First world problems  

As a social enterprise with a team who regularly volunteers, examining our impact on the communities we work and volunteer in is a common occurrence. Around the office we talk about the pros and cons of volunteerism both domestic and abroad, and how we can lead our lives in a way that has the highest positive impact on those around us.

Recently, one of our staff stumbled across a viral video, titled First World Problems Anthem. The video, which features individuals from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, standing in front of worn down buildings and old streams while reading tweets from the popular #FirstWorldProblems hashtag, has racked up over 6.5 million views since its release.

Anyone who has ever used, or viewed and found humour in, the hashtag itself, is sure to have a moment of remorse or guilt for complaining about problems that ‘aren’t really problems,’ as the video points out during its conclusion.

It’s a lesson in perspective and relativism, and it’s certainly deserving of the amount of views it has. It does a fine job of making viewers stop and think, or, more importantly, stop and remember that things could be considerably worse.

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Like any good viral campaign, a conversation about the video, and its far-reaching implications, has sprung up across the internet. In true internet fashion, the debate has managed to turn what appears to be a black-and-white “don’t whine about meaningless issues” conversation into more of a grey area “but why don’t my problems matter?” dialogue.

For starters, using the ‘plight of poor 3rd world citizens’ stereotype to make a point doesn’t sit well with some critics of the video. The aforementioned article makes a compelling point that simply saying, “Your problems don’t count because there are those that have it worse,” is not always the most appropriate way of putting things into context.

Yes, maybe your toilet breaking isn’t a world-ending issue deserving of the inevitable post you shared on social media, but at the same time, just because there are people living in areas where plumbing is but a far-fetched fantasy, does not necessarily mean that your toilet problems are invalid.

The author from DailyBeast.com continues to drive home his point, arguing that sometimes attempting to render North American’s problems obsolete by things like comparing them to the latest tragedy of a far away land, is inappropriate:

“Take the bomb-throwing atheist Richard Dawkins, who rolled his eyes at allegations that female atheists are routinely forced to endure the awkward advances of male atheists. Dawkins commented acidly, ‘Yes, yes, … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.’

The anti-Dawkins chorus responded—led not by theists, but by progressives who hate Islamophobia more than they hate religion—pointing out, quite rightly, that just because many women in the Muslim world are victims of sexism, institutional discrimination, and daily indignities doesn’t mean that inappropriate comments in the West are therefore rendered appropriate.”

A good point, but in the same moral grey area style this author writes in, let’s keep in mind that it doesn’t mean the video doesn’t have substantial validity.

For every detractor, it seems there are at least twice as many supporters of the video. The video, by the way, was created by WATERisLIFE, an organization that is doing incredible work worldwide. Their website is full of information that lends credibility to the importance of the video and the urgency of the cause, such as the fact that 1 in 5 children under the age of 5-years-old will die from waterborne disease every day this year.

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It seems fair then that using a guilt trip campaign will have the desired impact of making people think twice about what they share on social media and how they can help those less fortunate.

CNN’s coverage features some of the YouTube comments from the video, for reference:

“I used to think that first world problems were hilarious, but now I just feel bad.” 

Another person laments: “Okay (it’s) true I am a self centered stubborn brat. I have no idea how good I have it.”

The executive director of WATERisLIFE, Kristine Bender, weighed in at the end of the CNN article:

“People are becoming desensitized to suffering and we needed to enter the social space with a provocative approach to get those who are lucky enough to have simple things such as water, food, and shelter to reflect on their 140 characters and support causes like WATERisLIFE.”

Great point. How do you get people who are being bombarded by information 24/7/365 to not just pay attention to the information you’re sharing, but to actually care enough to absorb it and then take action?

Most organizations will never have an Ice Bucket Challenge level of success with their campaigns, and unfortunately, the reality is that even charities and non-profits are in a competitive market chasing support much the same way for-profit businesses are. So maybe the anti-FirstWorldProblems Anthem crowd could remember that WATERisLIFE deserves a little bit of leeway regarding their approach.

After all, they have created a conversation that was long overdue in Western culture.

We watched the video as a team and felt deeply moved to remember to check our privilege at the door before we indulge in sharing our own petty complaints.

It’s great that people are thinking more deeply about what they’re sharing on social media and how their words impact others. After all, whether you view this as an important moral issue or not, couldn’t we all spend a little more time reflecting on what we say online?