What follows are, I realize, the tortured observations of a person who needs to disconnect. But I want to talk about Wordle’s online dynamic and what happens when things get really popular (hint: backlash!).
Wordle is a new web-based, non-monetized and unconsumable word game because there is one puzzle per day. It’s simple but also refreshing and unique. There’s a social element – you can share your results without giving the answer to the puzzle – but it’s perhaps the least offensive and non-problematic viral phenomenon to hit trailblazing speed in a while. This harmlessness has a lot to do with why masses of people are reveling in the game. The stakes are extremely low. It can make you feel momentarily smart but not great clever. It can be frustrating, but it’s also hard to take extremely seriously.
But this is the Internet, a place where any reaction to a trend or information is not only possible but probable. This means that without much research, you can find a group of people who take Wordle far too seriously. Similarly, you can find people who have made being a Wordler an inordinate part of their personality online…seemingly overnight! And so it makes sense that there are also people who, rather by reflex, dislike the game and its legion of (sometimes annoying) fans. This is how you get people building Twitter bots meant to spoil the game for anyone who tweets their puzzle:
I’m not saying Wordle is in the throes of a massive backlash that threatens the game itself, but like anything burning hot on the internet, the popularity has inspired a sizable number of people which are Finished with enthusiasm and share of sheet music.
I’m not trying to be a reprimand about Wordle’s reaction. This is an example of a natural phenomenon in our current culture. But the dynamic, when it comes to this game, is illuminating. We’re not talking about cancel culture or critical race theory, or even a remake of a fandom-rich piece of IP with all sorts of emotions attached. We’re talking about a web game where you spell a five-letter word.
Here’s what the rise of Wordle looked like from my particular perspective:
Day 1: Seeing a few sporadic tweets from people in my feed that I don’t really know. Contempt.
Day 2: Seeing the same sporadic tweets, but now from someone I know in real life. Click on tweet; try to decipher the different colored symbols. Become confused. Lose interest.
Day 3: See a huge increase in tweets. People I know and whose tastes I trust talk about Wordle as if they were members of a club they joined ten years ago. Plot. Also suspicious. Still confused. Lose interest.
Day 4: Seeing enough tweets in my feed that I guess this is just the latest three-day obsession of my group of content jockeys on Twitter. Thoughtfully grumpy due to being exhausted from the internet. Lose interest.
Day 5: Realize that people love it. Truly. See New York Times article this creator is a mensch. Decide that it will be something that I will not participate in but will fully support my brothers extremely online.
Day 6: Listen to commentary from a DJ on a local radio station on “Model of Today”. Realize that it is a phenomenon. Break it down and play. To like. Tell my friends.
Day 7: I’m afraid to talk too much about this game.
Day 8: Rolling your eyes at the glut of content on the best strategies. Think: just enjoy the thing!
Day 9: Worry that everyone is talking too much about the game and the backlash is imminent.
Day 10: Realize it might be time to look at anxiety medications.
Day 11: See – oh yes – the growing backlash. (I warned you earlier that I had to log out.)
You might be wondering why all of this matters, and that’s a great question. What I am describing could very well be the nature of popular things since the dawn of time. But there’s an internet flavor to this one. What happened with Wordle is only really possible in an environment where there is just too much information, all over the place.
Wordle appeared in our lives at a perfect time – during a listless holiday season amid a wave of global pandemic. In a way, we were ready for something like this. Over the past 20 months, many people have been glued to the internet and the technologies that relentlessly mediate our daily experience. For many of us, these technologies have passed the stage of obsolescence and entered the realm of resentment: zoom fatigue. Facebook groups that bicker constantly. Endless TikTok scrolls. Netflix boredom. The feeling of having a million channels and nothing to watch. And here is something that feels old-school, even timeless and, therefore, Costs.
People have compared Wordle to making sourdough bread or tiger king— activities that marked and defined their own pandemic era. I think this is true for some people who have felt particularly alienated, isolated or exhausted over the past two years. In most of these pandemic pastimes, people have clung to a life raft activity. It’s a distraction, yes, but it’s also more than that. There’s an anxious load to it, like many of us cling to it a little too much, but rather than acknowledge it, we just give it more oxygen and give it a bigger role in our daily lives. I’m not judging here, that’s how people get away with it. Small communities are forming all over the platforms, sending algorithmic signals that make the most obsessive voices sound the loudest. It happens (you never want Twitter trending topics to be involved):
On an algorithmic, platform-based internet, this kind of mildly obsessive behavior sends a red flag to content creators of all kinds. In this case, it is Deploy Wordle Content. We get Wordle origin stories, Wordle strategy articles and Articles “How Wordle went viral”. Then there’s the second-rate content, which is even more overwhelming: “Which Wordle Board Are You?”, “This Mother Taught Her 2-Year-Old to Wordle and I Can’t Right Now”, “A Utah Couple’s Wordle- Inspired Gender Reveal has people in their arms This is too much information.
For those not on the Wordle train or not particularly fond of gaming, this familiar cycle of information overload and fandom is not only exhausting, but alienating. People making Wordle their whole personality gets quite boring for a person they do do not like Wordle all their personality. These people are naturally loud and defiant online, and thanks to social platforms that reward engagement, their voices are amplified. So Wordle’s most provocative and bored and enthusiastic and supportive Wordle teams seamlessly get together and piss each other off.
That might sound a bit dramatic for a pun and… it is! But the low stakes are what I find so interesting about Wordle’s speech in particular. On one side you have people who are ostensibly mad and dumb or spoiling or scolding Wordlers, and on the other you have people who are ostensibly obsessed. But I’m not sure what we see online is an accurate representation of what people really think about this game. I’ll use this as an example. I have now written hundreds of words about this game and probably tweeted about it a dozen times in as many days. You would have every right to assume I’m an obsessive and that’s a big part of January 2022 Charlie. In reality, however, I wake up in the morning and enjoy doing the puzzle over coffee. Then I talk to my partner about it for about 60 seconds to three minutes. And I move forward. When it shows up in my feeds, I might be inclined to talk about it because it’s something that I find cool and I like to appreciate something that other people enjoy as well. To me, Wordle is a short-lived community built around what is probably moderately enduring fad. Almost two years after the start of a pandemic, that is enough to reach the level of “A bright spot in my day”.
I would also wager that the people who made Wordle a dislike or mockery of their persona online did so for equally informal reasons. They’re probably pissed off about 40 other horrible things and frustrated with the attention to something they personally don’t enjoy. Or maybe they enjoy it, but are tired of how internet fandoms and the wider media/social media information systems take things that are good and pass them on through the meat grinder until they are mutilated, desiccated husks of themselves. I understand ! But it’s also possible to feel this and spout a few tweets and forget about it.
The public reception of Wordle fascinates and baffles me because it’s an example of how the internet flattens things — in this case, the stakes of this particular Twitter-related discourse. We are conditioned to project strong feelings onto things we don’t feel so strongly about. At the same time, we are conditioned to interpret other responses to low-stakes content as high-stakes, even threatening. We end up arguing over things we don’t care about because we can’t remember that the other side of the argument is subject to many of the same forces. There is no real sense of proportion to any of this, and this absence makes us both feel more frustrated to the other person, and also, like we might be losing him.
It is this dynamic that makes me think. Because the attentional spotlight rarely lands on things as innocuous and low-stakes as a five-letter pun. Nothing should be easier to ignore than Wordle and its fans, just as nothing should be easier than enjoying a good game with like-minded people. And yet, here we are. It’s worth asking: have we built an Internet where enjoying an innocent thing with a larger community is, quite simply, impossible?