Social Media’s Diversity Problem

JoeyT
Spark Sheet Good Idea, Spark Sheet

Posted on May 11th 2011

That’s how Wayne Sutton, cofounder of TriOut, summed up social media’s diversity problem in a tweet during last year’s BlogWorld conference.

On first blush, you might dismiss calls for greater diversity as growing pains for a young, expanding business sector. Certainly, social media is not the only area of business in which minorities and women are under-represented. But as educator Kyra Gaunt noted here on Sparksheet, “The structure of these conferences often replicates white privilege. And we should be concerned about this.”

The lack of diversity in social media circles is particularly alarming when you look at the fact that minorities are using social media at higher rates than whites. For example, 36 percent of Latinos and 33 percent of African Americans access social media tools like Facebook on their mobile phones in comparison to just 19 percent of Caucasians.

As marketers, we have a vested interest in the issue of representation because the more minorities find a voice, the more we learn about how these groups want to be reached and marketed to via social media.

Uncovering diversity

After attending South by Southwest in Austin this March, Jay Baer – co-author of The NOW Revolution – posted a piece on his blog entitled “Blinded by the White: Social Media and Diversity.” Baer observed that most SXSW attendees “appeared to be 25-39 years old… and the vast majority were White.”

In response, Danny Brown, co-founder of Bonsai Interactive Marketing, wrote “Social Media – It’s Not Just for White Folks”, adding the weight of data and statistics to argue that social media is, in fact, highly diverse if you’re willing to do the research.

In fact, it turns out that in the United States, a higher percentage of visible minorities are visiting social networking sites on a weekly basis than their non-ethnic counterparts:

The percentage of Americans of different ethnic backgrounds who visit popular social media sites at least weekly. Source: Merkle, View from the Social Inbox: 2010

Likewise, a new annual social media study of more than 23,000 Canadians reveals the relatively high percentage of immigrants and ethnic community members who are not simply following people but producing their own content online.

The numbers show that immigrants and visible minorities in Canada are creating content across 10 social media platforms in significantly higher proportions than the national average:

Canadian minority groups are creating content online in significantly higher proportions than the national average of 20 percent. Source: Delvinia and Environics Analytics

Where are the leaders?

Common sense would indicate that the social media industry’s thought leaders would closely reflect the ethnicity of its most prolific users and that conference organizers wouldn’t be at a loss to find speakers of colour.

But that’s clearly not the case. Peter Chow-White, co-author of Race After the Internet, an anthology to be released in the fall, sees this as part of a larger racial picture. “As long as you have structural inequalities in society,” Chow-White told AP Online, “you cannot expect to have anything less than that on the Internet.”

The structural argument is especially compelling when you compare the high number of minorities using social media with the depressingly low number of Internet start-ups founded by African Americans (1 percent), American Indians (1 percent) and Other Races (7 percent). By comparison, whites account for 87 percent of venture-capital-funded Internet start-ups. Only Asian Americans come anywhere close to competing at 12 percent.

But others, like Lewis Lalanne – also known as Nerd #2 on My Note Taking Nerd Blog – are not persuaded. Lalanne contends that “when more minorities, specifically Hispanics and blacks, get out of their own way, that’s when I believe you’ll see them rocking the mic with the white boys and girls at SXSW, making the big bucks online and blessing the world with their potential.”

Or as Blogworld tweeter Wayne Sutton suggests, perhaps we need to “stop complaining about the lack of diversity in the tech and Web space and just do something about it.”

JoeyT

Spark Sheet

Good Idea, Spark Sheet

See Full Profile >

Comments

I agree with the direction of this post.  I think particularly in the case of people of color well, it's kind of the issue across all of the tech sector--few African Americans, Hispanics, and yes, women.

However, I just attended the Confab content strategy conference in Minneapolis which was very well attended and included pretty much everyone I consider a leading light in content strategy.  My rough guess is that 60-70% of the attendees were women.  

Christina Halvorson, the conference chair, and almost all of the workshop leaders were women.  More than 2/3 of the presenters were women.  

The bad news:  I don't think I saw a person of color at all anywhere at the conference.

How do we move past this? All successful diversity strategies I've been a part of have three components: 1) Recruit under-represented communities into training and education programs, 2) Get 1-2-1 mentors assigned to promising candidates to help them learn and to give them a jumpstart on a network, 3) make sure under-represented communities are represented in the candidate pool for new job openings.  

You can't mandate hiring people, but you can improve the talents of hard-working students and candidates, and mandate that they be given a chance to make their case when a job opens.  

I agree with rohnjaymiller - the road to diversity in Digital Marketing and Content Strategy is to promote and facilitate more mentoring and training programs. I am one of the lucky ones who fell into my role in analytics b/c I had an organic mentoring relationship with my first boss who actually cared about my progress in the field - IMAGINE THAT! The culture of mentoring and training has fallen by the waist side in many company, but it is virtually non-existent when it comes to our young, willing and talented ethnic youth.

Creating programs that promote a more diverse pool of applicants and encouraging mentorship in the Digital Marketing and Content Strategy will undoubtedly tilt the scale of influence non-ethnics have over social media.

There's an irony here in that we are using a traditional viewpoint to examine a new medium. Using that older viewpoint, we see a problem but one might not exist.

Minorities are more active in social media, but we wonder why they are underrepresented at conferences? Because it's a conference - an old (though valuable) form of communication valued by tradional business and social practices. Perhaps the young and new ethnic users of social media don't see the value in this new, interconnected world.

Similarly, we ask where the leaders are, but again that is an old-school, traditional view of things. Perhaps in the level-playing field of social media, there are "leaders," but they lead by reputation and not how many conferences they speak at or books they publish. Rather than making a "name" and getting their face out there, they are producing content and engaging without worrying about name-recognition.

#justsayin