In early January, the New York Times ran an article, “Wordle Is a Love Story,” about a free online game that became a hit overnight. Wordle, which challenges its players to guess the day’s five-letter word — aided by colorful tiles that suggest letter placement — was developed by Josh Wardle to entertain his puzzle-loving partner. In only three months, Wordle’s audience expanded to include hundreds of thousands of players, drawn to the free daily challenge and its ubiquitous grid of gray, yellow, and green squares.
But when the Times announced on Monday that it had purchased Wordle, the romance hit a sour note. Across social media apps like Twitter, the usual daily posts of Wordle grids are interspersed with fans’ bleak predictions of the game’s demise. Wordle will join a slate of other word games owned by the Times — many of which, like the crossword, sit behind a $5 monthly paywall.
Wordle has bloomed beyond the confines of a six-by-five grid to become a magnetic social experience. Its system of color-coded letters allows players to share their step-by-step path to victory without handing out any spoilers. The frustration of near misses, the shock of a first guess that hits the mark — it’s all captured in the Wordle grid, and everyone else wrangling their way through the daily puzzle can share in your journey.
Wordle is delightful because it delivers side-by-side moments of intense personal puzzling and broader social connection without ulterior motive — including without profit motive. Of the draw behind his massively popular creation, Wardle told the Times, “It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs. It’s just a game that’s fun.” Devoid of pop-ups begging for your email or ads nagging you to go premium, it’s all about your quest for those five letters (and whether or not you can guess them faster than everyone in your group chat).
Beloved, iconic, thoroughly memeable — in hindsight, it was only a matter of time before Wordle was commodified. Now, green, yellow, and gray grids will be the emblems of the New York Times’ latest acquisition. It’s too early to tell whether Wordle will join the company’s other word games behind the online paywall, although the paper’s announcement promised that it will “initially” be offered to players free of charge — a caveat that hasn’t exactly inspired faith. Hundreds of thousands of people have welcomed the game into their daily routines, flexing our puzzling capabilities among friends, getting outfoxed by the tricky little words we use in conversation every day. Will the Times value this experience, once free to all takers, at $5 a month?
Perhaps most upsetting for the Wordle community is the idea that for the Times, this game isn’t a destination at all — free or not, it’s the latest move in the company’s strategy to incentivize subscribers and get them past that paywall. Shifting away from purely ad-based revenue, the Times has sized up Wordle’s ability to draw traffic to its site and pull in potential subscribers, eventually greeting them with those pop-up boxes flogging subscription deals and email lists. Wordle’s purpose for the Times is to make the newspaper indispensable to everyone, and for many who have embraced its daily challenge in these past months, this mission will be accomplished.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Wordle gives us a glimpse into a world where passion projects get the time and resources they need to develop and take root in our social networks. In this world, creators don’t rely on income from these projects for basic survival — they can share their brilliant creations for fun, for a challenge, for a sense of community. With high-paying, unionized jobs replacing precarious, all-consuming labor, and a strong social safety net for everyone, we can all create and share our own versions of Wordle if and when we choose to.
In the interregnum, we’ll see the wacky, creative, inspiring corners of our culture sustain endless attacks from profit-motivated companies looking for their next crown jewel. If all goes well, this won’t be the fate of Wordle, and the Times will act as a responsible steward. But under the status quo, greed is a five-letter word.