Wordle and the Future of Publishing

Wordle, the viral game popping up players’ results in your Twitter feed, showcased some wonderful learnings for the publishing world. Millions of users play it daily. The game’s objective is to guess a five letter word within 6 tries. After guessing a word, grayed out letters are not in the word, yellow letters are in the word but not at that precise location in the word, and green letters are in the word and in the correct placement of the word. Logic, wordsmithing, and luck play a role on whether you can identify the word before your six attempts run out. 

The game was built by a single engineer named Josh Wardle and was recently acquired by the New York Times. I play Wordle and enjoy it. After playing it for a few weeks, I’ve realized Wordle’s brilliance maps with the times of today. First, the longest I’ve ever spent on the game is approximately 5 minutes. The average time spent is less than 2 minutes. Second, there is a force-quit option because only one puzzle occurs a day. A user can only play it every 24 hours. Third, I don’t have to sign up for another login. Instead, just head over to the website and start playing. Convenience is one web browser away. Lastly, you win or you lose. The answer to whether you succeed is minutes away from starting.

Time constraint (24 hours), easy access, short time periods, and nearly instant gratification are the learnings from Wordle’s success. How could a publisher take these principles and apply them to their industry?

This may be a mind map derivative of how I’ve been consuming short stories through this substack with George Saunders. Or, maybe it is because I enjoy doing several small things that take less than 2-3 minutes a day to record and manage life. For example, I still do Homework for Life every day as well as use Reframe to help me manage my relationship with alcohol. In short, I enjoy very bite-sized small tasks that produce long term benefits and reading is one of them. Reading in my house is a production. I have a chair with 3 books and a Kindle next to it and I try to spend at least 15-30 minutes a day reading. The mind shift required and diligent planning to make that time occur is difficult. The time equivalent is like sitting down and doing a full crossword puzzle. Not going to happen often with two young kids, work, life, and living.  

However, take in the product learnings and principles from Wordle, and start with a page a day. Anyone can read one page a day. Imagine a publisher who wanted to build community around an author, particularly short stories and created a “Wordle” for reading. A new page comes out each day of a good story – similar to how George Saunders teaches. If you miss a page, you’ll have to wait until it ends and the author publishes it in another form. If you want to make it interactive, ask a question or two about where the story should go via multiple choice and see if your answer is popular.

There are several ideas to make it engaging but I hypothesize Wordle is the start of a trend for time-constrained content that requires an ounce-sized commitment with accretive progress. Any productive activity that takes away time from eye-ball allocation towards the social media scroll is a win. Wordle is an insightful example.

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