I hate it when I check my food order after I pull out of the drive through, and I have to walk inside to ask them to fix it.

How does that complaint strike you?  Mildly amusing?  Ironic?  Or are you offended at my callousness toward those who are actually suffering?

The Twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems is a popular one.  It typically follows a comment like the one I just wrote.  As you can imagine, then, it is used primarily to highlight the irony of such a statement, to point out that it is not in fact a real problem.

A recent ad campaign from the organization Water Is Life uses this Twitter meme to great effect.  Here is the video:

The ad is generating a small bit of controversy.  I think we need to keep a few things in mind before rushing to one conclusion or another.  First, as Time notes, even the Haitians featured in the ad understood the joke, even laughing at some of the tweets.  As I said, it is supposed to be ironic.  Whenever this hashtag is used, the person sending the tweet is acknowledging that their problem is not really a problem, all things considered.  Phone charger won’t reach?  Be grateful you have a cell phone.  They gave you pickles?  Be thankful you can afford fast food whenever you want it.  In essence, this is the sort of moral exhortation that the hashtag is implicitly giving to us.  Water Is Life is merely taking that exhortation and expanding it, and then providing you with an immediate and tangible way to help people.

Second, to push back, we do need to be careful that our amusing irony doesn’t simply become callous and unthinking.  There may be nothing wrong with the meme in itself, but a person who tweets 5 of their first world problems every day should probably find something more constructive to do.  Not unlike people who post pictures of every meal.

There is a time and a place for ironic self-deprecation, but note that Twitter effectively abolishes any notion of “place.”  Our tweets potentially reach anyone with an internet connection.  When you cannot control your audience, you need to take even more care with the words you use.  Moreover, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of letting a hashtag justify anything we feel like saying.  Acknowledging beforehand that we’re about to be petty and shallow does not in fact give us permission to be petty and shallow.

Third, we should also remember that people in the so-called first world do in fact experience genuine suffering.  We don’t want to be callous in either direction.  Cancer, mental illness, unexpected deaths and poverty are all realities in America as much as they are in the third world.  Exhibiting too much high-minded irony towards the problems of first worlders actually betrays one of the major problems of the first world, that we are materialists.  We consume and consume, hoping in vain that the next iPhone will finally make us happy.  Compared to someone who does not have an iPhone, how could we possibly experience real suffering (which is defined, of course, as not having an iPhone).

In the end, this ad is just smart marketing.  It really shouldn’t offend anyone, because if you’ve ever used #FirstWorldProblems in a tweet, this should have been the very point you were trying to make.  Now when you forget your Dr. Dre Beats at home and are forced to suffer the indignity of using the standard earbuds that came with your iPhone 5, you can use this meme to give your followers a chuckle and actually help contribute to a worthy cause at the same time.

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.