So The New York Times just bought Wordle. This is not surprising, but it’s definitely disappointing. Wordle is an uncommonly successful small project in a Web dominated by large corporate platforms, and its acquisition only leads us further in that direction.
If you’re out of the loop, Wordle is a daily word-guessing game that’s exploded in popularity over the past month. Each day, you get six guesses to try to find that day’s five-letter word, and the game gives you hints along the way. I’ve been playing the game daily for (only) four weeks.
Today’s Web is dominated by platforms. The average Web user will spend most of their time on large platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Google Drive/Docs, YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, Gmail, and Google Calendar, along with sites operated by large publishers such as The New York Times or The Washington Post. The typical Web user does not have their own website; they probably share content using one of the above platforms. And they probably don’t visit any small websites either.
The Web wasn’t always this way. I’m not old enough to remember this, but things weren’t always so centralized. Web users might run their own small website, and certainly would visit a good variety of smaller sites. With the increasing availability of internet access, the Web has become incredibly commercialized, with a handful of companies concentrating Web activity on their own properties.
Wordle was a small site that gained popularity despite not being part of a corporate platform. It was wonderful to see an independent site gain attention for being simple and fun. Wordle was refreshingly free of attention-manipulating dark patterns and pushy monetization. That’s why it’s a shame to see it absorbed, to inevitably become just another feature of one large media company’s portfolio.
The New York Times say that Wordle will “initially remain free to new and existing players,” which is another way of saying that they might put it behind a paywall eventually. But even if they don’t, it won’t be the same to play a version of Wordle that encourages you to check out the Spelling Bee next, or asks you to subscribe to access tomorrow’s puzzle a day early.
This is not to say that I have any animosity towards the game’s creator. Given such a large price tag, it’s hard to imagine not accepting a buyout offer. But I resent that we live in a system where any independent creativity is exploited for financial gain.
The spirit of Wordle will live on in other small independent creative websites. But it’s still sad to see the acquisition of this beloved independent game.