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Is Social Media Really Homogeneous White Milk?

 

On a regular basis, someone in the world of social media publishes a list of “power users” or “influencers.” Sometimes it is a list meant to represent a certain niche in the online world. For example, you might see a list of the “50 top marketers on Twitter.” What is highly disturbing to me is how focused these lists tend to be on white American social media practitioners.

There are two potential reasons for this consistent and disturbing oversight. The first explanation is that maybe Americans, specifically white Americans, use social media more than anybody else. That hypothesis falls apart pretty quickly, however.

Take a look at this study published on April 17th of this year regarding worldwide usage of social media platforms. The U.S. and Canada, grouped together, shows a lower percentage of usage than all other regions of the world.  Granted, the sample size in this case was small, 1,000 people. This Mashable study from January of this year offers more insight. While the U.S. shows more social media participants, other countries are growing far faster in the online world, and many of the cities where social media is used most are located well outside the boundaries of the U.S.

Clearly, even if the U.S. leads the world in social media users, there are plenty of other people from all around the world from which to choose when making lists of influential people.

Option two is far more bothersome, but it seems more probable. Despite the fact that social media has the potential to shrink the world, it seems that most people who generate lists limit their thinking to popular, powerful social media accounts that belong to white people, and especially white men. We can encounter a catch-22 here, of course. The person making the list may not think there are many non-white, non-American influencers out there because they don’t network with those accounts, and thus, they feel there aren’t any accounts worth of making a list. In order to place someone on a list, you have to take the step to know about them first.

One also wonders, though, why there isn’t more of an outcry about such things. A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine made a list of people he felt was influential and one of his European friends said, partially in jest, “Where are the European people?” The list was almost exclusively, if not completely, American users. Why are there not more efforts online to mix things up though? Why are African American, Muslim American, Asian American, and Hispanic American users not more vocal about getting the attention they deserve?

Perhaps there is an unwillingness to rock the boat, or maybe such protests are drowned out by people who don’t want to hear that bigotry may have woven its way into the online world. Maybe people just don’t want to rock the boat.

Well, I’m rocking the boat. I don’t have any answers as to what is going on in the U.S. as we network with other users and identify who is powerful and who is not. This is not a cry for lists of “Top 50 African American Twitter accounts,” either. I don’t want more segregated lists emulating the Forbes “20 Top Women” list. I want us to melt together. We have a better opportunity of making that melt happen online than we do in the offline world, don’t we?

What is stopping us? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Article written by
Margie Clayman is the Vice President of Client Services at Clayman Marketing Communications in Akron Ohio. She blogs at www.claymanmarketingcommunications.wordpress.com and at her own personal blog, www.margieclayman.com.
leeevans
leeevans

Thanks for taking the time to discuss that, I really feel strongly about it and love learning more on that topic.http://hulkbody.biz

susie_parker
susie_parker

I think many North American brands focus "locally" versus globally. I'm thinking not too many European or Asian businesses would know how great we are too. ;) That being said, I think we can always do more to promote the work of others who deserve recognition for rocking the boat and causing more paradigm shifts.

TheRelationshipInsider
TheRelationshipInsider

Personally, I don't care about lists, what sex or color they are, or where they're from.  I care about "substance."  It rises to the top sooner or later.  I have found a lot of golden needles in the haystack.  They may not "speak" often, but when they do, I listen because I can count on them to teach me something new or think about things in a way I hadn't considered.

Seth Sklar
Seth Sklar

It looks like I'm a little late to the party, but better late than never. First, as a white American male, I'm thinking that I should be insulted that I've never made anyones top ten list :). Margie - you know these lists are a joke. That they are nothing more than popularity contests and ego boosters. 

I was at a conference here in NYC a few months ago and met a handful of these top social media performers- after 5 minutes in real life, they clearly shouldn't be on any list. 

Perhaps the lesson I take from your post though is that we all need to use social media to broaden our "box". To expand our comfort zone.

 

My own pet peeve is all the "Top Women .." Lists.. Also a joke, but why are women limiting themselves as well. Just like I want to follow all intelligent people; men, women, all races, all everything!  If you're smart or funny etc.. that's all that matters to me. So why create a list of top women social media influencer's either. In my opinion that also denegrates women, why do they need their own list. All influencers should be mixed together, and I'm pretty sure the top 10 would be well represented by women.

 

 

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

Quite a few of these lists are based upon who does the best job of marketing their blogs and are not necessarily contingent upon who is deserving.

 

I am not convinced that color plays a big role.

DrewCM
DrewCM

As a white man, I completely agree with your take, @margieclayman ! I'm a little embarrassed that the demographic skewing of these lists is used to assess the whole. And does so, in a woefully inaccurate manner. I love many of the people who appear at the top of lists, but I don't follow many lists in the mainstream for many of the reasons you cite. Instead, I work with peers to connect me to people who I don't know, and build my own lists so I can avoid the din of an social media echo chamber.I think one factor that plays into the current state of recognition is confirmation bias, certainly in the case of an immediacy stream like Twitter, is the time difference. We look for people during our business hours and follow those who are most visible then. Perhaps when US-based journalists or publishing companies go in search of users and usage they look during their own business hours? Twitter between 8PM and 8AM USA EDT is a very different place and the voices present are diverse and often absent during the USA waking hours.

 

Thanks for rattling my cage. I love a good intellectual shakedown!

BlueBirdBC
BlueBirdBC

Rock on Margie! This post is very fitting for Jure's @jkcallas birthday because it says something about our broken ways of measuring influence. Who has the right or the tools to even publish these lists?

And it's funny because as somebody that works in social media I feel very much like a minority. It's obvious that there are more women active and influential in the digital media world. My hope is that the social media revolution will teach us that gender, race, location, money.... are secondary to success and influence. 

leaderswest
leaderswest

Boat rocker. :) It's a really good point given the demographics of social media users both domestically and internationally, Margie. I don't mean to diminish these lists but I tend to concur with Malcolm Gladwell when he wrote about our silly obsession with lists. In one example, a Michigan judge asked lawyers to rank law schools by esteem. Penn State was ranked around the middle despite the fact that there is no law school at Penn State. You're high on my list, and that matters.... to me. :) 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Blame the publications for not casting a wide enough net, or truly knowing the marketplace/industry they're meant to be reporting on.

 

If it's OK to drop a couple of links here (and please remove them if not, Carol, not my intent to link willy nilly), I wrote about the strong non-Caucasian leaders back in March 2011:

 

http://dannybrown.me/2011/03/26/social-media-diversity-culture/

 

As an addendum to that post, our friend @thebrandbuilder expanded a comment into a post around the same topic:

 

http://dannybrown.me/2011/07/11/social-media-gurus-real-work-and-diversity/

 

The right people are being recognized. The wrong publications are getting the discussion going.

 

Good stuff, miss!

OneJillian
OneJillian

You've articulated a thought that I've had on simmer for a few "list cycles" Marjorie. I admit to scanning the power influencer and most notable lists first for the (for lack of a better term) variety, before going back to comb through for the familiar. 

 

I often used these lists when starting out in social media, to discover accounts that I thought would bring added value to my twitter feed. Lots of them WERE good follows and I'm happy to call some of these guys my friends today. 

 

I know now the lists serve as another layer of marketing in so many cases they need to be taken with a grain of salt. But I also know people are on-boarding and looking for the "directions" and these lists are somewhat of a starting point and an inspiration for brands and individuals who want to make the biggest impressions. In the end, i remind myself that people are people no matter where you put them. If we're looking at an American outlet, it's going to review and congratulate American members. But if we look at Asian, European, Australian, Middle Eastern outlets, I would expect that they will also highlight those in their member base, too.  I think we have to be the change we want. When we start pushing for a true amalgamation of global social, we will start seeing the information we consume addressing more global interests. Did that even make sense? I know what I'm trying to say, but it's hard to make it sound easy. 

susangiurleo
susangiurleo

We're still a society that sees white men first. It's so engrained, we don't even notice when the rest of us are left out. Until you point it out, Margie. And for that I am grateful!

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @TheRelationshipInsider I think a lot of people approach lists that way, which is great. However, lists also have a certain power associated with them, you know? And when you have power in the online world, what you say and do matters. The message these lists send is negative or at best myopic, whether a lot of us pay them much attention or not.

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @Seth Sklar  I agree. That's why I said I don't want the answer to be, "Let's make a list of the top xyz" people. That doesn't accomplish anything. I would even say that segregation can make the situation worse. "There, we placated everybody." It's a short-cut.

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

PointA_PointB
PointA_PointB

 @Seth Sklar  Bravo, Seth! Well said. Agree to some extent on the popularity game. Women might not get listed at all if there weren't separate lists - but I kind of hate them too. In a perfect world I would love to see more diverse list as well. 

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @DrewCM You raise an important point. There is a tendency to attack the people who do make the lists as if they're undeserving. I don't want to go there, I'd just like to see more diversity. I have to believe it's an attainable goal. There have got to be folks out there who are equally deserving of kudos but aren't getting 'em.

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

PointA_PointB
PointA_PointB

 @DrewCM  @margieclayman Your business hours point is a strong one, Drew. But that doesn't completely explain the skew toward white men. Presumably, in a country as diverse as the United States, we have plenty of Hispanic, Asian, etc. professionals who should be on our radar as they share the same time zones. 

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @Tweet4OK  Thanks Frith. I'd love to chat with you some time about how social media usage differs in Europe. We've touched on that slightly on Hecklers' Hangout but I think it would be interesting to learn how Europeans view Americans online. It might be humbling for us 'muricans, in fact. 

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @leaderswest Thanks Jim. It's a tricky issue. On the one hand, lists don't really matter. That's true. In the grand scheme of things, little slices of issues don't *seem* to matter. But I feel these lists betray a way of thinking, a damaging way of thinking, that we are letting slide by in the online world. At least here in the US. I find that part of it very disconcerting and very important.

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

PointA_PointB
PointA_PointB

 @Danny Brown  @thebrandbuilder Hi Danny, as keeper of the keys for the blog, relevant links that add to the discussion are just fine with us. Thank you so much for your comments. 

OneJillian
OneJillian

 @Danny Brown  @thebrandbuilder i definitely read both of these Danny (and Olivier). So I'm glad you brought the links into this discussion. I hate how the social web is so fractured. But I love how there are many who go out of their way to point out the old habits of our culture, too. Yeah, no extra comments here, just a bunch of compliments.

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @Danny Brown  Thanks Danny. I remember that post of yours really well. I didn't know Olivier back then so I guess I'll have to go back and read his. Too bad it's two years on and we're still talking about the same stuff, huh?

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @OneJillian Absolutely it made sense, and I thank you for your great thoughts.

 

To an extent I agree - Americans are more likely to promote Americans just as Germans would be more likely to promote Germans. Even given that though, are there only five women in the whole social media world that should make these lists? I find that hard to believe. There are a lot of great people who might be non-white, non-male, still American, who get the shaft. So then we need to look at who these listmakers are. What is the pool they're swimming in? How do we change that?

 

It has been rubbing me the wrong way for about as long as I've been online, so I thought I'd end my silence about it.

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

 @margieclayman  Look at who speaks at most conferences. It is the quite frequently the same people. People like to go with what they know because they fear being embarrassed.

 

Since we aren't using data here but perception I think we are going to run into a challenge trying to come to a consensus. about whether there is an active bias or not.

 

I am still not convinced there is. When I talk to organizers of the "list posts" and I have spoken with many they always tell me there is limited time in the day to research and so they default to the "big" guns.

 

We can flip back into a discussion about metrics and what is significant. It is a bit of a Gordian knot at times.

OneJillian
OneJillian

 @PointA_PointB i find solutions to be very fascinating. it's extremely easy to point out and examine problems. but getting out and OVER is something that is worth the effort, no matter how much. i like creative solutions. puzzles.

OneJillian
OneJillian

 @margieclayman i think a lot of us are scared to rock the boat, to become a voice of activism - but that's exactly what we need. And you absolutely have my respect for adding your voice to the chorus and stating your concerns.Also, yes I share your disbelief that the entire landscape of social media users and leaders in America are reviewed for these lists. I am 100% confident there is abundant diversity in this space even in niches like "marketers on twitter" or "sales pros on linkedin"....There is more to choose from and a bigger variety of leaders to highlight than what we're getting.And I think that NYT  article my friend Jordan contributed is a telling tale as well... http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/how-social-networks-drive-black-unemployment/?hp <--- for anyone who wanted a second dimension on this dicussion...

 

 

So....in that vein, can we, as users, urge collaboration between these top american outlets and top (hate using this divisive term, but) ethnic american outlets to start combining influencers into more accurate "best of" lists? That seems like a doable baby step forward.

margieclayman
margieclayman

 @Danny Brown I also wonder if by linking to these lists in protest we aren't propagating the same things. I've tried to make my own lists in response but that also ends up ticking people off too if they don't "make it." There should be a better way to infiltrate the world of professional list makers. 

Latest blog post: Once in a Lifetime

 
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