The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich

The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich

This is the new book from Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires, the book that became the movie, The Social Network. It covers a handful of weeks at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 during which time, a Reddit group called wallstreetbets ended up driving up the stock price of a US business called Gamestop, and in effect causing massive losses to those on Wall St who had “shorted” the stock.

The book tells the story from the perspectives of several people, some more involved than others, but all of whom invested a great deal of time, and sometimes money, into this one enterprise.

The story isn’t simple, because unless you’re deep in the weeds of some elements of trades on Wall Street, then the complexities of “shorting” stocks and issues around “clearing” those trades on apps like Robinhood, take some explanation.

Mezrich tries to hold our hands through a lot of these steps. And, if you aren’t paying close attention, he will often re-explain something a few chapters later with a different analogy in the voice of one of his protagonists, because you do need to understand what was happening to fully appreciate the story.

The book is written very much as though the author himself was in the room when these things were happening, and as such, much of the dialogue is probably imagined. Mezrich has no doubt spoken to many of those who are featured here, but it’s not entirely clear that he’s spoken to all of them, and at times I think he’s putting himself in their shoes to try to understand their thought processes.

To my mind, the book slightly falls a little short on technical details. In an effort to make the book more accessible, some elements are glossed over or simplified. And while we concentrate solely on the shorting of Gamestop (a predominantly retail video game business with outlets in many malls across America), it ignores similar things that were going on with other stocks like AMC and Blackberry.

The “humanising” of these stories is common to many books in this field – notably Michael Lewis’s books including his most recent The Premonition – telling stories directly from individuals’ perspectives rather than from a higher and wider view. But I think that does lead to an amount of supposition, and not inconsiderable amount of superfluous information about our protagonists’ private lives, often irrelevant to the story.

This isn’t an easy story to tell, and these were events that were taking place only a few months ago, so this book has been written at speed. And although the stock price soared from less than $5, soaring to nearly $500 for a brief period, even now as I type, the stock is hovering around $200 (up around $50 from the price when Mezrich hit “send” on this manuscript). As such, it hasn’t really “ended” yet.

Was this a one-off, or is it a sign of changes to come in the financial markets? It’s probably too early to say. But the one thing I think the book could have explored more is the Robinhood app, it’s payment for order flow monetisation model (which is explained but not explored enough), and the gamification of buying and selling often risky products on a mobile phone. Is it healthy how people are using the app? Probably not. Robinhood’s profits come from its users making multiple trades – not just buying some shares and then sitting on them for years at a time. All of that could have explored in greater detail. (I recommend listening to Slate Money for more on these kinds of things incidentally).

A good primer, but there’s more to said about the broader environment in which something like this can happen.

Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC. The Antisocial Network is out now in hardback and ebook.