Audience of Twittering Assholes

UPDATE: I just spent an hour talking with Sarah Lacy and apologized directly to her, and then we had an interesting talk about the industry, sexism, her interview and why she took the line of questioning that she did, and her perspective. I highly recommend you read Brian Solis’ post following up on this interview, because it gives her perspective and matched what I learned from her (that the SXSW conference planners wanted her not to take audience questions, wanted her to take the interview in a more business-centric direction because Facebook had a separate developer-centric event at SXSW, etc). Anyway, there’s lots of lessons here for everyone involved. Me, audience, Sarah, conference planners, etc. Dave Winer and I discussed it on a podcast this morning too.


When I arrived 15-minutes into the now famous interview of Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, by BusinessWeek reporter Sarah Lacy the audience had already turned (it was two days ago and it still is the #1 topic of conversation on blogs and at SXSW, which is the conference that this happened at). Usually I try to get to these things early, and sit up front, but I had other interviews and things going on and I’d already been warned that there wouldn’t be any real news at this event. Facebook is working on some major new features, but they simply aren’t ready to show off in public. I’m already hearing rumors of another F8 event (last year’s event, where Facebook first showed off its application platform, seems like it was 10 years ago, which tells us a little bit about how our expectations for instant gratification are increasing).

I arrived in the overflow room because I already knew from watching Twitter that the main hall was packed. When I walked in I met people leaving already and I could tell they weren’t leaving to go to the bathroom. They were leaving in protest. My friend Francine Hardaway wrote later that she walked out in disgust. Susan Bratton was so disappointed that she wrote four blog posts about it.

I found a seat and asked the guy next to me how it was going. “Not well, it’s really boring,” was the answer.

I listened for a few more minutes and watched the audience reaction and realized that it wasn’t just boring but that the audience was building up hostility toward what was going on at the video screen.

But let’s back up. I refrained from blogging about this because I then became part of the story, due to my Twitter stream. Here, let’s look at that now:

12:43 p.m. March 9: Zuckerberg is giving lots of PR answers. Lacy is asking too many business questions. (this is about 45 minutes into the interview, if I remember right).

12:47: lacy needs to study guy Kawasaki. His interview of ballmer was 1000 times better

12:53: Twitterer’s hate Lacy.

12:58: Sarah Lacy lost control of the interview because she just isn’t very good. Twitter is going crazy with critiques.

01:00: @markwallace Lacy didn’t do her homework on the audience. This is a geek/designer/creative audience. Not one focused on business.

01:01: They want to hear about APIs and platforms and what Facebook is going to do.

01:01: She is totally getting defensive now, really poor empathy for the audience.

01:02: The audience as getting outright hostile toward Lacy and she basically asked audience to send her a message about why she sucked.

01:04: The audience is asking Zuckerburg better questions than Lacy did. Totally agree with @heiko.

01:06: @techcrunch I know Zuckerberg is no easy interview. But yours was far far far better than Sarah’s.

01:07: @techcrunch she totally lost control of the interview and had no clue how she was coming across. Still doesn’t “I thought it was going well.

And on it went. Onstage it went worse. Audience members had taken over the interview and Lacy made things worse by trying to argue with them about how well the interview was going. The audience had decided that it wasn’t going well. Later Lacy rubbed it in, by Twittering: “seriously screw all you guys. I did my best to ask a range of things.” She also went on YouTube to try to explain what happened to her from her perspective.

We had turned into assholes. It wasn’t just the back of the room, either. Nor was it just the overflow room. People in the front of the room were yelling out questions. The entire audience erupted for a 26-second applause line when Zuckerberg asked Lacy to ask questions (which confused Lacy, because she was unaware that the audience had been turning against her).

The audience turned into assholes was the conclusion of Mike Arrington, founder of Tech Crunch, who, wrote a post, saying this was nothing more than a witch burning.

Some other analysis: Jemima Kiss in the Guardian’s blogs: The peculiar Mark Zuckerberg keynote interview.

College professor and famous blogger, Jeff Jarvis, had the most accurate early analysis that I could find in a post titled: Zuckerberg interview: What went wrong.

Brian Solis spent five hours with Lacy after the interview and did a bunch more reporting before writing a very long, but most excellent, analysis of the events. He also explains why Sarah Lacy was the interviewer, and gives many details about the friendship between Zuckerberg and Lacy.

My thoughts?

1. This interview was doomed before it happened. Several of my friends didn’t go because they already knew there wouldn’t be any news. After all, if there was going to be news, Kara Swisher would have reported it and she would have been invited to have been there. We also knew that Zuckerberg probably would be boring (he reminds us of Bill Gates who, despite giving speeches for 30 years, is still boring). The expectations on Zuckerberg are so high now, that he’d have to do something like Ballmer’s Monkey Boy dance to meet them.

2. The muttering continues, even last night. In fact, one woman, who I won’t name here, is going to moderate a panel discussion today and she told me “I hope I don’t pull a Lacy.” Overall, now that the emotion is out of it for the most part, people are still saying this was an interview gone bad and are disappointed that Lacy lashed out at the audience instead of trying to figure out what they wanted.

3. Zuckerberg himself, yesterday, realized that he didn’t answer the questions the audience wanted to have answered, so he did a “redo” of the interview, this time with just him in front of an audience. The consensus there is that this one went much better for both Zuckerberg and the audience.

4. There is quite a bit of sexism that is a subtext here. Lots of people in the hallways commented on her choice of clothing (she wore a short skirt that made her legs very prominently displayed). And on n her flirtatious behavior (she twirled her hair, many people told me afterward, like a schoolgirl in love). I tried to ignore this, but I now am pretty sure that if a guy were doing the interview, and did just as badly, that the audience wouldn’t have turned on him so harshly. This was amplified by her constant bringing up of personal situations (she bragged that she was hanging out with Zuckerberg at a party the night before).

5. Several people last night thought this was great PR for Lacy, noting that her book sales had gone up, and that now everyone knew who she was and, even, felt a little bad for her, so that’ll lead to increased attention next time she does an interview. I sort of agree with that analysis, noting that I’ve had a bad time on stage, too (at LeWeb several years ago our keynote was generally panned and the audience got a little hostile toward us there too — that didn’t stop me from being asked to do more speeches, and, in fact, made me a better speaker).

6. Zuckerberg himself is a very tough interview. Why? Cause Zuckerberg is no Gary Vaynerchuk or Guy Kawasaki. In fact, Zuckerberg is a geek who is far more comfortable talking about memcache or architectures than he is in answering questions for the press, or being in front of audiences (although I thought he stepped up his game in yesterday’s Q&A quite a bit). He reminds me a LOT of Bill Gates. I remember meeting Bill Gates at a conference party in the mid-1990s and couldn’t get him to be social, but when I switched to talking to him about compilers he got very passionate and went on for 20 minutes about the topic. Same with Zuckerberg. He really isn’t that comfortable talking about his business, or other things, but when you start digging into him technically he comes alive.

7. Zuckerberg is also a tough interview cause he gives PR answers. Now we know one other guy who does that: Steve Ballmer. But notice how Guy Kawasaki gets Ballmer to knock it off in this video of their interview on stage at Microsoft’s Mix08 conference: he calls Ballmer on the bullshit. Compare this interview to the one that Lacy did, and you’ll see how to do an interview with a CEO well, and poorly.

8. This wasn’t the only audience revolt at SXSW this year.

9. The audience at SXSW is quite unlike any other. These are people who blog and Twitter and Facebook and Meebo and use tons of other social networking tools. They also are snarky and are used to being heard (egotistical, even, just like your friendly local blogger). So, when they are in audiences here they expect to be part of the event. Most speakers here know this, and take advantage of the interactive demands (I was watching Twitter and videoing my own panel yesterday, so I knew when our panel was getting boring, or wasn’t on track with what the audience wanted). Most speakers here take the pulse of the audience often and early, going to questions and such. I wouldn’t speak here if you haven’t attended before. Also, this is not a business audience. Most of us really don’t care whether Zuckerberg is worth $1 or $15 billion. We want to know what Facebook’s developer platform is going to do. Or how Facebook is going to give us more control over our privacy. Or, how Facebook is going to make our data portable (I asked Zuckerberg about my getting kicked off of Facebook yesterday in his QA session and several attendees came up to me afterward saying they were happy someone finally asked Zuckerberg about that).

10. I’m going to try to interview Sarah Lacy, and I’ll apologize for my part in being an audience asshole, but I’ll also explain to her why I’d do it again. I hate being captive in an audience when the people on stage don’t have a feedback loop going with the audience. We’re used to living a two-way life online and expect it when in an audience too. Our expectations of speakers and people on stage have changed, for better or for worse.

Anyway, I’m sure we could continue discussing this for a long time, but I have to prepare for another panel discussion this afternoon that I was added to (come and heckle me, er, be an audience asshole!) Right after that panel we’ll go for BBQ with about 100 people. I hope Sarah comes along, we’ll break bread. Either way, we can fit about 120 people in, so meet us there. Afterward we’ll go to the RockBand party (wait until you see the video I participated in!) and then onto the Digg party.