Before the GameStop Short, I Had the Neopets Stock Exchange
What a virtual pet site taught me about the power of investing communities
When I was about eight years old, I asked my mom to make me an email address so I could sign up for Neopets, an online site launched in 1999 where users own virtual pets they can dress up, feed, and customize. The world of Neopets is expansive and mirrors real life in many ways: There are historical events (yikes), a newspaper (cool), and capitalism (boo!). Once I successfully secured an email address, I went over to my neighbor Veronica’s house to get situated on Neopets. As I was about to input my age, she chimed in: “Stop! Make a fake birthday!” Then she added, “That way you can have full access to the site.”
What did “full access” entail exactly, I wasn’t so sure. I went ahead and said I was 18. Turns out, full access in 2005–2006 meant guilds (clubs or groups users can join), more messaging capabilities, gambling, and the Neopets stock market, also called the Neodaq Index. The Neodaq was pretty simple: Users could buy or sell stocks with Neopoints, the in-game currency. With a stroke of your mouse, you could invest in up to 43 different companies such as the “Confederation of Fish Lovers” and “Kacheek and Sons Landscaping,” as long as the stock was at 15 Neopoints or higher. Stock prices fluctuated every 30 minutes and the Neodaq never really “closed” in the way Wall Street does, but companies did suffer the occasional bankruptcy (RIP “Meri Acre Sausages”).
The stock market played an important role in some users’ experience: The way to trick out your Neopets — and, of course, keep them fed and happy, much like a Tamagotchi — was to make money. If you had an under-13 account, the only meaningful way to make Neopoints was through mining Flash mini-games like Ice Cream Machine or Faerie Cloud Racers. (It was an exhausting process; I probably spent more than 100-plus hours of my life mining for Neopoints so I could finally buy the Baby Paint Brush to turn my mouse-like Xweetok into an adorable cutie-pie.) That is unless you knew your way around the guilds.
Guilds were formal clubs where users shared tips about Neopia, whether it be avatar-hunting tutorials or where to find an extremely rare item. At the time, they were rife with information on how to game the Neopets stock market. Much like r/WallStreetBets, now infamous for betting against hedge funds who shorted GameStop, guilds figured out how to inflate a certain stock by buying items and reselling them for a higher price. The collusion led to a stock market crash, forcing the Neopets team to change the stock market algorithm from one based on shops to a completely random one. (If you want more Neopets history, I recommend checking out JellyNeo’s Book of Ages.) Unfortunately, this was a little before my time. It also scared the hell out of me as an eight-year-old; I didn’t want my account frozen since I was technically not supposed to be on the forums anyway.
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No, guilds didn’t teach me how to make millions of Neopoints, although that is what drew me there. More importantly, I learned how to code, how to draw, and how to blog — the very skills I use today in my real-life career. Folks on the guilds taught me how HTML and CSS worked and how to think about color and storytelling. Through chatting with randos in the guilds and forums, I turned my bland profile into one with a glittery yellow cursor and fun sun illustrations, in honor of the Altador Cup. (Having a cool profile page is a key experience for many Neopets users.)
Crowdsourcing information with an online community can be a beautiful thing. And while I wish more of the finance information stuck (I did gain some basic financial literacy in the stock market as well as learn how interest works), I’m so grateful for the online community I had growing up. Who knew faking my age on a dumb website would have brought my life so much richness and give eight-year-old me something in common with a meme stock scheme?