The internet eats Wordle alive

What follows are, I know, the haunted observations of a person who has to opt out. But I want to talk about Wordle’s online dynamics and what happens when things get really popular (hint: backlash!).

Wordle is a fairly new word game that is web based, generates no monetization and is impossible to binge because there is one puzzle per day. It’s simple but also feels refreshing and unique. There’s a social element – you can share your results without giving away the answer to the puzzle – but it’s arguably the least offensive, unproblematic viral phenomenon to hit an escape velocity over time. That harmlessness has a lot to do with why a mass of people enjoy the game. The stakes are extraordinarily low. It can make you feel smart, but not super smart. 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 piece of information is not only possible but probable. That means you can find a group of people who take Wordle way too seriously without much searching. Likewise, you can find people who have made being a Wordler a big part of their online personality…seemingly overnight! And so it makes sense that there are also people who, rather reflexively, hate 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 suggesting Wordle is in the throes of a massive backlash that threatens the game itself, but like anything burning brightly on the internet, its popularity has a non-trivial number people who are done with the enthusiasm and parts of scores.

I’m trying not to berate the Wordle response. It is an example of a naturally occurring phenomenon in our current culture. But the dynamics, as befits this game, are enlightening. We’re not talking about cancellation culture or critical race theory, or even a remake of a fandom-rich piece of intellectual property that has all kinds of emotions attached to it. We are talking about a web game where you spell a five letter word.

This is what Wordle’s rise looked like from my particular position:

Day 1: See a few sporadic tweets from people in my feed that I don’t really know. To ignore.

Day 2: See the same sporadic tweets, but now from a person I know in real life. Click Tweet; try to decipher the different colored symbols. Get confused. Lose interest.

Day 3: See massive increase in tweets. People I know and whose tastes I trust talk about Wordle as if they were members of a club they belonged to ten years ago. Fascinated. Also suspicious. Still confused. Lose interest.

Day 4: See enough tweets in my feed that I assume are just the last three-day obsession of my in-group of Twitter-addicted content jockeys. Reflexively grumpy from being burned out by the internet. Lose interest.

Day 5: Realize that people love this. Actually. To see New York Times article the creator is a man. Decide that this is something I do not participate in, but fully support my extremely online brethren.

Day 6: Listen to DJ’s comment on the local radio station about ‘present day Wordle’. Realize that it is a phenomenon. Break and play. Love it. Tell my friends.

Day 7: I worry about talking too much about this game.

Day 8: Roll my eyes at the abundance of content on the best strategies. Think: just enjoy the thing!

Day 9: Worry everyone is talking too much about the game and the backlash is imminent.

Day 10: Realize it may be time to look at anxiety medications.

Day 11: See – ah yes – the increasing backlash. (I warned you before to log out.)

You may be wondering why this matters, and that’s a good question. What I am describing may very well be the nature of popular things since the dawn of time. But this one has an internet flavor. What happened to Wordle is only really possible in an environment where there is simply too much information, in every way.

Wordle came into our lives at a perfect time – during a listless vacation period amid a global wave of pandemic. In a way, we were prepared for something like that. For the past 20 months, many people have been glued to the Internet and the technologies that relentlessly mediate our everyday experience. For many of us, those technologies have passed the point of obsolescence and entered the realm of resentment: zoom fatigue. Constantly bickering Facebook groups. Endless TikTok reels. Netflix boredom. The feeling of having a million channels and nothing to watch. And here comes something that feels old-fashioned, even timeless and that’s why fresh.

People have compared Wordle to making sourdough bread or tiger king—activities that marked and defined their own pandemic era. I think that goes for some people who have been feeling particularly alienated, isolated or exhausted over the past two years. Most of those pandemic hobbies have people clinging to an activity like life raft. It’s a distraction, yes, but it’s more than that. It has an anxious charge, like many of us hold onto it a little too tightly, but instead of recognizing that, 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 deal with it. Small communities are forming on platforms everywhere, sending out algorithmic signals that make the most obsessive voices sound the loudest. Here’s what happens (you never want Twitter’s Trending Topics to get involved):

On an algorithmic, platform-based internet, this kind of mildly obsessive behavior sends a Red Alert signal to all kinds of content creators. In this case it is to implement Wordle content. We get Wordle origin stories, Wordle strategy articles and “How Wordle Went Viral” Articles. Then there’s the second-order content, which is even more overwhelming: “Which Wordle board are you?”, “This mom taught her 2-year-old Wordle and I can’t do it now,” The Wordle-Inspired Gender Reveal has people confused.” It’s too much information.

For those not aboard the Wordle train or who don’t really enjoy the game, this familiar cycle of information overload and fandom is not only exhausting, but also alienating. People making Wordle their whole personality gets annoying enough for a person they make Do not like Become their whole personality. Those people are naturally loud and provocative online, and social platforms that reward engagement amplify their voices. And so the most provocative and annoyed and the most enthusiastic and supportive Wordle crews seamlessly find each other and start making each other angry.

This may sound a bit dramatic for a word game and… it is! But the low stakes are what I find so interesting about the Wordle discourse. On the one hand you have people who are apparently angry and who mute or spoil or scold Wordlers, and on the other you have people who seem to become obsessed. But I’m not sure what we to see online is an accurate representation of how people really feel about this game. I will take myself as an example. I’ve now written hundreds of words about this game and probably tweeted about it ten times in as many days. You’d be well within your rights to assume that I’m an obsessive and this is a big part of January 2022 Charlie. But in reality, I wake up in the morning and like to do the puzzle over coffee. Then I talk about it with my partner for about 60 seconds to three minutes. And I go on. If it shows up in my feeds I might be tempted to share about it because I think it’s cool and I like that I enjoy something that other people like too. To me, Wordle is a short-lived community built around what is probably a fairly enduring fad. Nearly two years after a pandemic, that’s enough to reach “A Bright Spot In My Day” level.

I’m also willing to bet that the people who don’t like Wordle or mock their online personalities did so for similarly casual reasons. They are probably pissed off about 40 other horrible things and frustrated with the attention being paid to something they personally don’t like. Or maybe they enjoy it but are tired of the way internet fandom and the wider media/social media information systems take things that are good and run them through the meat grinder until they are mangled, dried out chaff of their former selves. I get it! But it’s also possible to feel that way and rattle off a few tweets and then stop thinking about it.

Wordle’s public reception fascinates and makes me nervous because it’s an example of how the internet is flattening things – in this case, the deployment of this particular Twitter-bound discourse. We are conditioned to project strong feelings about things we don’t feel so strongly about. At the same time, we’ve been conditioned to interpret other responses to low-stakes content as high-stakes, perhaps even threatening. We end up arguing about things we don’t have such a strong opinion about because we can’t remember the other side of the argument being subject to many of the same forces. There’s no real sense of proportion in it, and that absence makes us both feel more frustrated to the other person, and also, as if we might be losing it.

It is this dynamic that makes me pause. Because the spotlight is rarely on things as innocuous and low as a five-letter word game. Nothing should be easier to ignore than Wordle and his 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 something innocuous with a larger community is simply impossible?

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