Screenshot from Water is Life’s “First World Problems Anthem” ad.
“Got hired … will have to start waking up early.”
“Got caught up with a new TV series … now I have to wait a week between each episode.”
“Wanted to play an old computer game … but my computer is so advanced it won’t run it properly.”
These are just a few examples of the First World Problems meme. But while many find them humorous, some — like the charity Water is Life — are questioning whether this meme and its hashtag are doing more harm than good.
Water is Life, a non-profit organization whose aim is to bring clean drinking water to those in need, is trying to end the use of the #FirstWorldProblems hashtag.
“We’re not setting out to humiliate people who have used the #FirstWorldProblems hashtag,” said Matt Eastwood, chief creative officer at DDB New York, in a statement. But DDB is “attempting to eliminate the #FirstWorldProblems hashtag on Twitter.”
The organization’s ad, “First World Problems Anthem,” which has garnered more than 1.5 million views in less than two weeks, is a one-minute video that shows members of an impoverished Haitian community reading snippets of the meme. The ad has led people to question their use of the hashtag. On YouTube, for instance, user gabrielleprsnuknw commented that she used to use the hashtag but that, after viewing the ad, she “just feel(s) bad.”
Sandritamason, on the other hand, who commented on theworld.org, is concerned over the terms “first” and “third” world, since they’re relics of colonialism.
The #FirstWorldProblems hashtag, a 2009 creation that originated from a meme of the same name, is used to poke fun at what are considered to be everyday Western problems, such as not having a phone charger that’s long enough to reach the bed, or needing two Internet routers because your house is so big.
This isn’t the first time a meme has been the target of controversy. Tammy Vigil, the associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communications, recalls that the “Paul Ryan Gosling” meme also caused a stir.
“Some people will read these out of context and take them [to reflect] his personal stance,” she said. “But really, it’s being taken out of context.”
She explained that memes are used for satire, and that hashtags are generally used to dismiss something.
“They’re not meant for a big trauma. But if used for something that can’t be easily dismissed, it could be a problem,” she said.
Purdue sociology professor Rachel Einwohner argues that the presence of the hashtag means there’s a community of people who are aware of serious global issues. She thinks it’s “odd” that the organization wants to abolish the hashtag because it’s getting attention for the charity.
She considers the ad campaign both “unique” and “powerful.”
In general, University of Pennsylvania junior Jonathan Huang, 20, from Woodstown, N.J., thinks there’s a positive aspect to the #FirstWorldProblems meme.
“It puts a spin on our problems so we see how trivial they are” he said, adding that, after seeing Water is Life’s ad, he feels these “first world problems” are even more trivial than he’d originally thought.
But will the organization succeed in getting people to stop using the hashtag? Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer at Columbia University, is skeptical.
“It’s a smart ad campaign that brings attention to inequality,” he said. “But I’m not sure they can kill the meme — they’re not using a new hashtag.”
Brian Smith, a communications professor at Purdue University, agrees.
“You can’t abolish a hashtag,” he said. “But you can change the meaning.”
He said he suspects that, after this ad campaign, the hashtag will be used more to call attention to serious problems, like clean drinking water around the world, rather than to poke fun at personal problems.
But Gelila Haile, 19, a Penn sophomore from Sugarland, Texas, says there’s a middle ground.
Haile, who originates from Ethiopia, said she knows what a third world problem is and that she doesn’t “think the first world problem part should be overemphasized.”
“Complaining is natural,” and everyone has these kinds of problems sometimes, she said.
She stressed the importance of educating America about what’s going on in other countries.
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