Heardle, Hurtling Toward the Internet’s Future

With Wordle’s surging popularity earlier this year came a slew of derivatives like Nerdle, Queerdle, and Trekle, all fighting for second place in the guessing game spotlight. Heardle, it seems, was the real breakthrough hit. Launched in February by product designer Glenn Angelo, Heardle gives listeners six tries to figure out a song’s identity, based on increasingly lengthy clips from the song’s intro. Angelo’s initial inspiration was just the pun of the name, though the concept can be traced back to the television game show Name That Tune,or to its radio-based predecessor, Stop the Music.

Like Wordle, Heardle updates daily, uniting players in listening to a single song together, creating the illusion of people all over the world huddling around the same jukebox. Some days unite the crowd more than others, depending on how avid a tune’s fanbase. I’ve recently seen a couple of different viral social media posts excitedly imploring people to play the day’s Heardle, once when it featured One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” and again when the answer was My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade.” (Full disclosure: I recognized the One Direction song immediately.)

Student Gigi Vincent, who plays Heardle every day, explained the game’s appeal by contrasting it with the movie-clip trivia game Framed. She noted that while the brain behind Framed “clearly has a specific taste, so you can really narrow things down once you understand their repertoire, Heardle is more democratic [in its song choices], and therefore harder,” making for a compelling challenge.

Just as the strength of Wordle’s appeal lead to a purchase by The New York Times, Spotify has heard the acclaim for Heardle and snatched it up in response. This is Spotify’s first game acquisition—the company’s previous purchases have primarily been forms of podcast technology. Spotify’s press release about the acquisition quotes the company’s Global Head of Music, Jeremy Erlich, as saying “We are always looking for innovative and playful ways to enhance music discovery and help artists reach new fans.” According to the release, the company intends to eventually “integrate Heardle and other interactive experiences more fully into Spotify,” building on the eye-catching, meme-able feature of Spotify Wrapped to further gamify music streaming.

The illusion of democracy.

I spoke to media specialist, musician, and Heardle dabbler Sam Hozian about his strong disapproval of the acquisition. He said that it runs directly opposite to the Heardle ethos that Vincent highlighted above, elaborating, “Spotify is the anti-democratization of music. It creates an illusion of democracy because people have a sense that anyone can upload to Spotify and become a hit, but it’s one-in-a million that this will happen . . . It’s not easy for Spotify to make money off of independent artists,” so that’s not where the corporation puts its resources.

Hozian isn’t the only disapproving player. Last week, the BBC ran an article entitled, “Heardle Spotify move hits sour note with some fans.” Complaints lodged in the article include that winning streak stats have been deleted, and that the website is now showing as unavailable in some countries.

Joanna Newsom has been among Spotify’s most outspoken critics.

Until Spotify sees through its plans to more fully integrate Heardle, the main difference is that the challenging songs are now hosted by the streaming app itself, rather than by SoundCloud. Angelo’s original choice to use SoundCloud for the game was not politically motivated. Instead, he’s cited convenience as the reason; the SoundCloud player was quick and easy to set up within a day. SoundCloud, however, would seem to be more in line with Heardle’s democratic ethos. SoundCloud touts itself as “the first music company to introduce fan-powered royalties, where independent artists can get paid more because of their dedicated fans.” Compare this to oft-repeated criticisms that Spotify underpays artists for streaming their work.

Lest I sound like Spotify’s biggest detractor, rest assured that I am a daily user of the platform. Access to algorithmically generated playlists and the playlists of strangers worldwide opens the door to musical discoveries I would otherwise never have made. In this age of attacks on the Internet Archive, when the ubiquity of Amazon’s cloud services make fully boycotting Amazon an uphill battle, it’s tempting to go quietly into the future of the internet—a future in which everything is owned by a small handful of monopolies, pay-walled and demanding access to our IRL identities. Still, I believe that it is important to resist this new wave of the web in whatever ways you can. Maybe you’ll switch from Google Chrome to Firefox; maybe you’ll download some indie games; maybe you’ll give up Spotify for SoundCloud. We all have our parts to play in shaping the fair, equitable, weird, creative internet that we want to see.

infinitely more complex than any map of the path could ever be.


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