Although shortening attention spans allow for the term to seem new, American Exceptionalism influenced the attitudes of US citizens long before the term resurfaced as a rallying cry against current national dissonance. As far back as the Gay (18)90s and the Roaring 20s, aggrandizing the periods during which we live predates Facebook’s ascent as the primary justifier of everyday self-worth. And while people continue to make light of the lack of consensus on how to nominally describe the first two decades of the 21st century, advances in technology indicate how we perceive the period, for both better and worse, collectively and as individuals.
The Twitter hashtag #firstworldproblems gave users a way to display a shared perception within a global context of relative privilege. The popular line has allowed people to lament mundane inconveniences while alluding to the plight of the less fortunate. Straddling the line between complaint and gratitude typifies the human condition in spite of socioeconomic position, but #firstworldproblems reveals more about the would-be self-aware Twitterverse than its satirical commiserations may have intended.
#Firstworldproblems takes established markers of westernized expansion and slaps a “We’re Number 1!” sticker over them, setting an altogether new standard for greatness. The ‘first world’ described in common parlance today is merely an evolution of the ‘New World,’ which once described the eventually colonized Americas. And although ‘new’ seems unfit to describe a civilization several hundred years in the making, its replacement with ‘first’ imposes a haunting relationship with the ‘third world,’ which refers to underdeveloped countries (read: places where non-white people live without needs and conveniences that people of all races take for granted elsewhere).
In fairness to those who refer to current, developed countries as the ‘first world,’ its relationship with respect to the less fortunate is more immediate and therefore more relevant to current social discourse. And the inherent commentary of framing a ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ with none in between underscores the socioeconomic disparity that afflicts even the most powerful and advanced countries. However, it is doubtful that #firstworldproblems meant to call out the social injustice of such a dichotomy, especially considering how it spread for comedic value. In the event that the hashtag’s aim were so true, #firstworldproblems still does little more than acknowledge socioeconomic disparity from a comfortable position where no further action seems worthwhile. Rather, the cavalier popularity of #firstworldproblems admits widespread compliance to an unfair system, using self-deprecation as a shield against admonishment for frivolous grievances. And although satire can catalyze change, isolation has been an ironically strong byproduct of unprecedented interconnectivity, creating an image of humanity that foreshadows a divided future.
Despite the war (more like ‘wah!’) that Millennials have declared on Baby Boomers for creating unforeseen economic challenges (with which no other generation ever can relate, apparently), history suggests that this generation, as all others have, will find a way to tout its own greatness. Exercising the freedom to bemoan the trappings of modern inconveniences in jest affirms that this generation’s greatness may come partially in the form of a flawed inheritance and limitless access to each other’s lives. Perhaps this combination will lead to a more informed generation of active citizens driven more by the need to leave the world in better shape than it was in than the disillusionment of not having the lives they were promised. The former group and the ‘First World Problems’ hashtaggers do not seem to be of like spirit, but whichever prevails to write their own history will teach plenty about what our real problems were, and what we did about them.