Wordle and Our Longing for the Limited
Are our tastes for content gluttony finally shifting?
Imagine reading this tweet 24 months ago:
What a world.
But here we are: the most consequential cultural phenomenon of this, the year of our Lord, 2022 is a once-a-day word game made by a computer coder for his significant other. Josh Wardle, who previously coded a couple of wildly successful sociological experiment features for Reddit, made the app for his partner and after it was a hit in his family, its popularity quickly spread.
“I think people kind of appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun…It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs. It’s just a game that’s fun.”
Well, not anymore. Last monday, a mere four weeks after running their first story on the game, the New York Times bought Wordle from Wardle for more than a million dollars. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The New York Times already has a suite of popular word games that have significantly contributed to subscriptions, and it is natural for them to snatch up this one, whose success they helped create.
It is a bit sad, though, that while the app will initially stay free, it will almost definitely be put behind the Times paywall.
Despite the general sad sentiment that followed the news of the Times’ purchase, Wordle continues to trend daily on Twitter. My co-workers even created a Slack channel just for sharing Wordle results and discussing the day’s game. It’s been some of the most fun “office culture” I’ve experienced as a remote employee.
But you likely already know plenty about Wordle, even if you just groan and roll your eyes upon seeing others’ results on social media. What I’m interested in briefly exploring is this: what made Wordle explode?
Obviously being profiled in the most widely-read newspaper in the country was a big part of Wordle’s explosion. So, perhaps more precisely, the question I want to answer is this: Why do we love Wordle?
Limitation in the Face of Endless Consumption
The reason we love Wordle is because we can only do it once a day.
There is one Wordle every day. Everyone gets the same assignment. Everyone has the same six guesses. You cannot play past games you’ve missed. You cannot pay $5 to unlock a pack of themed boards. There is no cash shop in which you can purchase hints or extra plays or gems.
You get to play once a day. No more.
When we can do however much we want of whatever we want every day, Wordle is a fresh experience.
The vast majority of our interaction with the internet is defined by constant, on-demand consumption. We can binge years of television in weeks. We can scroll Facebook or TikTok for hours and never run out of new bits of entertainment. There is no limit to the number of tweets or emails we can send (unfortunately). Limitless consumption has long been the allure of the internet, but when you can gorge yourself on memes and tv shows, it all can start to taste the same.
The Same Goes for Streaming
Disney+ and Apple TV+ get this, I think, and it makes their content more culturally impactful than Netflix’s content. Disney+ and Apple TV+ release new TV shows weekly just like TV networks have for decades. Netflix is still caught up in the mass-release strategy that it pioneered when it released its first original production, House of Cards, back in 2013. Netflix’s philosophy seems to be bound by the philosophy of unlimited consumption that has captivated our gluttonous relationship with the social internet for the better part of a decade.
Disney+ and Apple TV+ have, I think, realized that there is value in limitation. When content is dripped slowly over the course of weeks, especially content that leaves room for mystery and speculation, it creates community, culture, and internet chatter around the content. When Netflix drops an entire series all at once, it’s a race to gorge yourself on content as quickly as you can so as to not be spoiled by one of the communities of fans you’re part of on the internet.
Are Our Tastes Changing?
I would love to think that Disney+ and Wordle and other platforms that encourage restraint and limitation are seeing success because we are getting tired of trudging back up to the buffet of endless internet content. When we constantly consume content on Facebook, our favorite streaming platform, or otherwise we make it a commodity. Videos, games, and other pieces of culture created to bring us joy, make us think, or otherwise engage our hearts and minds are reduced to a buffet line item meant to be consumed alongside any number of other pieces of content.
Wordle’s success and the continued success of weekly-release TV shows like Ted Lasso and The Mandalorian give me hope that maybe, just maybe, we are pushing back from the table of the internet and opting out of our recent gluttonous binge of bland, limitless content.