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.”