The automaker Tesla went public in the summer of 2010, with shares priced at $17. A decade later, each share was worth more than $1,000 — a return of over 3,000 percent for investors who got in on the ground floor and held the stock. Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets, the individual trader forum credited with pushing the retailer GameStop “to the moon” last month, putting a squeeze on Wall Street firms that shorted the company, was created in 2012, the year before Tesla’s first big stock surge. The current phenomenon of “meme stonks,” or bullish market surges driven by mass enthusiasm and shitposting within online finance communities, has everything to do with the entwined sagas of Tesla and WSB. Therefore, GameStop wasn’t unprecedented: It was the next phase.
Tesla’s long climb is akin to a slow-motion version of GameStop’s overnight explosion. In both cases, an affinity for the brand itself (Silicon Valley hype and gamer nostalgia, respectively) drove the buying. Both trends were helped along by specific billionaires. The addition of Ryan Cohen, co-founder of the pet food company Chewy, to GameStop’s board was seen as a good omen for the ailing franchise, and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk enjoys a robust cult of personality thanks to his social media presence. Both Tesla and GameStop attracted small investors when their prospects weren’t especially bright — the former almost went bankrupt in 2008 and didn’t turn a full-year profit until 2020. Finally, there is an attitude of contrarian populism to both upswings, as if regular people are at war with the Wall Street elite.
The truth of winners and losers here is far more complex, but Tesla’s devout believers love to feel as though they’re beating the bears who keep saying it’s highly overvalued, and they take pride in weathering any turbulence, such as the 8.6 percent dip this week that shaved $15 billion from Musk’s net worth.
Refusing to sell has become an article of faith for the $TSLA hive, which tends to reject “any negative press regarding the company as the work of short sellers seeking to undermine its success,” as Gizmodo’s Tom McKay puts it. They’ll also swarm your mentions if you happen to be critical of Musk. What the recent volatility may portend is a bumpy 2021 that continues to test their mettle. Analysts point out that Tesla faces expanding competition in the electric vehicle space, is currently in the black because it sells regulatory credits to other automakers (an income source that won’t last) and may not have as much demand for the cars as fanboys think.
On top of those factors, it’s impossible to tell when a tossed-off tweet from Musk will spin the entire operation into chaos, as when he falsely claimed in 2018 to have secured funding to take Tesla private, a remark that led to major fines in a fraud charge settlement and ongoing legal headaches. The strength and stability of the business, then, relies in part on shareholders gassing each other up on the internet — and these shareholders are dudes.
Not only are men more likely to be drawn to the momentum of proven winners such as Tesla, and develop an overconfidence in their strategy, but they seem to have a near monopoly on Tesla’s cheerleading faction. They rhapsodize on the wealth that awaits, envisioning stratospheric possibilities for the stock. They measure their devotion by time spent in the game and laugh at past crises they survived. They celebrate and often remind you of their early retirements. Most importantly, they craft digital identities steeped in Tesla culture. Some post about nothing else.
When you’re calling Tesla a religion without irony, you’re no longer weighing its “intrinsic value” or “fundamentals” — those pesky concerns of the skeptics and wonks. You can’t deny the bubble, yet not all bubbles are the same, and unlike with the dot-com bust, the subprime mortgage crisis or even GameStop’s rise and fall, Tesla’s dominance combines a fetish for futuristic tech, CEO worship, anti-establishment zealotry and a masculine-coded solidarity among those committed to the brand. “Hold the line, boys” is a mantra of the r/WallStreetBets movement. Or, as one self-described “TSLA veteran” asked nervous investors on the subreddit a few weeks ago, “Do you want to be the ‘Golly I could’ve had Apple 20 years ago!’ guy for the rest of your life, or do you wanna be the strong motherfucker who actually took the leap?”
You could answer that with an age-old question: “If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?” Thing is, until your supply of jumpers runs out, this collective behavior can make a little operation such as Tesla “the U.S.’s fifth-biggest company by market capitalization.” There are any number of ways the corporation might fail and leave shareholders wiped out, but absent any internal catastrophe, it’s difficult to imagine a crack in the network of mutually reinforced bro fanaticism that has inflated the automaker’s profile. They will trust and buy and buzz until there is literally nothing left in which to be invested.
Maybe what they really wanted was friends.