Wanted to text at the next red light.
Got green lights all the way home.

Although it has passed its peak, the #firstworldproblems hashtag and meme are still in common usage. According to that omnipotent resource, Know Your Meme, the phrase is for ironic and comedic purpose.

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.

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Now, there are problems with this phrase, as pointed out by Adam Thomas on Medium. Thomas argues that there are three reasons to abandon the tag:

1. The First World no longer exists.

2. The popular conception of the Third World does not exist.

3. People outside of the ‘First World’ have trivial problems too.

Thomas’ first two points refer to the historical origins of the terms First, Second and Third worlds. Basically, these terms arose during the Cold War, to differentiate countries governed by capitalism (First), communism (Second) and everything else (Third). Of course, as I have argued previously, concepts are not intrinsically attached to words, and ideas and language evolve and change over time. Thomas acknowledges this to an extent in pointing to the rise of globalisation (which mitigates the differences between countries), and the development of a two-world system within the United States of America, wherein 10% of the population own 80% of the financial assets.

But, unfortunately, Thomas’ first point has, well, missed the point.

The “First World” is a concept that is alive and well. The Oxford English Dictionary definition A.n.2 is the relevant one here:

The industrialized, developed, relatively wealthy and powerful nations of the world (collectively); spec. the industrialized capitalist countries of Western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. See also quots.

And, indeed, the OED notes a few key quotations that help to illustrate the wide usage of the term. Even more significantly, the OED adds this:

In early use, freq. as opposed to the communist nations (formerly) constituting the Second World; now more usually as opposed to the less-developed and poorer nations constituting the Third World.

But this is just being pedantic about language. Thomas’ second argument is that these terms are used to perpetuate certain ideas about the world that are changing. I do think that the terms First and Third world are problematic, particularly as it implies an inherent hierarchy. They does not account for the growing economic disparity within ‘First World’ countries, nor the diversity of countries and cultures that are lumped into the Third World category. But the use of the term “First World” does not correspond with the use of the term First World Problems. This means that we cannot blame the latter for perpetuating the use of the former.

No, most interesting is Thomas’ third point, that trivial problems are universal. I absolutely agree. I also concur that self-reflexive irony is not restricted to developed countries.

But the point is about relativism. When we complain about a #firstworldproblem, it may well be the same problem that someone in the “Third World” has. But they may well also have bigger problems, and the hashtag reflects a First World awareness of that. Relative to the rest of our lives, maybe someone next to us sucking loudly on a straw, or someone leaving their indicator on, or a friend not texting us back until the next day IS a big deal. The phrase allows us to laugh about the triviality of our genuinely felt but very small issues without feeling entirely self-obsessed and without any relativism. It allows us to laugh at ourselves.

So is the hashtag just an indulgence in the same complaints that we would make anyway, with a bit of irony and self-awareness thrown in on top? Probably. Will it change the way we think about the First and Third Worlds? Probably not. But laughing about our lives probably won’t hurt anyone either. Even Thomas’ edit notes that.

I just re-read this last paragraph through and it sounds all wrong. Don’t stop complaining. Complain about problems, make fun of trivial things, that’s one of the beautiful things about freedom and communication and all of that other life stuff. But, can’t we just have a funnier, smarter hashtag to use while we do it?

And maybe there is a hashtag that we deserve… but not the one that we need right now.
After all, by the time Thomas wrote his article, #firstworldproblems was already falling out of usage. So complaining about it was, ironically, a #firstworldproblem.



2 thoughts on “#firstworldproblems

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