Update: Who'd have thunk! Even as this episode went live on January 31, Josh Wardle announced within hours that NYT had acquired Wordle. This is a disclaimer that this episode was recorded Pre-NYT. Happy listening!
It probably happened slowly and steadily, but surely. If you've been on Twitter and even on Instagram for a few months now, the colorful, tetris-like squares have appeared on your timelines most definitely. It was probably intriguing to see a random post or two at first, but you've seen it taking over your entire timeline since then. It's January 2022, and you can scarcely go through 2 or 3 posts on your social media feeds without being accosted by the newest, long sustaining viral trend—Wordle!
Hi, I'm Nishtha and this is the Sketchnote Startup Podcast. Here's where we talk to you about the world of startups, productivity tools, personal developments, stories and a lot more. And today, I want to talk to you about a simple word game that's taken the world by storm.
It's just 5 empty squares, waiting for a you to fill those up. No clues to start off with, nothing to aid you along the way. In most cases, one would probably move on from such an unlikely game. But Wordle has captivated everyone who plays it, even once. Let's tell you a bit about how this game first.
The USP of the game is its simplicity. And the premise is even simpler. You have 6 attempts to guess a random 5 letter word. No hints when you begin. If your attempt has a the right letter in the right place, the square turns green, aiding you in guessing the right word. If a letter's present in the word but not in the position you've added it to, the square turns yellow. Wrong attempts are marked in grey.
The best part? EVERYONE in the world has to guess the same word on the same day. At midnight, a new word's released for everyone to guess, creating an unexpected connection, a sort of camaraderie between players of the game who wait up late to solve the puzzle.
Once you solve the day's puzzle, you can share the fascinating tricolor squares onto your social media accounts, showcasing how well or quickly you sorted this one out. It's a bit of a brag, has a hint of secrecy, and a LOT of FOMO for those who have no clue what's going on.
How did this simple, effective, fun game come about? A New York Times article on the sensational trend pegs it as a love story. And we couldn't have put it better. Funnily enough the name is a pun on the creator's own surname—Josh Wardle. The thing is, both Josh and his partner Palak Shah were fond of puzzles and word games—let's be real, a lot of you are nodding your head saying “Me too” as you hear this.
Josh created this game as a way to keep both of them entertained. And it quickly became popular with their families. And it was only a matter of time before Josh made this available to the world on his website. That was in October 2021. The report says that only 90 people played the game on November 1. In the first week of January, over 300,000 people had played the game on one day alone!
One could argue that the game alone would never have been able to reach the heights that it did, got as viral as it did. You'd probably be right.
Josh Wardle is a software engineer who has worked with the likes of Reddit before. He created viral projects like The Button and The Place for the social networking website before, for their April Fool's campaigns. Both of these were sort of a social experiment—so as to say. The Button, in 2015, had a simple idea too. It was just a button on a web page with a countdown timer set to 60 seconds. Any time anyone in the world hit the button, the counter would reset. After over a million clicks and a few months, the button wasn't pressed by anyone for over a minute. And that ended the social experiment, with the website being killed off.
2017's Place was an even more fascinating experiment, socially. Users were presented with an online canvas on the Place's subreddit, and they could only change the color of one pixel at a time, choosing from a 16 color palette. Users were then forbidden from making changes for anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes. The result? Users got together to create everything from LGBTQI flags, memes, patriotic emblems and more. This experiment ended in 72 hours but already saw a million users editing 16 million pixels. Over 90,000 people were watching when the subreddit was finally locked.
The bottomline is that Josh Wardle was no stranger to creating socially experimental, viral projects. And this inbuilt virality in Wardle is what's made it take off in just a month's time.
Every time you finish a day's puzzle—whether it is by guessing the right word, or by running out of chances—you see your statistics. The website tells you what streak you're on. Basically, how many days you've managed to actually guess the word without losing attempts. It'll tell you how many times you've guessed the words in attempt 1,2,3,4 and 5. And more importantly, it'll show you a shining green button called “Share”.
Unlike most other websites, it just doesn't share text-based commentary. The button copies the exact formation of your guess attempt for the day in colors, without revealing the word. And that's what you share on social media. It reads “Wordle”, the puzzle number—we're currently in 200th or so day—attempt number out of 6, and the funky coloring.
Ask any Wordle addict, and there's a 99% chance they discovered this game through this colorful style. And not just by players. Even brands across the world have jumped onto the Wordle bandwagon, creating memes and piggybacking on the game's virality. So much so that Google made a doodle for Wordle! Go ahead, check it out. Type Wordle on Google search and it'll show you a cool doodle on the top left of your screen. Anyone who knows anything about Google knows how prestigious this slot is, and a viral online game getting that spot within months of its launch? Unheard of!
Josh believes that people are here just to have “fun”. However, psychologists and scientists who've studied the phenomenon of addictive games in the past, suggest there's more to it than just “fun”. Let me explain. The dat is January 24, 2022. The world's woken up to a brand new Wordle. Or they've stayed up late the previous night. Whatever floats their boats. And there's palpable anxiety visible in tweets of Wordle players. Some of them who took anywhere between 4-6 attempts to crack the word. Many who were just not able to!
“Is this really a word? I can't believe this has happened." Rock band Blink 182's bassist and vocalist Mark Hoppus called the day's puzzle “Psychological warfare". It's something that's united celebrities and common folk alike. The irritation at not being able to crack the word of the day. It's a tad archaic, but a perfectly legitimate word—knoll. Like a grassy knoll.
The game initially started with listing all 12,000 5-letter words in the english language. But Wordle soon realized that some of these are obscure and even archaic. He whittled the list down to about 2,500. Which if you go to see, can last for a good few years, given you only get one word a day. It's still led to some controversies besides knoll, where words like rebus were to be guessed. Another fascinating controversy was when the word of the day was favor, but spelt in American English, minus the U. This was specially problematic because the game's website ends in a .uk domain name, automatically having people assume it only utilizes the Queen's English dictionary words.
So to come down to it, there's relief, but angry relief when you get the word. And of course, irritation if you weren't able to crack it.
One of the biggest reasons why Wordle works in today's world is because it tends to bring us closer. The game kind of began as a way to kill time during the pandemic. When you're indoors, cooped up and away from the world as you once knew it, your brain could look for a way to connect with people. And what better way to do that than to play a game and share results with people, almost as a way of being in an exclusive club?
Interestingly, while the gateway to many, many users may have been seeing the colored emojis on social media, there's a huge cadre of users that chooses not to share their results on social media. Instead, they have a closed group of like-minded friends on messaging apps like WhatsApp, and even the new community feature that Twitter is testing. The idea is to not be an annoyance to others who may never join the bandwagon, while still being able to share their unique solving colors for the day with people who DO care. There's an innate sense of community building at its very basic form with Wordle. Bring together people who care about something, and make others curious enough to feel the FOMO and want to join it. Now that's amazing!
Another important reason why this game does SO well is that the same word being guessed by everyone on the same day. In a way, this game is a great leveller. Everyone starts with the same blank slate and their minds. Cracking, not cracking, failing, succeeding—all of these helps you connect with others who play this game.
And because of its connectedness, and leveling, comes competition. While you're solving the day's riddle, or looking at others' results, there's always a question in the back of your mind—how easy or difficult was today's word for everyone else? Where do YOUR results stand compared to others? After all, there's just one word a day everyday, right?
And that brings us to the next biggest factor in the popularity of Wordle. When you leave your audience wanting for more, stuff like this happens! After Wordle hit popularity charts in December, it wasn't uncommon to see users waiting up to solve the day's word at midnight, before hitting bed. A commonly shared meme jokes that there are two types of people in the world, ones who solve Wordle at midnight, and ones who do it with their morning tea and coffee. You need to choose which group you belong to.
The fact that you can't finish a puzzle, hit refresh and immediately get access to another one adds to the charm of the game. Think of it as daily crosswords you find in your favorite newspaper. Once you finish it, you must wait an entire day for a new edition. The wait adds to the anticipation, and thus a higher payoff. For a lot of users, this wait is worth the 3 min puzzle solving stimulation their brain gets.
Matt Baldwin, a psychologist at the University of Florida, puts it down to getting an “Aha” moment, even if you lose the day's puzzle. The answer being revealed at the end is a sudden influx of fluency. It's something humans are hardwired to pursue, he says. “Even when you don’t get it, and the answer is revealed, finding that solution feels good,” he said. Our brains are wired to love it!
Is it any wonder then that Wordle has led to a host of clone games? A bunch of knock off apps were taken down from iOS and Android stores, and Twitter even banned a bot that revealed answers of the day to unwitting users. But it's led to clones of the good kind too—Wordle in multiple languages, personalized Wordles that lets you set a word for your friends to guess, Sweardles that lets you guess a random swear word, X rated wordles, numerical wordles… the list is endless.
Wordle is a great study in virality, and even when it comes to trendjacking by brands and social media accounts. At the end of the day, Josh Wordle and a simple game that he designed for his partner became viral sensations because he kept it simple and concentrated on its sharing features. No ads, no designed marketing plans can fully encompass the power viral content has. And Josh's done it by turning a word derived from his surname into a verb. Like a new company can be an uber for a category, there's now a wordle for numbers, or swear words, or German.
Join us again next time for another fascinating tale from the world of startups and corporates. Also stay tuned for more interviews, byte-sized productivity hacks and much, much more. If you don't already, subscribe to our podcast, available now on all leading podcast platforms. Oh and don't forget to share this episode if you liked it. Tag us on Twitter, we're @SketchnoteCo.
Until next time, I'm Nishtha and this has been The Sketchnote Startup Podcast.