martin luther's wordle starter
wordle, convergence, catholicism is still vibes
Photo by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash
Like many people, I have fallen victim to the newest trend among the terminally online: Wordle, a word-based game kind of like hang-man. The goal is to guess the word of the day within six attempts. Each guess yields information—a gray box tells you that the letter does not appear in the word, a yellow box tells you that the letter appears in the word though not in that precise location, and a green box tells you that the letter appears at that exact location in the word. There’s a new word every twenty-four hours. All of the words are five letters.
This sort of game is perfect for this particular stage of online life, governed as it is by the rapid diffusion of trends through social media. The game also recreates a sense of scarcity within the digital space. Where a game like Words with Friends and to a lesser extent the Daily Bee allow you to generate words from combinations of letters, Wordle puts out just one puzzle a day. There is one and only one exact solution to the puzzle. You have to wait twenty-four hours to unlock the next one. I think that at this point in life—after ten or so years of a proliferative mode in the online idiom—there is a craving to return to an earlier, slower internet. Before real chronology and temporal relationships were replaced with sped-up simulations of real-time. The Daily Bee has this too, but at least with the Daily Bee, there are many words to make out of the set of letters you are given. The goal is different, and therefore, the temporal relationship does not feel as extreme as in Wordle. The fact of there being one and only one solution also changes the face of problem, right? Like, you get six attempts. And after that, if you haven’t solved it, you haven’t solved it. The game seems designed to slow you down. And that slowing down, I think, is really its secret thrill.
But like with most things online, the meta-game stabilized pretty quickly. And now people ask others “What’s your first word?” There is a desire to optimize, to do it the correct way. I found that kind of funny, honestly. Because if everyone starts playing the same opening words, if we’re all starting from the same starting point, then the game becomes really about who can follow the script the fastest. I guess I mean, once a game becomes optimized in its meta-state via social media, then, like, it ceases to be novel. It ceases to be interesting, because then everyone is really playing the same game. Social media seems to have this intrinsic character of convergence. I talked about that in a previous newsletter. The idea that once you become a part of a digital community, your very participation in that community further optimizes the platform’s convergence upon a single set of ideas, idioms, modes, or what have you.
I didn’t tell anyone what my start word was or ask anyone about theirs because I want to preserve my own experience. I don’t mean that people are pernicious or even that interested in my way of doing things. Wordle as a thing seems totally benign. What I mean is that I have noticed more and more every day that once people decide you have clout or social capital, they want to synchronize with you. They begin to want to converge with you. And that sounds fine, right? Like, people want your opinions. They trust your taste. But the problem becomes then that once you are someone that other people set their watches by, you cease to be a person and instead you become a symbol for good and for ill of a certain kind of attitude. Some people enjoy that. Some people love that. I thought I would like it. But instead, it just makes me feel weird. Like, less of an individual and more of a weird avatar or set of projections.
I think people are so grooved by this that they don’t realize they’re doing it. Like, if I tell you my start word. And you play it. And then other people play it. Then the game stops being fun. Because the number of ways to play it gets reduced. I mean, even the idea of having a “start word” is a style of play. And, it’s true that everything has these kinds of convergent aesthetics. Like, for every system, there is an optimal set of conditions, and the length of time it takes to get there can be calculated. This is just simple mathematics. But for most of human history, those things were invisible to us. They were there if you wanted to look, but for the most part, people just went about their lives, being acted upon by systems and forces, not really thinking about it, just vibing. They weren’t thinking, like, Ah, now this is modernism or Ah, now this is me being post-modern. But now so much of our lives are dictated by this kind of algorithmic convergence, so that I don’t even trust it anymore. We’re all being herded.
For the last little while, I have been doing this little experiment. When I post a book or a passage I am reading and find interesting, people ask me what it is. And when they ask me, I ask them, Why do you want to know? Because here is the thing. Most of the time, they aren’t going to go read it. They aren’t interested in the thing. Maybe they are. Maybe there are people who are interested in it. But for most people, they are asking because that is the behavior by which the algorithm further refines itself and they have spent so much time on the platform that they are acting out the algorithm’s optimization behavior without even realizing it. So when people ask me what I am reading or watching or doing, I don’t tell them. Because I want to preserve my own dumb little route through the universe. It’s not that I don’t want people to come along. It’s not that I don’t want to share with people. It’s just that I don’t think that we are sharing with each other.
There must be some way to partake in shared online experiences in a way that does not feel totally beholden to the convergence and optimization of digital life. Like, there must be some way to share what I am thinking and feeling and watching and enjoying with everyone in a way that does not attempt to replicate my preferences into a trend. There must be some way of sharing that does not machine down my experience into the cuboids of digital life. My quick solution is simply to share and not identify. To focus my sharing on the moment, the instant, the thing I am looking at and to discuss it as a local phenomenon. Rather than to identify it for the marketplace. I am still thinking about it.
One thing about the pace of digital life is that we are living in a time of micro-trends with incredibly shrinking lifespans. At this point, we might as well call them nanotrends. The effect in terms of Tiktok and fast fashion has been illuminated by several interesting video essayists out there. Also, this essay by Safy-Hallan Farah is really brilliant on the idea of aesthetic vlogging, which is different from but related to microtrends and digital life. Also it’s just a great essay. There is a growing tension between GenZ’s focus on sustainability and also their susceptibility to fast fashion from the likes of Zara and Shien as promoted by fashion bloggers in what is colloquially called “haul videos.” In a haul video, the vlogger dumps a pile of packaged clothes in front of the camera and unpacks them, discussing the why, maybe showing some potential outfits. The point of the haul is novelty, abundance, proliferation. We all love to watch acquisition and permutation. Mix and match. I personally am very susceptible to an unboxing! I can’t help it! They are so engrossing! The stuff! The abundance!
What results is a series of microtrends in fashion—outfits and specific garments that spike on social media and then become dated almost in the very next moment. Something that used to take months or years now takes just a few days or hours. Peak saturation can be accomplished so easily, so readily on social media. Think about how the Fleagbag jumpsuit became a symbol almost overnight and then just as quickly became something that no one talked anymore. But by today’s standards, the Fleabag jumpsuit had the longevity of skinny jeans.
So we’re all chasing novelty. The pulse of something new, something brilliant by which we can distinguish ourselves. The irony is that we don’t know it until someone else shows it to us and then we all copy them and the thing ceases to be novel or particular. The result is that digital spaces, which for so long were predicated on the idea of infinitude and endless expansion, are now turning to the idea of scarcity. That is, platforms and the like are trying to contrive situations and modes of thinking that give the impression of scarcity. That’s the whole aesthetic logic behind NFTs. It’s of course not the first time we’ve had this tension. Every time there is an evolution in mass media and mass culture, we have to rethink our relationship to the idea of the individual amid collective experience. I mean, even the Protestant Reformation was really argument about mass media.
Martin Luther probably had a really great starter word, honestly. In my previous newsletter, I talked about how vibes were Catholicism, but also, maybe they are Protestantism as well, lol.
What’s interesting is that the internet and scarcity have, for a long time, seemed opposite. But now it’s almost like our platforms have sensed the upper-bound of expansion’s benefits and found diminishing returns. Therefore, the only solution is the illusion of scarcity. After all, one way to preserve the capacity of a symbol to signify is to limit its quantity or access to the symbol. Things only have meaning if not everyone has access to them, or so the logic goes. It’s an old idea. The heart of all emulation, really. Certainly in terms of the peculiar potency of the leisure class and pecuniary emulation.
But back to Wordle. The one part of the game that cannot be, well, gamed, is the fact of its slowness. Like, you can min-max all you want. You can compile your list of start words and compare and contrast and mimic and replicate all you want, but the fact is, once you solve the puzzle, you have to wait twenty-four hours until there is a new one. Or however long. You can’t punch your way out of that fact. And I feel that this is really what makes it such an interesting manifestation of current moment. Because at the end of the day, no matter how quickly or slowly or in what manner you’ve solved the puzzle, there is nothing for you to do after you’ve solved it except wait. The lifespan of each puzzle is exactly the same.
That’s what I find so interesting about it. That no matter what you do, you still end up having to wait. And if you miss that day’s puzzle, you just miss it. You don’t get to solve it. One puzzle a day with exactly one solution. There is something almost religious about it, no? It feels that in an era of boundless possibility, we have rediscovered the pleasure of a single right answer, and the pleasure of puzzle-solving. I kind of like that aspect to the game. Working out the answer from information gleaned through successive attempts. I don’t want to feel like I’m part of some mass experience of optimizing a game. I don’t want to be told the right and wrong way to problem solve. I want to try my own dumb little words and see what shakes out of it. I didn’t realize early in my online life that I would care about that. I thought the real pleasure of mass experience was disappearing into a crowd and blending in. I always wanted to be a part of something. I’ve been online for years and years and years now. Some of the best parts of my life, the best experiences of my life, have been online. My most important friendships began that way. I love being online.
But being online is only fun if I can be me. And if I can resist the pull to influence others and be influenced. I don’t want to be a replicant. I don’t want to be a cyborg. I don’t want to be just like everyone else, playing the same words and solving the puzzle in the same way. And then in the end, we all fall silent and wait for the next one to arrive as if awaiting the second coming of Christ. Like. I feel that this game should be like a party, all of us kind of moving, dancing our own way, some of us catching the beat, some of us not, so that when you look up and see someone moving in the same way that you are, it means something because out of all the noise of the universe, you two or three or four or five or six people have come to be dancing in that particular way at that particular time.
It used to mean something, finding your people, your herd, your crowd, your familiar souls. It used to mean something to stumble upon people who cared about what you cared about. But now, even amid the internet’s turn back toward the notion of scarcity, it feels like all of our symbols have lost their capacity to signify.
There is something peculiarly Calvinist about Wordle, or perhaps Wordle illuminates something particularly Calvinist about digital scarcity. That in wake of all that stuff out there, our desire to optimize and hone and herd, is really just about validating the idea that there are a few and only a few golden routes through the universe. That what matters is finding those golden routes. But like Calvinism, that’s a mean little Utopia, no?
I’d rather play it the other way, the catholic way.