I spent time with Sarah Lacy and we talked about…
I’m sure you heard about the infamous Mark Zuckerberg SXSW keynote hosted by well known author, Business Week columnist and Yahoo TechTicker host Sarah Lacy. Just in case you haven’t, let’s just say that some of the audience wasn’t supportive of the casual, conversational format or her style of engaging Zuckerberg in public.
From the get go, many believe that this interview was destined to fail. The angst and rebellion percolated to a boiling point and halfway through keynote, the mob revolted. Several attendees were more vocal than others, heckling her by shouting disruptively, “ask something interesting” and “let us ask the questions.”
She was suddenly hurt and upset, finding herself alone on stage in front of hundreds of Facebook enthusiasts and zealots. They thought that they were defending him and did so by viciously tearing down his host.
Lacy was now the story and Twitter lit up like a million dollar slot machine paying out its winnings in quarters.
The crowd was not sympathetic or apologetic in its fight to take over the conversation.
Lacy succumbed and responded to the public cries, “OK. Let’s go with the Digg model and let them have mob rule.”
That was the tipping point, as represented by one attendee who asked, “Other than rough interviews, what are some of the biggest challenges Facebook faces?”
“Has this been a rough interview?” Lacy asked Zuckerberg.
“I wasn’t asking you, I was asking Mark,” the attendee sniped.
The hostility transferred from the ballroom to the blogosphere and continues as I type. Unknowingly to everyone in the room, this would become a landmark moment on many fronts from keynotes to interviewing techniques to content. Suddenly everyone was an expert.
I should note, that there were several sides of this story. Many appreciated Sarah’s candor and Mark’s responses. Others offered constructive criticism. Marshall Kirkpatrick, Michael Arrington, and many others immediately jumped to her defense.
This is where I change my direction and focus on Sarah Lacy, the person behind the journalist, so that we can have a genuine, honest, and sincere look at her world, both coming into this and leaving with her head up, spirits bruised, but diligence and perseverance stronger than ever.
I spent the rest of the day with Sarah Lacy and let her open up “on the record” for this authorized, unfiltered discussion.
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t a puff piece. She doesn’t need it, nor would she appreciate it. Her work stands for itself.
It’s easy to spotlight her mistakes and not recognize her accomplishments during the keynote. Jeff Jarvis believes her biggest faux pas was not knowing her audience. He recommended that she engage them in advance of the conference to get an idea of what they wanted. To be honest, it’s not unreasonable advice.
I offered my own advice to her when we sat together as well, and, she listened. It’s important to note that because it’s easy for anyone to react defensively. Instead, she simply listened and processed everything.
Did she make mistakes?
Sure. She’s the first to tell you that.
Could she have responded differently?
If you think she owes you an apology or needs to fall on the sword for her Q&A; with Zuckerberg, don’t hold your breath. Sarah Lacy doesn’t need to apologize to anyone other than Mark. But guess what? Even Zuckerberg supported the interview, so an apology is that last thing he wants. In fact, he empathizes with her.
I asked Sarah if anyone thought to get Mark’s take on this.
She agreed that it’s the story that isn’t getting told.
I saw Mark last night and I can tell you he’s not happy about the sweeping negativity against Sarah either.
So here’s the real story.
This keynote was designed in collaboration with SXSW. They wanted a conversational fireside chat that was representative of their friendship. Together, they decided that they would forgo Q&A; in advance. Facebook requested Lacy because she’s a “business” reporter, not a developer or a geek capable of asking technical questions. They wanted a business discussion. But, since its SXSW and not the Web 2.0 Summit, they wanted it to be fun, lively, and engaging.
If anyone underestimated the audience, it was the conference organizers. That’s my opinion not hers.
Instead, Sarah is thankful for the opportunity, appreciative of her friendship with Mark, and isn’t pointing the finger at anyone.
Zuckerberg is an easy target and often is. His personality and his style isn’t necessarily the easiest to navigate. Yet, Sarah was able to get him to open up, laugh, share things he’s never publicly addressed before and most importantly, also show you that he’s a passionate human being. Not even 60 minutes could do this…
At the end of the discussion, the general perception is that Zuckerberg shined. Sarah believes that if she took the bullet and the negative spotlight away from Mark, then so be it. She’ll do it again. And, regardless of what you think about her career direction after this, I guarantee you that she’ll have the opportunity to interview Mark many more times along with the industry’s biggest names.
Their goal, yes, I said “their” goal, for
going into this was to simply show you another side of Mark and also reveal answers to the quest
ions that most people only speculated to be fact, but never before officially confirmed.
They wanted to focus on Facebook, both the company and the product, to explore why the site is breaking new ground and growing exponentially along the way. It was to be macro enough for a CEO, but interesting enough to resonate with developers. The discussion would also provide mainstream press with a peek into the hallways and conference rooms at Facebook HQ.
Any journalist who’s ever interviewed Zuckerberg will tell you that it’s almost impossible to get news and details out of him.
Even though they’re friends, Sarah still had a sizeable amount of pressure to share new things with the audience.
Like it or not, her style delivered just that.
During my discussion with Sarah, we agreed that there was real news value and information shared, which not only confirm rumors and assumptions, but also provided a looking glass into the business mind and vision of Mr. Mark Zuckerberg and the future of Facebook.
Zuckerberg went on the record confirming that Yahoo had made a $1 billion offer. And, he also gave us insight into the discussions as to why they didn’t accept it. There were many people that felt $1 billion was a generous offer. Surely, everyone would have become rich. However, he’s building a platform for the future of how people are going to communicate. $1 billion would simply have been a distraction. He also eluded that there were “management changes” following that offer. Mark has bigger plans for the company and was more than open to share these back channel stories with Sarah.
During the discussion, Sarah also encouraged Mark to share his thoughts on the $15 billion valuation. Mark graciously abided and reinforced his vision for the company. At $1 billion, his plans would have been greatly hampered in order to scale globally. Think about it, he’s building something here, and that’s his focus. He said that they’re not looking at an IPO, although it’s easy to do, but instead, he’s surrounding himself with people who are share in his aspirations and the great goal of connecting people more effectively.
Zuckerberg freely shared his views on hiring Sheryl Sandberg from Google and the company’s new COO. Even though she’s considered the “token grownup,” Mark is incredibly optimistic in her ability to help the company scale.
Mark’s vision for the ad strategy was also important. He observed that his positioning as the biggest thing to happen to media in 100 years needed further clarification. He noted that it is simply contributing to its evolution and at the same time, breaking new ground.
On Beacon, Mark admitted that his biggest mistake was not communicating it more effectively and ensuring that people had absolute control to “opt in.” But at the same time, Mark revealed that his goal and focus is to empower users and the ad network is only going rapidly evolve into something we can benefit from. They learned. He talked about what went wrong and what they need to do to make things right.
On the applications front, they’re recalibrating the platform so that apps, and developers, can get wider distribution, which for a conference of developers should have been pretty staggering news.
Oh, did you hear that Facebook launched in France yesterday and that they’re boosting their international efforts?
Have you seen the Leslie Stahl, 60 minutes interview? Have you had an opportunity to watch Mark speak at a conference?
If so, you can attest to the general sentiment and fact, that there’s always going to be a pleasant quirkiness to Mark and the answers he chooses to share or not to share and when, if at all, he should elaborate. He’s an elusive target at best.
At the end of the day, if you stop and reflect on Mark’s animation during the keynote, I think this was the most lively anyone has seen him in public to date. It’s the most comfortable we’ve ever seen him and Sarah is largely responsible for that. She actually humanized Mr. Mark Zuckerberg. She did that by being human as well, a trait that many reporters lose as they polish their chops over the years.
Is it wrong?
No, it’s just different. The one thing Sarah helped me understand is that is exactly why she was there.
Ask Sarah why you think that he shared all of this information for the first time and she’ll tell you that she’s lucky enough to have Mark as a friend and that he trusts him with his words and his personality.
Did you know that she first started getting to know Mark when he was only 19? She’s one of the few who have access to Mark. She shared that with everyone in Austin and for that, I for one am appreciative.
The truth is that Mark doesn’t know many people very well. SXSW selected Sarah because of the unique, and professional, friendship she has with Mark. She was able to not only ask the questions that every traditional reporter or moderator wishes they could ask, but she also got the answers. And, in that, they succeeded.
We were privy to meatier content and not the same old stuff we see from other reporters who try to tackle the Facebook story.
“Oh you’re just 23, what’s it like?”
“When are you going public?”
“How does it feel to be the next MySpace?”
What matters is this, Sarah was able to help Mark open up on stage and she would do it again.
“I feel for Mark because he sometimes people don’t understand his personality. I wanted to show a more human side of him and share with everyone the Mark I know. I asked the hardest questions that no one has succeeded in earning answers, and we all shared in his responses. I’m lucky and thankful of my friendship with Mark and the time I was able to spend with him at SXSW.”
As a conclusion, I thought I would share with you a great story that Sarah shared with me.
Before they went on stage, Mark told Sarah that she could ask him all of the tough questions she wanted, but that he had one request. As silly as this sounds, he wanted to wrap the keynote with a hug before they walked off stage. It was his way of saying that he also appreciates their friendship by showing it in front of everyone.
She was flustered. He was confused. They didn’t hug. Back stage, they were both speechless. They looked at each other and Mark asked for that hug.
“At the end of the day if Mark looked good then that’s all that matters to me,” – Sarah Lacy.
Pictures from the keynote are in my SXSW set on Flickr.
UPDATE: Facebook selected Sarah Lacy, not SXSW.
UPDATE 2: Lacy discusses her observations on the technology behind the online conversations at BusinessWeek.