the limit should exist

musings on the gamestop saga, casino capitalism, invite-only newsletters, and radical content

I was first introduced to the mathematical concept of exponential growth as a 15-year-old. My half-developed teenage brain found it not just confusing, but unsustainable — this notion of infinity, even in symbolic shorthand. The perduring nature of these equations and their U-shaped curves unsettled me, and after high school, I was no longer required to think about abstract math. But the idea of untenable growth remained pervasive in my life.

Growth — which does not always occur at an exponential rate — is replicated in Americans’ most temporal pursuits: the accumulation of wealth, knowledge, work experience, and social media followers. Limitless economic growth is a fallacy, yet the current state of American capitalism depends on it. (A finance professor argues that efficiency and innovation is crucial to capitalism, not growth. Right.) Even at a personal level, I find myself subsumed by it: Why do I expect my social media following, like my 401K savings, to steadily grow year after year? Can I be a creative, productive human without ascribing to the language of “self-growth” and personal improvement? How do I “grow” as a writer?

This week’s gen yeet is on limitless growth — the Gamestop saga, investments, and the future of capitalism; the editorial gamble over e-mail newsletters as the Next Big Thing; and “Radical Content” by artist and researcher Joshua Citarella.

The kids are capitalists — or more capitalist than you think

It has been quite a week for the stock market. (Please read an explainer on the Gamestop saga before you continue.) In the last edition of gen yeet, we presciently discussed the prevalence of investing apps among Zoomers, notably Robinhood.

Sure enough, a number of Zoomers were among the cohort of amateur (mostly male) investors that pumped money into $GME, as chronicled by NYT’s Taylor Lorenz and Mike Isaac: “Their motivations run the gamut: Many are unapologetic, cash-seeking capitalists. Some consider themselves idealists, would-be 99 percenters who were too young to occupy Wall Street in the movement’s heyday. Some are nihilists who simply want to tear down a system they feel is rigged against them from the start. Then there are those kids just doing it ‘for the lulz.’”

Like every subculture in the internet era, trading enthusiasts have gathered on chat platforms like Discord or message boards like Reddit to share their gains and exchange knowledge, from personal finance tips to advice on which stocks to invest in. The Gamestop saga — like many other instances of organized online mob activity — briefly jolted the system to the delight of many, but it did little to alter the dynamics of Wall Street. Thousands of small traders managed to pump their money into $GME and cash in whilst declaring “Fuck Wall Street,” before Robinhood trammeled their efforts.

[Recommended reading: The GameStop Madness Isn’t David vs. Goliath — It’s Goliath vs. Goliath]

It was real “robin hood shit,” but it was far from anti-capitalist. The New Republic published a smart piece on how the event brought attention to “the blatant absurdities of casino capitalism.” Yet, this once-in-a-decade “short squeeze,” prompted by Redditors on r/WallStreetBets, has likely piqued the attention of thousands of potential investors, most of whom are young, eager, and intent on making money.

The appeal of Robinhood is not that users will be able to take from the rich to give to the poor; believers in the stock market see it as a means of self-enrichment, in spite of its many fluctuations. Robinhood has made institutionalized investments much more accessible to a young generation of investors, but greater financial understanding does not always correspond to greater financial freedom. It’s often the small traders who are losing capital and are prompted to keep investing more money, in the hopes of climbing out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. In other words, it’s gambling, and the stock market — and the institutionalized financial systems that operate within it and grant it legitimacy — is the casino. On Twitter, financial analysts and onlookers alike remain doubtful about whether retail investors can hold up against Wall Street in the long term. The thing is, many young people do realize it is a game. The appeal is that if you’re good at the game or play it safely, you can profit from it. There are always losers, though.

It’s easy to decry capitalism as a cool young person in a neighborhood dive bar, especially if you live in a semi-gentrified part of Brooklyn or Portland or Austin. People wear their politics on tote bags and Carthartt beanies, but many also have inherited bonds and stock portfolios managed by their parents for years. But for those without generational wealth, it seems foolish not to play the game. Limitless growth is appealing when you have little to start with and little to gamble upon. On Clubhouse, an audio-based social media app, its top clubs are related to financial literacy, wealth-building, and smart investing. Some of these rooms are specifically created for Black users and people of color with the intent of democratizing finance.

It’s a paradox many of my peers contend with, as we wonder whether the investment decisions we make in our early 20s will be enough to sustain us 10, 20, or 30 years into the future. What will be the state of Earth and humankind by 2057, when I’m old enough to withdraw from my retirement accounts without penalty? Yet, the desire for growth persists, constrained by time and one’s current financial resources. (Those with more can invest more and likely reap more.)

In Mary Retta’s meditations on time, she writes: “To labor under capitalism is to enter negotiations between the arbitrary construction of money and time. It is to be asked: How much is 60 minutes of survival worth to you? And to answer, for how long must I labor to earn the right to survive?” This is an elaborate thread to pull from the GameStop saga, but hey, nothing like a Reddit-induced earthquake to make us question the legitimacy of Wall Street and what it all is worth.

n (ewsletters) → ∞

Big Tech wants in on newsletters. Twitter has purchased the newsletter service Revue, and Facebook is reportedly planning to launch a similar tool. It seems that nowadays, writers are more likely to have a Substack than a functioning website. How long can this pivot to email last, really? I’m no business whiz, but how does the over-saturation of the newsletter market help anyone, including subscribers, who have to individually pay $5/month for the rest of eternity to support their favorite reporters and writers and thought-leaders? These are just hypothetical questions — Mark is the media reporter, not me — and I don’t really worry about newsletter plenitude, since gen yeet is just my side hustle. But even in recent months, I’ve felt pressured to subsist on a steady publishing schedule, to write about topics that are of current public interest, or to uphold the nonexistent editorial standards I’ve set out for this newsletter.

My solution? Write more, but for a select audience. Enter: My invite-only newsletter on Asian girl culture, over lychee martinis. I wrote the first two entries in a manic haze, treating it like a Tumblr blog-slash-private journal. I don’t properly capitalize and am appropriately vulgar. Intriguing? Sorry, subscriptions are closed, although I’ll consider if you ask nicely. My intro blog received 45 likes, which is significantly more engagement than any of my public newsletter posts. I was hooked. Thanks for the idea, Rachel Tashjian. (Her newsletter Opulent Tips is actually, like, exclusive. I’m just feigning exclusivity. Sort of.)

As a writer with many years of writing and re-writing left, the idea of limitless growth should be appealing. In an ideal world, I will have time to hone my craft and draw in more readers, but that means welcoming more people to perceive and judge my work. I recently read a passage of “Why Write?” in which Sartre claims that readers are a necessary extension of the writing process: “It is not true that one writes for [her]self … The creative act is only an incomplete and abstract moment in the production of a work … It is the conjoint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others.”

An invite-only newsletter might seem counterintuitive to that mission of collaboration, but perhaps I am tired of the possibility of being read by an amorphous, potentially limitless audience. Maybe that’s why people create Finstas or FikFoks (although FikFoks are used to build… even bigger audiences). The desire to shitpost is always overwhelming. If newsletters are prime real estate for reader eyeballs, maybe it’s time to go private.

Letter of recommendation

The recommendation: Radical Content, a mini trend report by Joshua Citarella, an internet culture researcher and artist. Citarella has independently published reports on the internet, social media, and their impact on cultural production, and is perhaps one of the most astute observers of Gen Z’s online behavior.

The rundown: In a 10-page PDF, Citarella argues that the pandemic, its socioeconomic consequences, and the lack of effective political organizations have expedited the radicalization of Gen Z. While he presents a tiered inverted triangle with six stages — mainstream, culture, advocacy, organization, extremism, and insurrection — he believes that the current political atmosphere is fast-tracking young people towards successive radical stages. It’s something that platforms can try to slow (through deplatforming or algorithmic tweaks), but ultimately, Citarella’s conclusion is that “no amount of content moderation can solve a material problem.”

The takeaway: Citarella doesn’t present many examples of how the “advocacy” or “organization” stages are being dissolved. These groups are crucial for coalition-building and grassroots mobilization efforts (as we saw in Georgia), but perhaps his assessment is exclusively focused on online Zoomer political behavior. Personally, the most interesting takeaway is Citarella’s prediction that political influencers and figureheads will thrive in a “post-political” environment. That means the right-wing conspiracy theorists and leftist podcast bros aren’t going anywhere, even if major tech platforms try to extrude them. It’s a dim flow chart. Truth could be secondary to a cultish sort of “consensus reality.”

Some good stuff, according to me

I am listening to Arlo Park’s Collapsed in Sunbeams, rewatching How I Met Your Mother, eating hearty beef stew, and reading Dubliners by James Joyce.

If you are feeling generous today and wish to support my free work, please consider paying me via Paypal or Venmo @nguyenterry. You’re welcome to spare me a follow on Instagram. As always, thank you for reading!