Lacy and Mark Z: Train wreck or lynch mob?

by Mathew on March 9, 2008 · 31 comments

Not long after the interview with Mark Zuckerberg had wrapped up at South by Southwest, the Twitter messages started flowing, with people I know calling Sarah Lacy’s interview with the Facebook founder “a train wreck” and “the worst interview I’ve ever seen.” Soon there were blog posts about the debacle at CNET and at Wired, and almost all of them said that Lacy just didn’t come across well during the interview — that she was too personal, too flirty, that she told rambling stories instead of asking questions, didn’t ask about the important issues, and so on.

If you dig a little deeper, however, you get the distinct impression that the crowd was unruly at best, and that they may have turned on Lacy as a result of what appears to be a laid-back interviewing style. Some have suggested that she did her best in interviewing a guy who is not just shy (as he has admitted to Scoble, among others), but has also presumably been trained to reveal as little as possible. As one Twitter poster put it: “Sarah Lacy got stuck trying to do a normal interview in front of an audience that was out for blood. And Zuckerberg was over-briefed.”

I’ve done my share of interviews — many of them with CEOs who have been trained within an inch of their lives to stay “on message,” and some of whom are notorious for being difficult, if not impossible to interview — and I can say that reading the descriptions of the interview with Zuckerberg made me cringe a little for Sarah Lacy. Those kinds of things are hard enough to do when it’s just two of you, let alone in front of thousands of people who have their own idea of where the interview should go. If you’re interested, you can find more impressions of the event through Terraminds.

So did Sarah’s style just not jibe with the format, or did she not read the room properly, or was the crowd at SXSW really just out for blood after too many complimentary Austin highballs?

Update:

I haven’t watched video of the interview itself yet, but watching an interview that Austin 360 did with Sarah after the event, she seems untroubled by the whole thing, saying there was a small minority “at the back of the room” that got upset, and that in retrospect she didn’t think Zuckerberg was “a good fit” with a conference like SXSW because it was mostly developers who wanted to talk about APIs. She also says that she gets this kind of reaction all the time because she’s one of the few women who report on tech. Mark Evans has a take on how Twitter affected the response to Lacy’s interview.

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  • http://scrawledinwax.com scrawledinwax

    What bugs me about this is how it reinforces my sense that a lot of the web 2.0 'technorati' are actually a bunch of elitist… wait, can I swear on your blog? I mean, I get it, a lot of people who are pushing the web forward are very smart, very young, and it bears saying, very cute – but even though the interview did seem to be a bit terrible, the reaction just seems… I dunno – petulant? Jealous? Or just pointless schadenfreude?

  • http://paul.kedrosky.com Paul Kedrosky

    You Canadians are sooo darn nice and even-handed.

  • Allen

    Matt – Here are some thoughts… I was sitting in the 3rd row, got there 90 minutes early to get a good seat and settle in to do live blogging – and nearly 5 minutes into the interview, people started turning around saying negative things about where it was headed. Just to clarify some of the other blog posts, I'd guess 5,000 were watching this live – not 1,000. Was she there to push the book? When I think about it now, I actually don't think she realized when the crowd first started getting loud with applause that the movement was against her moderation versus with her.

    Personally I was very much looking forward to this interview — the only time I heard Mark speak live was at TC40 which was shorter (i think longer would have been great) and most of it was an infomercial for the fbFund. I was hoping that there wouldn't be any announcements here and we could some answers on the future mostly. What's interesting is that just minutes before it started, someone came over and told me he was going to announce something big – not sure if that was the French version or if it turned out to be false.

    I found the interview more awkward than anything and a bit boring. She came across as a close personal friend of Mark's and he seemed to not be having it. She cut him off a bunch in the beginning. She kept referring to “Leslie Stahl Moments” when he didn't answer her, which was not appropriate. If you know that Mark is awkward, make sure you prepare on how to deal with it ahead of time. I think Mike did a better job in this area.

    She seemed to “poke fun” of Mark for having a journal that he writes things down in. I have a paper journal and Om Malik wrote a lengthy post a year ago about the value of his journal. She even did a yes-no thing with Mark about him burning the journals until she had to call out to catherine Holihan way in the back.

    Mark also stuck to basically the same answer all discussion – “we are focused on our missing of communication, etc.” — this frustrated the audience I am sure. No matter the question, he responded with basically the same answer.

    What's really interesting is that the first audience question was “so where are you headed with fb” and frankly that was the best question of the entire keynote.

    My guess is that it was 80% poor interview, 20% mob – as once the crowd starting cheering on Mark, it seemed to take off from there. To be honest, in 17 years of attending, speaking at, moderating conferences, this was the absolute most shocking crowd reaction I've seen.

    It went to all hell when she made “woh is me” comments – the professional singer keeps going on even if someone's boos. She easily could have just continued on but by feeding into the crowd by saying things like “you cant imagine how hard my job is”, only fired up the crowd further.

    What I don't get is why knowing how big of a fan base and follower base she has, that she didn't ask for questions on twitter or her blog beforehand.

  • http://www.drewolanoff.com drew olanoff

    The attendees pay a lot of money to attend SXSWi. Lets also stress the “i”, which means Interactive.

    The man is the peer of the attendees. He started a social network. SOCIAL. It's a no brainer that Sarah should have employed more of a social style of interview process with Mark and with the crowd.

    I wasn't there, but got a call as soon as it was over. It *was* that bad.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Aren't we though? :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Reading the descriptions, that's one thing that occurred to me too,
    Drew — with an interview that's an hour long, to only go to the
    audience for questions with about 10 minutes left just seems wrong.

  • George

    The interview was terrible and everyone sitting around me was muttering within 10 minutes of the start. I didn't know anyone I was sitting near and they seemed to be from many different parts of the country. I wouldn't say any of them seemed radical. Lacy's interview was just plain bad. It started when Mark mentioned that Facebook had launched in Spanish, and she replied “Hey let's hear it for Spain!” For most of the people around me, the just burst out laughing — to equate Spanish to Spain –especially in Texas or California for that matter seemed uneducated. Then Lacy made one remark after another where she referred to Mark as being a kid or “being 5 when that happened” — people's unease grew with each one. She also spent more time talking about herself and her previous interviews with him than asking good questions. Her style was that she would make statements instead of ask a question. But most of all, she seemed to be comparing herself to Lesley Stahl repeatedly, she seemed to plugging her book and herself and she seemed to be talking down to Mark all the while she didn't ask more than 1 or 2 good questions. The crowd had waited a long time and expected a much more professional interview.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    I was there. It was definitely a train wreck and not a lynch mob.

  • Allen

    actually drew/mathew I don't think she was thinking of opening it up for any questions because when she was pushed to do it, there was 4 minutes left.

    I stand firm that had she asked the audience ahead of time what types of questions they'd like her to ask, things would have gone completely different.

    In fact, people could have recorded questions around the event center using sponsor Kyte phones and then shown the questions in the center.

    Oh well, let's all move on – 2 more days here to enjoy.

  • paul somers

    i'm not pro or anti-sarah lacy. but what's disappointing in your post is that again, you're pontificating about something where you're working with second-hand knowledge. and, sadly, it shows. if you want to view the recorded interview, the austin statesman has reposted a partial clip – about 10 minutes' worth, maybe more – on its web site.

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  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I haven't seen the talk, but to be honest, I'm surprised that anyone would expect an interview with Mark Z to be anything other than deathly dull. Steve Jobs he's not. Heck, he's not even Bill Gates.

    But what's really interesting is the role that the back channel of live blogging, Twitter etc will have played in reinforcing the audience's reaction. At tech conferences, you have an audience that is largely paying attention to their screens, rather than to what's happening on stage. This means that the reaction of the audience will be magnified, as the reaction is passed from audience member to audience member in real time.

    The worst keynote I ever saw was Gil Amelio's 1997 San Francisco Macworld – two hours of dullness, enlivened only by a ten minute talk on NeXTSTEP by the newly-returned Steve Jobs. If that had been being Twittered and liveblogged as much as SXSW, I doubt Amelio would have made it out of the room alive.

  • CK

    Regarding the comment of “And Zuckerberg was over-briefed.”, in the Youtube video you linked to in your update, she mentions that she and Zuckerberg “discussed what we were going to talk about” before the interview… so he kind of knew what was coming (which can be good, given his shyness, but bad overall, in allowing him to craft answers).

    I don't really care about the interview, because I dislike Zuckerberg (given that he likely lied and/or stole code when dealing with ConnectU) and because find Facebook to be overrated… but I find the interview reaction interesting :)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Paul, I prefer to think of it as “expressing an opinion” rather than
    pontificating. Are bloggers only allowed to comment on things that
    happened when they were physically present? I don't remember reading
    that anywhere in the blogger's handbook. In any case, if my blog posts
    irritate you, I encourage you to take your eyeballs elsewhere.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good point, Ian — Twitter definitely amplified what was
    happening, and may have given some of those in the audience the
    impression that they were in the majority, even if they weren't.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    It's also a very interesting cultural shift, which raises the deeper question: Is a live event “real” enough to an audience unless they're also receiving the audience's feedback as part of the narrative?

    (That sound you hear is my head going “POP” as I try and remember some Baudrilliard, who I suspect would have had something to say about this :) )

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  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Post session, Twitter (and getting listed on Techmeme) may have amplified it, but the notion that somehow it was because of Twitter than the audience revolted is ridiculous. She merely bombed. It was not the audience's fault or Zuckerberg's fault. It was obvious to anyone in the room that she was bombing — and that she was arrogantly unaware that she was bombing. Bombing on stage pre-dates the Internet, by the way.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I don't think that's actually what I said, Rex. What I said was that the technology amplified the bombing, and made the situation. That's not making a judgment about whether the technology is a good thing or a bad thing, either – it's just stating that it is what it is.

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  • Dele Travis

    I watched the full, uncut video and read the twitter stream over on Digital Daily (http://digitaldaily.allthingsd.com/20080310/quo…) and I have to side with the folks roasting Lacy. She came off as self-aggrandizing and incompetent.

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  • jeff angstrom

    that's not a satisfactory response to a legitimate question. there is no “blogger's handbook.” rather, there's an assumption by readers coming to a site that the author actually knows what he or she is talking about. if you're consistently relying upon second-hand knowledge and then arriving at questionable conclusions, one must wonder about your supposed value-add.

    i've seen your “i encourage you to take your eyeballs elsewhere” response on other occasions where readers challenge you. that's a pretty lame response

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Jeff, I don't particularly care whether you think it's an
    unsatisfactory response or not. I think people who come to this blog
    know that they will get my opinion on a variety of things — in this
    case, I provided that opinion based on my reading of new reports and
    my experience as an interviewer. If that's not good enough then I
    guess you need to… well, you know the rest.

  • jay dandridge

    wow, that's some temper you've got, guy. try taking a deep
    breath before letting your fingers let loose with flames. if you
    can't accept criticism, you'll never rise above the level of
    mediocre hack

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    And if you can't come up with some half-decent criticism, you'll never
    rise above the level of mediocre troll.

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  • http://carruthk.blogspot.com carruthk

    I did watch the whole video & it seemed to me that Lacy misjudged much of her humour & her attempts at building rapport did not work as planned. Given the high standards of the overall event I can see why the audience might have gone a little nuts. Also the fact that audiences can now share real time feelings with entire world shows that things have changed a little for presenters. If their gut says they don't like you there is no time for rationalisation – the tweets just go off into cyberspace (it is almost like the id is being set free).

  • http://www.shadoz.com Max

    I think the reaction from Lacy is but natural there is a good spirit.

  • http://www.shadoz.com Max

    I think the reaction from Lacy is but natural there is a good spirit.

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