The first world problem problem

by Toby Manhire / 08 December, 2011
Is #firstworldproblems a handy, funny shorthand, or a small-minded condescension?
First world problems. You may have encountered this ironic category on Twitter, on Facebook, or even on that most old-fashioned of social networks: spoken conversation. What does it mean? Over to the site that helps you know your memes: Know Your Meme.

First World Problems, also known as “White Whine”, are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.


The most circulated example with the hashtag #firstworldproblems on Twitter as I write is this:

The ‘Low Battery’ flash on my blackberry makes me think I have a text.


From the latest batch at the Tumblr collection First World Problems:

I have to take the stairs every day in my condo instead of using the elevator in order to avoid making small talk with the front-desk attendant.


There’s also a category devoted to the genre at Reddit.

And the site White Whine collects Facebook examples, such as:

my dad just told me that we were getting a 62 inch plasma tv a 3d blu ray player an xbox and surround sound – but he still won't get me an ipad.


While White Whine scoops up examples that almost invariably betray a total lack of self-awareness, the Twitter hashtag tends to be deployed as a knowing wink – a kind of, “I’m aware my complaint is trivial in the grand scheme”.

But just when the liberal guilt assuaging device has become ubiquitous, along comes a liberal critique, delivered – via Twitter, naturally – by Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole.

In a series of tweets reproduced at the Atlantic website, he writes:

I don't like this expression "First World problems." It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here's a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.


One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion's technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don't wake up with "poor African" pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is--quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.


Cole's thesis touches a nerve with the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, who writes:

It builds a useful sense that one's problems are not the only significant things in the world. I've probably even used it, and I've certainly thought it. But, for inchoate reasons, I have come to dislike it when people tweet #firstworldproblems.


Mind you, as with any such enquiries that posit a kind of moral hierarchy of concerns, arguments can end up chasing their own tails. As one commenter on the Atlantic post puts it, paraphrasing Madrigal:

"I've used the term, previously thought it apt, see the humor in it, but am still uncomfortable with it because of some 'inchoate' deeply ingrained white guilt."


MIGHT AS WELL HASHTAG THAT #FIRSTWORLDPROBLEMS.




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