The problem with #FirstWorldProblems

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal picked up on a string of tweets by novelist Teju Cole, who articulated his issue with the popular twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems.

Madrigal put the tweets together, forming two paragraphs in which Cole tells us the problem with #FirstWorldProblems: They leave the third world with the worst problems without acknowledging that they too can have the problems a more advanced society has.

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.

Most people use the phrase (which is as common, at least in my ciricles, in real-life interactions as it is on twitter) in a self-mocking way — “My life is so good that deciding whether to take my iPod or my iPhone to the gym is my biggest problem.” — and probably see this as their way of acknowledging that there are bigger, much bigger, problems in the world. They see it as an expression of humility.

The political correctness here is almost obnoxious, but the point, at a basic level, that technology issues and difficulty of an insignificant variety isn’t exclusive to middle class America, is a valid one. This stuff can, and does happen to people everywhere every day.

Let it be reasonable for some guy in Lagos to gripe about his Blackberry. Afford the third world their first world problems too.


One thought on “The problem with #FirstWorldProblems

  1. […] year, I wrote about the trend of saying “first world problems,” and how it’s offensive to some people. The argument, while it’s almost too politically […]

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