/Wordle obsession shows how the pandemic changed status symbols

Wordle obsession shows how the pandemic changed status symbols

  • Wordle, “a daily word game,” has taken the internet by storm in the past weeks.
  • Players can share an auto-generated grid of their results via text message or social media.
  • It’s become a discreet status symbol, conveying knowledge and cultural capital to like-minded peers.

Tangy.

That was last Friday’s Wordle, the first time I successfully solved the word (in three tries, no less!). I was playing under the belief that the game was overrated, likely because I was pretty bad at it until then.

Or maybe it’s more like I was an outsider who couldn’t join the crowd of people on my Twitter feed who seemed smart enough to succeed. 

If you don’t know by now, Wordle, in its branding, is “a daily word game.” You have six tries to guess that day’s five-letter word, or “Wordle.”  If you guess a correct letter in the word, but in the wrong position, it’s highlighted in yellow. If you guess the correct letter in the right position, it’s highlighted in green. Wrong letters are cast in gray. Its twee appeal for some is that you can only play once a day.

The puzzle is simple yet complex, a combination that captured the Internet last week. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Verge, and Insider are just a few of the outlets that reported on the sensation. As journalist John Brandon described the game for Forbes, “It’s like Wheel of Fortune had a baby with Scrabble.”

While other digital games have struck a similar frenzy, such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush, Wordle has achieved symbolic status because it’s a brain game with a built-in way to show off your skills. It’s the latest in the evolution of what are known as “discreet” status symbols, which have shifted even further from material goods to digital ones during the pandemic. 

A new kind of status symbol

Part of the brilliance of Wordle is the shareable auto-generated grid of 30 squares that appears once you complete a game. In three colors — the aforementioned green, yellow, and gray — it captures your journey toward winning (or losing). It’s a feature that enables you to share your bragging rights via text with friends or, more publicly, on Twitter.

Even celebs are obsessed: 

 

But you have to know what the grid signifies to understand what people are actually bragging about, making it a form of “inconspicuous consumption.”

It’s a term that Elizabeth Currid-Halkett coined in her book “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of an Aspirational Class” to describe how status symbols have transformed from the days of conspicuous consumption of items like luxury handbags and fancy cars, which took root during the Industrial Revolution by the nouveau riche to signify social status.

But the top 1% have been spending less on material goods since 2007, according to Currid-Halkett, instead turning to discreet wealth. “This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital,” she wrote.

That inconspicuous consumption often goes unnoticed by the middle class but noticed by a fellow elite is what makes it so discreet. Currid-Halkett described it as an elite shorthand that “reproduces privilege” in a way that flaunting luxury couldn’t. She uses the example of the nail polish color “Ballet Slippers” adopted by women of a certain social status in the 1990s. To an outsider, it’s just pink, but to people in-the-know, it signifies being part of the social elite.

Displaying knowledge expresses such cultural capital, giving a person leverage to climb the social ladder and make connections, she wrote: “In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.”

Wordle grids convey cultural capital and knowledge

Pre-pandemic, reading The New Yorker — or carrying around the brand’s tote bag — on the subway was one way the elite demonstrated their cultural currency. It said, “Hi, I’m a global citizen who is knowledgeable and culturally aware with refined taste and money to spend on a $100-plus magazine subscription.”

But in a pandemic world, this doesn’t hold the same value that it used to. With more knowledge workers working from home, there are fewer like-minded individuals commuting to pick up on physical cultural cues.

Enter Wordle, which expresses the same sentiment where everyone can see it: the internet. Granted, it’s free so no one is actually investing money in it. But they are investing their time, something Currid-Halkett previously told Insider the pandemic has made priceless.

 

You also need internet access to play it, which one in four households don’t have. And you need to have the critical thinking skills and vocabulary to win the game. Sharing your results conveys all of this. But you need to be a fellow Wordle player to recognize that, or at least be a reader of the publications that have written about it.

Of course, Wordle isn’t all humblebrag. We’re in our third year of the pandemic, the middle of the Omicron surge, and winter hibernation mode. That is to say: Wordle is a fun, challenging distraction from boredom. It also helps us connect with others in a time of isolation. Yet, it’s a connection only forged with peers of our ilk. 

juliana andy wordle

My coworkers Juliana Kaplan and Andy Kiersz texting their Wordle grids without me.

Juliana Kaplan


I’ve resisted the urge to share my more impressive Wordle grids to Twitter (although that hasn’t prevented me from bragging about them in this article). But when a couple coworkers divulged they text their Wordle grids to one another, I wanted in on the action. At least then my Wordle score would mean something. 

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