinsic value whatsoever. The irony was these were glorified pump-and-dump schemes backed by C-list celebrities that would make the original Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort gush—he’s getting into crypto, too.
Some got rich, for sure, but a vast majority of people have been absolutely burned, causing a flurry of lawsuits from plaintiffs who allege that some digital coins were hyped and sold under false pretenses. Take the most recent and high profile example of a crypto nosedive, Luna and UST, which plummeted 98% in value in late May 2022. Created by flamboyant and controversial founder Do Kwon—who also named his daughter “Luna” after the currency—the stablecoin had amassed legions of fans, or “lunatics.” Now these lunatics are reeling from a $68 billion market drop off.
Volatility is the only constant in the crypto game, and a key factor in their popularity. But are you really thinking of the financial implications when investing in something called “$FEG” (an acronym for “feed every gorilla” that was billed as the “The COOLEST, NEWEST crypto for 💎🤲 DIAMOND HANDS 💎🤲 ) or $SQUID (inspired by the hit Netflix show Squid Game)? Is investing in “MiamiCoin”, a city-branded cryptocurrency invented to help augment the city’s revenue streams, really the best way to fund public services? Should a sovereign nation with a vast history of corruption really be “buying the dip?” (That is, buying an asset once its price has fallen in hopes that you’ll profit off of its rise).
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the new language conceived to popularize crypto and investing has in large part just acted to gamify unregulated speculative assets and high-risk behavior, abetting investors to lose large sums of money, celebrities to skirt criticism for endorsing “assets” with questionable utility and brands to dive into the deep end—accepting rogue cryptocurrencies and rolling out crypto-branded products without full knowledge of the financial implications.
Helping to legitimize this financial fugue state are buzzy new platforms like crypto.com, Binance and FTX, founded by Allbirds-wearing 30-somethings, each of which has quickly gained unparalleled influence in the global financial system. Crypto enthusiasts usually tout the technology’s speed, accessibility and decentralization (all cryptocurrency lives on the blockchain, meaning it is unregulated by a singular governing body), but these platforms aren’t selling a technology, they’re selling FOMO. In an ad for Crypto.com, a deepfake LeBron James proclaims, “If you want to make history, you got to call your own shots,” while Larry David’s extremely Curb-like FTX spot follows him throughout history as he minimizes and mocks some of the most influential inventions to date. The end card reads, “Don’t be like Larry.”
That’s all fun and nice, except for the fact that David, deepfake James and the coterie of crypto evangelists aren’t disclosing any financial risks or implications, and are also getting paid in $USD rather than the coin they’re endorsing.
According to the FTC, investors have lost one billion in crypto scams over the last 15 months, and as the crypto dialect seeps into the mainstream, regulators are starting to take notice, even as the crypto lobby attempts to line politicians’ pockets. The SEC has even put out a new ad campaign that “uses a game show concept to educate investors in a playful way that investing is not a game and that they should do their due diligence when making investment decisions.” The game show is plastered with phrases like “crypto to the moon,” “celebrity endorsements” and “FOMO,” pleading with investors to “do your own research”—a phrase that has, unfortunately, also been co-opted by the crypto world.
The ways in which consumers are being presented with new investment opportunities, whether via flashy crypto platforms, FinTok influencers, apps that claim banks are “cheugy” or even the SEC, are dramatically altering investment behaviors and downsizing risk. Perhaps it's the widespread fetishization of scamming, the sisyphean embrace of the absurd or the growing sense of nihilism, but one thing is for sure—the way that cryptocurrencies, and finance at-large is being presented to us is a feature of our new system, not a bug.