The Nihilism Of R/Wallstreetbets

UPDATE: Since this blew up 1. I wrote this mostly in response this article in Bloomberg. 2. If you want to follow me on Twitter for more hot takes on internet culture and marketing stuff you can do that here: @jeromysonne

I want to preface all of this by saying I am not an investing expert. I currently hold no publicly traded companies’ stock. (Though I might I haven’t logged into Robinhood in a while). What I am pretty good at though is internet culture and understanding communities through that lens. I also don’t agree with the Wallstreetbets culture. I’m just trying to explain it.

The recent dramatic fall and meteoric rise of Gamestop via the short squeeze that happened has a lot of technical reasons that people a lot better at finance can explain. What keeps coming up though is Wallstreetbets and their hand in taking a stock that seemed doomed to failure and rocketing it to new heights. I’m seeing a lot of well-meaning takes on their role that generally miss the “why” of the community and what it does / how it exists. After reading a well-written article in Bloomberg (that ultimately misses the point on WSB). I thought I would take a moment to give some insights.

References to tendies, autism, gay bears, and a bunch of other things don’t really make a lot of sense on the surface (and some make even less sense once you dive in). The culture of Wallstreetbets is an interesting one, to say the least, that has a lot of its language and customs rooted in 4chan. As 4chan users have grown up, migrated to other corners of the internet, and spread their language it’s continued on and evolved in different spaces. You saw a lot of this with the_donald on Reddit a few years ago before it was banned and a lot of similar overlap in language between what the community was and what WSB is now. (Twitter is so late to the party compared to Reddit).

The basic surface-level story of WSB is this. It’s a bunch of autistic losers that live in their mom’s basement who are gambling what little money they have to try and become rich to live lifestyles of hedonism. Since they are basement dwellers their obvious food of choice is chicken tenders aka tendies that they trade in their GBPs (Good boy points) to their mom so they can get more. In this world, they earn good boy points by doing well at stocks.

On the surface, it seems really weird but it’s mostly a type of gallows humor that permeates a lot of especially young millennials and zennial men. That nothing really means anything, that no one cares about them (or in some cases actively hate them), and so they reject buying in on the society they feel actively scorns them. I’ll resist the urge to add my personal opinions or quote Fight Club here, but I’m mostly saying all this to get you in their head.

As someone that deals with some (in the grand scheme of things minor) mental health issues around panic attacks and anxiety attacks the “Fuck it if nothing means anything I may as well do what I want” attitude on a self-destructive and nihilistic level makes sense to me. It’s not logical but it makes sense. If nothing means anything you may as well do what you want and try and have some fun before the existential crisis of death takes us all. To do that though you need cash, and most of us are slammed with student debt, increased COL, and stagnant wages as compared to our parents’ generation. All the “boomer” advice we’re given doesn’t really make sense especially when it comes to the dreaded value investing that we’re told to do when it comes to stocks especially in light of the financial crisis in 2008.

See back in the day if you played the rules, worked the job, saved the money you could mostly live a pretty good life. The system was there and it had your back you just had to play by the rules. At some point that changed. Understanding that fundamentally you can do “everything right” and be totally fucked anyways, never able to achieve your dreams regardless of what you do or don’t do is a shitty feeling. Along comes WSB.

Suddenly, there’s a chance. Not a big one, but a chance to get out of your situation and live the life you want. You can do everything right and never be able to retire anyway, OR you can take super speculative positions in the stock market by making giant bets on risky options that, if you happen to be right, could make you rich. You’ve broken the cycle and you can live the life you want. Worst case? You’re right back where you started.

““If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.” – Big Daddy Keyne$

I think there are really 2 things you need to understand about WSB (And really this piece of internet culture in general). It’s 50% depression and 50% a Molotov cocktail. You either win and get out or you lose AND you’re sticking it to the man at the same time. Even if I go super long, ratchet up the leverage, and take a big bet and lose guess what?


Seriously nothing. Most of these people are in hopeless debt with no clear path out anyway. They declare bankruptcy and move on. They took the bet, rode the adrenaline rush, and they lost. The silver lining? The elites that hate them are stuck paying the bill. It’s really a win-win situation. The memes, the culture, all of it really stems from this attitude.

I think it’s honestly fascinating that people are finally starting to notice this sub-culture once it’s begun affecting the mainstream financial system. Maybe now that it’s hitting these folks where they live, hurting the only thing they care about, they’ll start thinking about why these people are acting out. Before anyone accuses me of being a socialist I have a startup that sells radio ads called Decibel. I’m a died in the wool capitalist and I can plainly see these issues. That maybe if they felt they had more of a stake in the future, that wealth inequality wasn’t so bad, that they’ll never afford a home, etc. they wouldn’t feel the need to act out. That if they weren’t in such an unwinnable situation they wouldn’t feel the need to throw Molotov cocktails through the front window of the country and the global financial system.

I doubt it, but one can hope.

Until then this is going to get worse, not better.

The Facebook Hamster Wheel

I just feel stuck these days as a person that does a lot of Facebook marketing. Like I’m in a pit of quicksand and I have the strength to keep myself afloat, but not enough strength to actually get out.

This starts at a “tactical” level with Facebook ads but has permeated up through my entire business structure. Some is certainly my fault on some level, but some of it is just the nature of the game. Things with platforms change of course, consumer preferences change of course, people get ad blindness, etc. This isn’t really that though.

Week to week things change with the platform and it’s infuriating. I do “optimizations” that make no sense yet somehow work. Stacking interests, do single interest ad sets, doing interest ad sets and then narrowing them, doing all the same with lookalike audiences, the list goes on and on and the performance on any given tactic changes week to week. There is no “reason” that say an ad set that has 5 different interests that I know work separately doesn’t perform yet it will work, then not work, then work again. This is what I mean by the hamster wheel. With Facebook these days you feel like you’re running faster and faster just to stay in place. There’s at best a 2 week cycle where you figure it out and then the mad hatter yells “change places” and you start from 0 again. There is no more disheartening feeling than launch an ad set, watching is crush it for 36 hours, and then fall off a cliff. There’s no reason that should happen with an audience of 10 million people.

The long and short though is that the instability is driving myself and other marketers crazy. There is no playbook you can write, no set strategy you can deploy, and because of that its unending work on accounts that should be stable. When nothing is stable and everything is constantly in need of rebuilds you can’t make meaningful progress from an account tactical level. All the time that goes into media buying that could have gone into CRO, or offer tests, or new creative is just eaten up. It’s frustrating and it sucks.

More than that, that sort of permeant firefighter mentality permeates everything. Being bogged down in tactics is exhausting and depressing as a marketer and an entrepreneur. I feel like I can’t So far the answer has been to diversify media spend to other platforms, and while that works, it also dramatically increases the workload for an individual client. As per usual, the only thing we can do is hope and keep working harder, but if I’m honest I’m just really tired. It’s making me consider if I even want to take on Facebook specific projects anymore and maybe have the conversation up front about how we’re going to simply follow the money rather than being ties to any 1 platform. Maybe consulting is the answer? Maybe only working with high dollar clients that can afford to pay us for the work it takes to build and rebuild campaigns every day? I don’t know what that answer is but I know that I need to figure it out fast and get it implemented here post BFCM but before Q1 otherwise 2021 will be a repeat of 2020 and that’s not tenable.

Technician V Entrepreneur

One thing I’m working on doing is trying to be less of a technician and more of a business owner. I’m having trouble though because I’m a bit of a control freak and it’s, unfortunately, inhibiting my ability to meaningfully scale.

I’ve been running Facebook ads for about 9 years. The first ad I ran I remember was for a startup I was working on with some friends in college that was focused on hyper-local crowdfunding. I boosted a post and the rest really was history. Over the years I like to think I’ve gotten at least alright at this having been a part of projects such as:

-Taking a song to #1 Global Viral on Spotify

-Working with Fortune 500 companies

-Working with 10+ Agencies in a media buying role.

-Working with billion dollar DTC brands.

You get the idea.

So the thing is that I kind of muddled around for a few years having these cool flash in the pan moments, but never getting meaningful traction. Recently though I managed to niche down and I’ve found something that has people really aggressively pursuing working with me. Product market fit (or service market fit in this case) really does have a totally different feel to it. Sales are easier, the value prop just clicks with people, it’s smooth sailing. The thing is though that despite calling myself an agency for years and having a handful of team members here and there I’ve never meaningfully run an organization. My lack of process is showing.

My current focus is setting up process, not just to get the work done, but to do it in a way where I can meaningfully transfer my skills while also giving people the room to learn and do the work in their own style and with their own approach. It’s difficult, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. To me, it’s about following our values and creating systems that re-enforce those values in smart ways that also lessen the workload in the aggregate. I’m still figuring these things out but my 2020 goal is to not be running the day to day on any ad account and rather acting in the “senior” role advising and meeting on all our accounts. At this point in the game I think it delivers better outcomes for clients and lets me do what I do best which is collaborate and mentor on a high level. I’m starting to take the steps to get there, but it’s a long road.

Talking about your trade is more important than being perfect at it.

I saw a really interesting post from a semi-famous Twitter user @shl

While I normally disagree with such broad statements I actually really agree here. The most successful people I see are mostly better at describing their craft to the “normies” than they are at actually doing it. I used to organize a fairly large startup meetup in Denver and we had an agency owner come in to speak to the crowd once about his experience building a PPC shop. He said that early on he figured out that he was better at selling the service than doing it and that’s what enabled him to grow his company so quickly.

I think about him saying that often, and I realize that frankly, he’s right. When I marry that with what Sahil is saying above I’m beginning to think that the people that win in any given vertical are going to be the best content creators and content marketers. Delivery and customer experience matters, but only in so far as you do a very good job versus a perfect job. When it comes to advertising finding the right offer with the right creative is 70% of the battle. You add in some good media buying and you’re at 95%. That last 5% being the difference between good and perfect probably takes up 50% of the effort. For most companies if you’re delivering a 95% experience by spending half your time on the work and you spend your other half of the time on your content I think you win every single time over someone who spends near 100% of their time on the work. Most clients only care that you hit or exceed their targets but that last 5% may or may not get rewarded commensurate to the effort put in.

As I personally move forward I’m trying to prioritize education through content and spend more of my personal time writing and distributing my content about my job as well as actually doing the work. To me though that means bringing in some really energetic people that have some skills and are hungry to learn while I direct them at a high level. This has been a good fit so far and can scale up Moonshine Marketing for the foreseeable future. I think planning for anything beyond that is a bit of future proofing. One side benefit of all this content creation is that instead of being heads down in accounts I’m actually able to gain perspective and learn new tactics to implement from being out in the world. Ironically dialing the effort back just slightly and focusing on learning has driven better results for our clients so far.

What do you think? Am I mad or did I unlock the cheat code to business success because honestly after years of struggling it kind of feels that way.

Marketing Mise En Place

My favorite hobby is cooking

It all started when I got really into it on accident as an escape from my anxiety. The rote cutting of vegetables, simmering a sauce while checking whatever was in the oven. The multi tasking, laser focus on what’s right in front of you, and physical work to bring a meal together forced me into the moment and was an escape for me when I didn’t really understand or have a good handle on what was going on with what ultimately ended up being an un-diagnosed anxiety and panic disorder.

When you’re in the kitchen one of the things you learn very quickly is that in order to orchestrate a beautiful meal you need to have things lined up ready to go. The difference between a spectacular feast and a piece of unflavored rubber is 1-2 minutes in some cases. In the world of professional chefs, lining all your ingredients up in pre-measured amounts is known as Mise En Place (French for “everything in its place”). This allows you to have everything ready to go to maximize your time when the actual cooking is happening rather than trying to frantically chop a shallot while your pancetta is burning.

One thing I’ve struggled with in the past with marketing is this constant feeling of being a firefighter rather than a farmer.

What do I mean?

Rather than being able to invest time into long term projects and watching them grow (like a farmer), I’ve felt in the past that I have to run around attending to the disaster of the day or execute on some random new initiative to try and hit an aggressive KPI (like a firefighter). To some degree that’s just a part of the job. There’s always *something* more a marketer can be doing and when the growth of the company, in large part, comes down to your performance there’s a lot of pressure.

A lot of it though is that I, and many other marketers, are frankly just disorganized.

A professional kitchen is a very high pressure environment where people have to move very quickly and execute perfectly not once, but dozens of times in a single night. When you take a look at the military level of precision they have to have you see how they’re able to take and perfect process to the degree that they do you realize just how much is possible. Ultimately, by looking at a restaurant back of house I realized its not a trade off between farming and firefighting, but rather building processes that allow you to not only be bother but 10x at each role.

My learning haven’t stopped there though. There’s a lot more parallels to the world of professional cooking and marketing, and an equally large number of lessons that can be drawn.

-Set a menu and execute it really well. Basically, decide your strategy and stick to it. When you do everything custom every time or go off on wild goose chases you’re going to be super inefficient, far more inefficient than any growth hack you may glean from such an adventure.

-Utilize Mise En Place. When it’s time to execute on whatever dish (marketing strategy) you’ve decided on, make sure your tactics are lined up to be well executed. I use airtable to setup ad creative and define audiences etc. for things like Facebook ads. All my tasks are setup with due dates and subtasks in Asana. This saves such an incredible amount of time.

-Be great at one thing. Not mediocre at everything. What’s the best taco place in your city? Best pizza place? Now what’s the best place that serves, tacos, and pizza, and fried chicken? The top 1% of marketers in any discipline reap disproportional rewards as compared to others and you should usually strive to go deep rather than wide especially if you’re a 1 person show.

Ultimately, any services business where you have a client and it’s a creative process to some degree you’re going to have similarities. Marketing and cooking have a ton of overlaps. In general, I think it’s useful to see what another industry is doing to learn and apply it to your own. What other industries could marketers learn from?

Stop looking for hacks.

I had a really interesting exchange with someone who is fairly well respected in the Facebook marketing community today on Twitter named Andrew Foxwell.

For those that don’t know Andrew, he runs Foxwell Digital all with his partner (in more ways than 1) Gracie Foxwell. They’re a stellar team that has earned his praise from industry leaders such as Jon Loomer and has worked with some really impressive brands. More than that though Andrew is always giving out pretty stellar advice on Twitter, and for those of us in the digital advertising world, it’s clear he is one of the better Facebook advertisers out there.

The exchange we had today is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. First, we hit on a recency bias that is prevalent in the digital marketing world. Which, to some degree, I understand. You want to get in on the next Facebook before it’s overrun with advertisers. In addition being the first or an early mover into a promising new area is a great way to build authority. People crave it, and it’s hard to keep up with demand, but it is what it is. I think one thing though that I thought of when I saw his original tweet was something else entirely. It was a trend that I absolutely hate and yet have no idea how to handle as both a marketer and a content creator. That trend?

The bias towards “hacks”

There have existed, do exist, and will exist system exploits. Whether that’s in advertising or anything else, they are there and someone will use them to make money. My rant isn’t some sort of denial of their existence. My rant is about this very unfortunate trend towards marketers caring primarily, or only about finding the next hack.

First, what do I mean by “hack”? So I’m defining hack as something that primarily finds some sort of loophole or unfair advantage inside of a system, and in this case a digital advertising platform. Typically it will look something like a video game cheat code but IRL. Basically, you do some out of the box, odd, or downright counter intuitive practice, not because it per say makes sense or it follows advertising best practice, but because it takes advantage of some weird platform quirk. An example might be bidding $500 cost per click because the platform over prioritizes high margin bids over other factors to some absurd degree that means you always get the best inventory for the same or a lower price. Maybe it’s that if you run a video in a lead campaign where you pay by the cost per lead, and you make the form super overly complicated so that your video is seen millions of times but no one ever fills out the form so you get tons of impressions for nothing. Things like that.

People crave these, and it’s easy to see why. When we all only talk about our biggest wins, and never about our losses, it creates a culture where everyone, even true experts, mostly feel inferior all the time. So you start wondering what you’re doing wrong, abandon your experience and skills, and start looking for the quick fix to save your clients and your business. It’s to some degree understandable, but it is almost always counter productive for a number of reasons.

Here’s the hard truth.

  1. No guru is going to sell you a course or tell you for free about an exploit like this until it’s no longer useful to them.
  2. Finding and chasing hacks doesn’t make you into a better advertiser. In fact it actively makes you worse. Rather than honing your skills and learning advertising fundamentals you never have time because you’re panicking about finding the next hack.
  3. Finally, you’re building a house of cards. You will eventually run out of hacks and when you do clients will bail. You’ll be basically playing an anxiety inducing confidence game where you can never get ahead because your retention is shit. You will be on the treadmill forever. The big win that you think will get you out will never come.

So I now find myself in a predicament. I love making content. It’s my favorite thing. Honestly if I could I would probably just make content about marketing all day every day. I want to make great content that helps people learn, and grow, and live their dreams. I try my best to make that sort of thing. The truth is though is the handful of “hack” videos I have out there drive probably 80% of all my reads, views, engagement etc.

It’s a sinking feeling. I want to teach people to be better marketers, but they all just want the secret shortcut that doesn’t exist. Ultimately I want to create cool stuff, but I also want to meet people where they are and produce content they want. I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile these things. Maybe it means I need to step up my content game, find some sort of middle ground, spend more time on production value. I honestly am not sure.

I also want to be clear I know this isn’t something that is just in the marketing industry. It’s endemic to everything in life and in every industry. Hell, my kid wants to eat more chocolate chip pancakes but he needs broccoli. All of us, at least until we change our mind set, want to cheap win until we become disciplined enough to go for the hard but valuable wins.

I’m being genuine when I say I want to hear your ideas. Let me know what you think in the comments. As with all good things testing is probably the best way to figure out this balance. My first instinct is to take the “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down approach.” to this issue. Figuring out ways of showing the hacks, but then explaining how this isn’t sustainable and if their goal is “X” where X could be cheaper media, higher click throughs, more leads, whatever, I would focus on these other things instead. Showing the fundamentals but teaching the core skills. Basically being a high school science teacher who has the power of fire to compete with iPhones so he can try and teach people what an electron is in between explosions. Not sure if it will work, but on some level I have to be true to myself, and myself wants people to become better marketers and not run on the digital hedonistic treadmill. I want to be known for my content and frankly I want my content to directly or indirectly propel me to the place I want to be professionally, but not at the expense of substance.

I’ll let you know how that goes.