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What follows is, I’m aware, the tortured observations of a person who needs to log off. But I want to talk about the online dynamics of Wordle and what happens when things get very popular (hint: backlash!).
Wordle is a newish word game that is web based, non-monetized, and impossible to binge because there is one puzzle a day. It is 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 is perhaps the least offensive, non-problematic viral phenomenon to achieve escape velocity in some time. That inoffensiveness has a lot to do with why a mass of people delight in the game. The stakes are exceedingly low. It can make you feel momentarily clever 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 and every reaction to a trend or a piece of information is not only possible but probable. That means that without much searching, you can find a group of people who take Wordle far too seriously. Similarly, you can find people who’ve made being a Wordler an outsize part of their online personality … seemingly overnight! And so it makes sense that there are also people who, rather reflexively, dislike the game and its legion of (sometimes annoying) fans. This is how you get people who are building Twitter bots intended to spoil the game for anyone who tweets their puzzle:
I’m not suggesting that Wordle is in the throes of a massive backlash that threatens the game itself, but like anything that burns brightly on the internet, the popularity has inspired a nontrivial number of people who are done with the enthusiasm and the sharing of scores.
I’m not trying to be a scold about the Wordle backlash. It’s an example of a naturally occurring phenomenon in our current culture. But the dynamics, as they pertain to this game, are illuminating. We’re not talking about cancel culture or critical race theory, or even about a remake of a piece of fandom-rich intellectual property with all kinds of emotions attached. We’re talking about a web game where you spell a five-letter word.
Here’s what the Wordle rise looked like from my particular vantage:
Day 1: See a few sporadic tweets from people in my feed I don’t really know. Disregard.
Day 2: See same sporadic tweets, but now one from a person I know in real life. Click on tweet; try to decipher the different colored symbols. Become confused. Lose interest.
Day 3: See huge increase in tweets. People I know and whose taste I trust are talking about Wordle like they are members of a club they joined a decade ago. Intrigued. Also suspicious. Still confused. Lose interest.
Day 4: See enough tweets in my feed that I assume this is just the latest three-day obsession of my in-group of Twitter-addled content jockeys. Reflexively grumpy due to being burned out by internet. Lose interest.
Day 5: Realize people love this. Genuinely. See New York Times article that creator is a mensch. Decide this will be a thing I don’t participate in but fully support for my extremely online brethren.
Day 6: Hear DJ on local radio station comment about “today’s Wordle.” Realize it is a phenomenon. Break down and play. Love it. Tell my friends.
Day 7: Worry that I’m talking too much about this game.
Day 8: Roll my eyes at the glut of content about best strategies. Think: Just enjoy the thing!
Day 9: Worry that everyone’s talking too much about the game and that backlash is imminent.
Day 10: Realize it might be time to look into anxiety meds.
Day 11: See—ah yes—the rising backlash. (I warned you earlier that I needed to log off.)
You might be asking yourself why any of this matters, and that’s a great question. What I am describing might very well be the nature of popular things since the dawn of time. But there’s an internet flavor to this one. What’s happened with Wordle is only really possible in an environment where there is simply just too much information, in every sense.
Wordle popped into our lives at a perfect time—during a listless holiday season amid a global pandemic surge. In a way, we were primed for something like it. For the last 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 staleness and entered the realm of resentment: Zoom fatigue. Constantly bickering Facebook groups. Endless TikTok scrolls. Netflix boredom. The feeling of having a million channels and nothing to watch. And here comes something that feels old-school, even timeless and, therefore, fresh.
People have compared Wordle to sourdough bread making or Tiger King—activities that marked and defined their own pandemic epoch. I think that’s true for some people who feel especially alienated, isolated, or exhausted by the last two years. In most of those pandemic hobbies, people have latched onto an activity as a life raft. It’s a distraction, yes, but it’s more than that, too. There’s an anxious charge to it, as if a lot of us are holding on a bit too tight to it, but rather than acknowledging that, we just give it more oxygen and assign it a larger role in our daily lives. I’m not judging here—this is how people cope. Little communities form on platforms everywhere, sending algorithmic signals that make the most obsessive voices sound the loudest. This happens (you never want Twitter's Trending Topics to get involved):
On an algorithmic, platform-based internet, this type of slightly obsessive behavior sends a Red Alert signal to content creators of all kinds. In this case, it is to Deploy 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 Mother Taught Her 2-Year-Old to Wordle and I Can’t Right Now,” “A Utah Couple’s Wordle-Inspired Gender Reveal Has People up in Arms.” It is too much information.
To those who aren’t aboard the Wordle train or who don’t particularly delight in the game, this familiar cycle of information overload and fandom is not only exhausting, but alienating. People making Wordle their entire personality becomes annoying enough to a person that they make disliking Wordle their entire personality. Those people are naturally loud and provocative online and, thanks to social platforms that reward engagement, their voices are amplified. And so the most provocative and annoyed and the most enthusiastic and supportive Wordle crews find each other seamlessly and proceed to piss each other off.
This might sound a bit dramatic for a word game and … it is! But the low stakes are what I find so interesting about Wordle discourse specifically. On one side, you have people ostensibly mad and muting or spoiling or scolding Wordlers, and on the other you have people ostensibly getting obsessed. But I’m not certain that what we see online is an accurate representation of how people really feel about this game. I’ll use myself as an example. I have now written hundreds of words about this game and I’ve tweeted about it probably a dozen times in as many days. You would be well within your right to assume that I’m an obsessive and that this is a big part of January 2022 Charlie. In reality, though, I wake up in the morning and I enjoy doing the puzzle over coffee. Then I talk to my partner about it for about 60 seconds to three minutes. And I move on. When it pops up in my feeds, I might be inclined to share about it because it’s a thing I think is cool and I like that I enjoy something that other people also enjoy. To me, Wordle is an ephemeral community built around what is likely a moderately durable fad. Almost two years into a pandemic, that’s enough to rise to the level of “A Bright Spot In My Day.”
I’d also bet that the people who’ve made disliking or mocking Wordle their online personality have done it for similarly casual reasons. They are probably pissed off about 40 other awful things and frustrated by the attention that is lavished on something they don’t personally enjoy. Or maybe they enjoy it, but are tired of the way that internet fandom and the broader media / social-media information systems take things that are good and run them through the content meat grinder until they’re mangled, desiccated husks of their former selves. I get that! But it’s also possible to feel this way and rattle off a couple of tweets and then not think about it again.
Wordle’s public reception fascinates and unnerves me because it’s an example of how the internet flattens things—in this case, the stakes of this particular, Twitter-bound discourse. We are conditioned to project strong feelings about things we don’t feel all that strongly about. At the same time, we’re conditioned to interpret other responses to low-stakes content as high stakes, perhaps even threatening. We end up arguing about things we don’t feel that strongly about because we can’t remember that the other side of the argument is subject to many of the same forces. There’s no real sense of proportion to any of it, and that absence makes us feel both more frustrated at the other person, and also, like we’re maybe losing it.
It’s this dynamic that gives me pause. Because the attentional spotlight rarely lands on things as inoffensive and low stakes as a five-letter word game. 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?