Wordle's Virality

If you’ve spent the last few months doing exclusively useful things you might have missed the Wordle phenomenon and the subsequent purchase of this little web-based game for seven figures by the New York Times.

It’s a legitimately delightful story. A programmer built a deceptively simple game and executed it well. It grew organically through the power of the web since anybody can access a webpage, unhindered by app stores, operating systems or gatekeepers. Many people (including me) have enjoyed playing the same puzzles with their friends and comparing results. Ultimately the programmer had a nice payday for his efforts. Great stuff. Most likely it will die a slow death under the auspices of the NYT, relegated to some sort of games subscription. It doesn’t really matter. We had our fun.

But the phenomenon wasn’t really about the sheer human joy of finding five letter words, was it? The masterful thing is how it stoked and took advantage of the dark patterns of social media without having to get its own hands dirty. Ninety percent of the brilliance is in the “Share” copy-paste.

Here’s what my most recent one looks like:

Wordle 227 5/6

  • It’s eye-catching.
  • It’s regular UTF-8 text. It’s universal and it can go anywhere: a tweet, a discord message, a Facebook post, a text message.
  • To someone who hasn’t played before it’s an impenetrable code sparking curiosity. What does it mean? Why are multiple people posting this? What am I missing out on?
  • To someone who has played before it’s a call to compare it with your own result, or complete and share today’s puzzle if you haven’t already. You feel like you’re in a club together.
  • To the social media user who has a chronic need to post, it’s perfect: you completed a challenge so why shouldn’t you share it? And for your followers who haven’t seen Wordle before you’re demonstrating that you’re a step ahead, part of the group who’s in-the-know.

For the record I’m not judging these stereotypes of social media users. I’ve committed all of these sins and more. It’s just patterns of behaviour and reward that I’m now pretty familiar with.

Imagine if Wordle’s share text looked like this:

Wordle 227 5/6

Or what if it didn’t have a share option at all? Would it still be as good a game? Objectively, yes. Would the experience still be as enjoyable and would you play as often? Probably not. Would it be worth over a million dollars? Certainly not. The web is full of games that you can play in your browser and the NYT isn’t going around buying those. Money follows eyeballs, and on this occasion a word-guessing game was the medium through which those eyeballs were directed.

So Wordle has done well. And despite everything I’ve just laid out, nothing particularly harmful has happened. The question is what happens next, now that this is a high-profile route to getting eyeballs and therefore money. More people and companies will be trying variations of this marketing by stealth. Some will succeed and I think it will be to the detriment of our social media feeds. Mostly I want to hear people’s own thoughts, less about what they heard from someone else, and very little about what a third party has encouraged them to share.

If you’re posting, keep your guard up. The next Wordle sensation may not be so pure in intention.