First World Problems:
The Evolution, Ethics and Repurposing of a Cultural Meme
academic essay by Sierra Terhoch
Internet memes can be described as “small units of culture” that are passed from “person to person by copying or imitation” (Shifman and Thelwall 2567). Often in the form of images, videos, or websites that are diffused to a widespread audience, memes have become influential in the construction and expression of contemporary culture, contributing to the production of popular cultural narratives (dominant stories that are told or imagined by a group and reflect the sense of identity, the values and ideas of a society). First World Problems (FWP)—ironic, one-line complaints made by “privileged individuals in wealthy countries” and intended to point out the triviality of “First World” inconveniences—have evolved into a meme sensation (Don). The complaints, actively spread on social networking sites, can be seen as a societal narrative with a strong presence in popular Western discourse (Don). Recently the phenomenon of FWP has been taken on in human rights campaigns that attempt to raise awareness about “real world problems” such as poverty in developing countries (Kielburger). For example, the Non Governmental Organization (NGO) Water is Life has released a public service announcement (PSA) featuring Haitian villagers in impoverished settings reciting FWP tweets. While there is some discussion in public media addressing the controversy of the FWP meme and its further use by NGOs, there has yet to be a more formal scholarly discussion about the ways in which this narrative is growing to serve different societal and political interests. Given the relatively recent proliferation of cultural memes as a form of life narrative (Shifman and Thelwall 2575) (“acts of ‘self presentation’ where the producer focuses on their own life as the subject” (Sidonie & Watson 4)) as well as the satirical commentary on such a cultural narrative as an attempt to promote human rights, I am prompted to examine the implications of both the reproduction and repurposing of this cultural development.
I am curious to investigate how the FWP meme may or may not reinforce the very self-indulgent Western attitudes that it seemingly critiques, and what this can reveal about collective Western identity. Finally, I question the ethics of an NGO using a “First World” narrative lens to promote “Third World” rights. Throughout this essay I engage with various permutations of FWP to offer insight into these areas of exploration. As Limor Shifman and Mike Thelwall’s research on memes shows that careful attention to a “meme’s evolution will reveal its ties to cultural, political or technological transformations” (2574), I begin by analyzing the initial developments of FWP. I then focus on the Water is Life campaign and its online, public, and media response in order to evaluate the ethics of the use of this particular contemporary life narrative to serve the social activist agendas of NGOs. This work is significant because it demonstrates how as a cultural narrative is circulated and reinvented, as a by-product certain attitudes, ideologies and dominant forms of societal discourse emerge. Furthermore, this examination of the FWP meme illustrates the limitations and complexities of mixing cultural narratives with satire for political and human rights purposes.
In order to best highlight how FWP’ evolution has solidified a dominant rhetoric that influences conceptions of privilege, status and Western identity, it is necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of this meme’s developmental history. As the use of FWP complaints increased in popular culture, their presence became dominant on a 2008 Tumblr blog, The Real First World Problems, where online users post photos that highlight the triteness of their Western inconveniences (Don). Subsequently, the Twitter hashtag—an online filter designed to “organize multiple tweets on a particular topic” (Brock 534)—#firstworldproblems was created and grew to reach an approximate 5 tweets per second (Lobaczewski). The meme has been an inspiration for First World Problems: 63 Things That Totally Suck, a “fast, funny, colorful” coffee table book of illustrated cartoons with FWP captions such as “No 3G in the office bathroom” (Amazon 2013). The e-book, First World Problems: 101 Reasons Why Terrorists Hate Us, also exemplifies how this meme has gained enough notoriety to enter the consumer-based market.
Firstly, I want to bring attention to how the “culturally relevant online [and offline] content” of FWP may work to produce a collective cultural identity that upholds particular norms and values (Brock 530). As Andre Brock’s study on “Black Twitter” reports that racially associative “Black hashtags” (530) influence the construction of “Black Discursive Identity” (533), participants of FWP online social media communities are similarly influencing the construction of Western identity. By collectively associating with the humour of FWP there exists the likelihood of building a culture that defines itself through its privilege—in turn causing oblivion and “desensitization” (Eastwood qtd. in Lobaczewski) to more serious political and social global issues. This trend is particularly visible as the FWP “phrase” has seeped its way into Western vernacular, whereby individuals casually string it on to the end of their and others’ sentences when a trivial complaint is made (Knapp). As FWP becomes normalized and entrenched in everyday Western language, it is more susceptible to being reduced to an empty catch phrase, void of political or social awareness. Brock supports this concept by underscoring how although “Western ideologies reach a broader audience when spread through ‘communication technologies” the accountability of this growing audience to “discuss [the meme] critically” is diminished (Carey qtd. in Brock 532). FWP therefore eloquently illustrates the ways in which a meme’s propagation both shapes collective cultural identity and potentially jeopardizes the quality of critical engagement by privileged social media users.
It is also salient to acknowledge that the consumption of this meme within the context of the “mass market” impacts the meaning that the original narrative holds (Whitlock 12). Gillian Whitlock and Schaffer and Smith stress that the increasing tendency for life narratives to be packaged as commodities for “large metropolitan readerships” (Whitlock 15) can cause meaning to be lost or altered as the interests of the market tend to override the original intended message (Schaffer and Smith 11). While the FWP meme may have the ability to facilitate a higher awareness of Western privilege (Don), I argue that its commodification further oversimplifies very complex issues regarding the distribution of global wealth. By this I mean, that as the coffee-table book authors use cartoon-like drawings to represent FWP and publishers advertise the book as “the perfect insta-gift for….anyone who appreciates an edgy right-now sense of humour” (Amazon 2013), the opportunity for the meme to be approached seriously is limited as it is reduced to a profitable form of entertainment. This can be seen in much of the online reviews of the two published FWP books that celebrate the books for their “absolutely hilarious” “laugh out loud” (Hansen) humour but fail to demonstrate greater cognizance of social issues such as class, race, inequality, and ironically even over-consumption, which are the very foundations for FWP jokes. Therefore the incorporation of the FWP meme into consumer culture illustrates how when a memetic narrative is spread as a lucrative economic commodity, its message can, as a result, be diluted and even appropriated to conform to the interests of the dominant and more privileged members of society.
It is also important to address the most recent permutation of the FWP meme in popular culture where it has been repurposed in several human rights campaigns. On October 3, 2012, the NGO Water is Life—a not for profit charity— released its provocative PSA entitled Hashtag Killer, in which FWP tweets are spoken by Haitian villagers standing in poverty-stricken environments. While DDB Advertising Agency, the creative force behind the PSA, frames the advert as a counter-narrative with the goal of “Eliminat[ing] [the] Insensitive Social Media Meme and Refocus Attention on Real Issues” (Lobaczewski), I instead argue that it fails to live up to the criteria of the counter-narrative genre.
Contrary to conventional modes of counter-narratives in which marginalized groups assert their agency to diminish their marginalization (Schaffer and Smith 3), the Hashtag Killer illuminates the possible complications of using a dominant narrative to speak on behalf of subordinated groups. Firstly, an examination of the ‘First-World-Centric’ approach of the PSA, sheds light on some of the flaws of this counter-narrative attempt. Schaffer and Smith argue that as life narratives are becoming instrumental in human rights campaigns, NGOs often “solicit and package stories” for a privileged audience so that they “will identify with, contribute to, and become advocates for the cause” (14). I find this phenomenon particularly relevant to the public online response to the Hashtag Killer campaign. Inspecting public comments made by presumably Western users on the official Water is Life YouTube posting affirms a pattern of acknowledging their own Western wealth—yet, at the same time, reveals their failure to move beyond this initial stage of self-recognition. Many of the postings include self-interested comments such as “Count your blessings. We in the western world have so much to be thankful for” (dre686), or “I realize how spoiled we are and how silly our ‘problems’ are here” (MyPawsAreUp). It is pertinent to consider how the lives of those in the “Third World” are rendered more significant when they are communicated through the lens of a Western reality, or in this case by literally regurgitating Western dominant narratives within the back-drop of the Haitians’ poverty. I urge us to question why it is that the PSA does not feature “Third World” villagers reading Third World Problems.
Furthermore, as one of the more perceptive public internet comments observed, the audience is offered an immediate “chance to assuage [the] guilt” they may feel when faced with the trivial summations of their own daily reality by donating to the Water For Life cause (DesBremner). Once again these comments underline how the repurposing of this meme does not encourage a larger awareness of the underlying political and social issues behind the struggles of the Haitian villagers, nor does it offer ways to become actively engaged with social change. Such a strategy of employing a cultural narrative can thus be seen as potentially ineffective and even harmful in the sense that it risks strengthening a cycle of self-indulgent narration and fails to give those who are suffering a genuine opportunity to speak.
What is also essential to note about the Hashtag Killer’s disingenuous counter-narrative is not only the narcissistic Western position it reinforces, but the dichotomy between the “First” and “Third World” that is created. Within blogs and online newspapers, popular journalistic criticism of the PSA has discussed how it relies on the “discrepancy between the first and third world” and “focuses on division and difference” (O’Toole). One component of the campaign is a series of “response videos” beginning with a #firstworldproblems laptop screen tweet (i.e. “Putting pants on is the hardest thing I’ve done all day”) followed by footage of a Haitian villager retorting, “You upset with that? Want to switch places?” (TheGiftofWater). I suggest that the juxtaposition of these two very different situations is problematic in that it allows a Western audience to “other” the subjects of these stories of suffering (Schaffer and Smith 12), which can dehumanize individuals in developing nations. Moreover this polarized representation neglects to acknowledge the diverse socio-economic circumstances and challenges that exist in both the “First” and “Third World”. American-Nigerian writer Teju Cole’s critique of the PSA helps to emphasizes this negative aspect of the “First World” –“Third World” binary that is created when he states that “All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. Similarly, all the serious stuff in life doesn’t disappear just because you’re white and live in an affluent country” (qtd. in O’Toole). Thus the narrow world views that can be produced contrasting the “First” and “Third World” realities in the Hashtag Killer campaign point to the limitations of using hegemonic (Western) forms of self-representation to ethically and adequately advance the human rights.
Finally, it is valuable to touch on the role of satire within the reinvention of FWP as it provides insight into the difficulties of mixing such a “rhetorical device” with life narratives and human rights campaigns (Watson). In his analysis of an ironic White House address speech, Nathan Wilson declares “ironic [and satirical] texts [to be] useful in that they can provoke thought, which is itself a worthwhile political goal.” Although it could be reasoned that the Hashtag Killer campaign has sparked conversation in the public sphere, I do not find Wilson’s assertion to be applicable to the PSA. Much of the responsive “thought” elicited (as shown by the previous YouTube comments) is embodied through a Western audience’s myopic contemplation of their economic situation that has failed to translate into further political actions beyond charitable donations. More congruent with my research is Lisa Gring-Pemble and Martha Watson’s explication of the weaknesses of irony and satire’s ability to “debunk a position” (139). They explain that because satire requires an audience to engage with the content beyond the literal level (139), “information regarding important public issues, when conveyed in this manner, frequently goes unnoticed and unexamined” (151). They conclude that satirical humour may not be a reliable method of rhetorical persuasion and can in fact reinforce the beliefs that it aims to discredit (132). In this sense the Hashtag Killer’s use of humor and satire to ridicule the FWP meme’s “lack of sensitivity” (Lobaczewski) to larger global problems restricts the possibility for a more politically sophisticated and critical reception of the material.
Having explored both the memetic evolution of the cultural narrative of FWP as well as the implications of employing a contemporary form of life narrative framed by satire to advance human rights, it is evident that the developments of such narratives can be very complex. The vast propagation of culturally characterized discourse such as the FWP meme has a risk of perpetuating social attitudes of ignorance and perspectives of insularity. As empathy and compassion have the power to cultivate an understanding of the unfamiliar between different individuals, cultures and experiences (Shuman 4) they can be seen as powerful tools in mobilizing a Western audience. This being said, it has been noted by several scholars that as such empathy relies on the audience to have a level of identification with the experience disclosed by the narrator, its use can—as illustrated in the Hashtag Killer campaign—diminish “critical reflection” and “political action” by causing a reader to develop a self-centered perspective (Kulbaga 517). Furthermore the morality of its use in human justice PSAs remains questionable. In considering the use of cultural narratives in the fight for human rights, I continue to struggle with the complexity of how to ethically and effectively apply such ‘texts’ in order to best advance social justice. As life narratives are now intrinsic to advocating for human rights (Schaffer and Smith 24), the satirical use of FWP is not limited to the PSA I analyzed, but is becoming a popular tactic in NGO media. UNICEF New Zealand has recently spread an Internet campaign featuring a popular comedian performing skits of FWP tweets. Likewise, the NGO Free the Children has published a FWP book in which “100% of the proceeds” go to humanitarian charity (Kielburger). This undoubtedly increases the need for a very delicate approach to both the production and consumption of these narratives. I stress the importance of continuing the conversation surrounding the repurposing of a dominant narrative such as the original FWP meme to fight for the rights of individuals in marginalized positions. Even more so, as memes are accumulating power to influence dominant discourse it remains essential that they be delivered and spread within a context that encourages their audience to engage consciously with such potent forms of cultural narratives.
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