Home / Opinion / Columns /  What Wordle reveals about how we transmit messages
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You may have heard of Wordle, and many people have wondered why. They have explained why the simple puzzle has gained fame across the world. I think they are mostly wrong.

Among the theories that explain its success is that it is simple. But then, many successful games are in fact complex, and many puzzles that are not as successful are simple. Some say Wordle succeeded because it is free, or that it has a pleasing design. One American magazine argued the secret of Wordle is that “it is unoriginal". But then there are so many word games that are free, fun and unoriginal.

Some people have wondered whether the game’s origin story had something to do with its success—its creator Josh Wardle had said that he devised it for his girlfriend. But then everything on earth has a backstory, and it is never the backstory that creates fame; rather it is the fame of an event that makes the backstory cuter than it really is.

Wardle himself has a theory for the wild success of his puzzle—it doesn’t try hard to become addictive; it doesn’t try to take your time, money or sell your attention to advertisers; and that is why the game caught on. I think Wardle, too, is wrong.

More persuasive is the theory that the puzzle’s success is in the fact that its solution can be shared on social media, in an encrypted form. But then what is not shared today on social media? And most things that are shared don’t become viral. A phenomenon requires an intrinsic quality to travel far.

So what is the answer to the puzzle of the puzzle? You may think I am behaving like Wordle on some days, having deemed your top six guesses wrong.

The clue lies in the nature of the people who share Wordle scores everyday. Their motivation to share is the key. In my observation, most of them are not habitual puzzle solvers. Wordle was easy enough for them to solve, and their amateurish excitement in sharing and talking about a puzzle for the first time in their lives is why it became a rage. The glee of a beginner has extraordinary transmission capabilities.

Wordle has introduced two more kinds of people to the world—those who share their Wordle scores and those who mock them for sharing. People who mock remind me of a type. After a plane lands, most people rise the moment it’s okay to do so, to stretch or fuss over their overhead luggage, but some keep sitting and often have smug expressions as though they are more evolved. But the overt public mockers are also amateurs. They are not new to mocking, but new to puzzles and how people react to them. Their sneers have also contributed to the transmission of Wordle.

In all this talk around the game, there is a significant third category of people—those who quietly solve the puzzle and don’t show their results or talk about it. They are invisible. This is the core group of puzzle solvers, and they have always solved more joyous and complex games like the crossword or sudoku. I don’t think serious solvers of the cryptic crossword would ever talk about Wordle, even if they solve it every day. These old-hands, the pros, almost never talk about puzzles. When they do, they speak without wonder or emotion. The reason behind this is the same as why those who are least likely to talk about the joys of drinking are serious alcoholics.

The deeper you are in something, the less you talk about it. It is not a superior or inferior way to be, but just a way of the world. This is at the heart of public articulation, and the human transmission of messages and signals. Did you know there are people who read books and never talk about them?

I have a theory to explain why many substantive books do not become popular, though this is not the only reason why they are doomed. Great books are meant for highly seasoned readers and these are people who do not speak about books long enough, simply enough or in an endearing overexcited way. A person who is accustomed to scholarly works of anthropology and who enjoys the works of, say, David Graeber, will speak very little about them compared to a person who has enjoyed Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Most fans of Sapiens have never read anthropology before; Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, perhaps. So, what they are enthralled by is not the book as much as facile anthropology. Uncorrupted by too much reading to spot the extent of speculative fiction in those pages, they find joy. And their excitement is infectious.

Amateur writers too talk in a more excited manner about the craft of writing than professional or acclaimed writers. All my 20s, I was amused by a phenomenon—you hear a guy say very complex things about books, and then when you read his copy, you wonder where all the analysis went. Many years ago, filmmaker Ramgopal Varma described those who talk about movies in a knowledgeable way but never make anything, or anything beyond short films on social issues, as “Barista directors". Because they would rather talk about films in cafes than endure the hard labour and many humiliations of filmmaking.

But in the transmission of the idea of what a novel is, what a film is, what art is—it is the part-time practitioner’s exotic ideas that have endured.

The whole world is talking all the time and those who are the most persuasive, relentless and loudest are amateurs. People who are mean talk a lot about empathy; people who pollute attend conferences on climate change; people who are new to investing talk a lot about cryptos and options; and megalomaniacs who are new to melancholy can never stop talking about “depression".

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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