Sarah Lacy on Sarah Lacy and the Infamous SXSW Mark Zuckerberg Keynote

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?

Sure.

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.

Connect with me on Twitter, Jaiku, LinkedIn, Pownce, Plaxo, FriendFeed, or Facebook.

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  • Anonymous

    She played with her hair and giggled like a nervous school girl for the duration of the interview. Her questions seemed like a personal evaluation of how much she could be worth if she could just convince this boy to marry her. hehehehehe, I love you, Mark. hehehehe, When is Facebook going public? hehehehehe, Are you going to make me sign a pre-nuptial agreement?

  • Bertil Hatt

    Maybe to summarise: I spent an hour wondering “Does he have a girlfriend?”

  • fourlittlebees

    SXSW is no longer about being a good technical conference, but about having the opportunity to be a “cool” kid for once. It’s evident that the majority of the attendees are there to goof around, socialize, and go out drinking. If you want a serious tech discussion, you don’t ever want to hear the CEO speak. You want the CTO, and any developer with half a brain would admit that.

    What’s even worse to me are the women who are calling her “unprofessional” or reference any mannerisms as flirty, blah, blah. Let’s face it. Most of us would kill for her job. If I was offered a column at BusinessWeek and had a book coming out? I’d be pimping that every chance I got too. As would any of us.

    This juvenile carrying on is nothing new at conferences, but at the point at which you are heckling a journalist in front of a CEO, who do you REALLY thinks looks bad in the end? The journalist or the gits in the audience?

  • Brian Solis

    WOW!!!! THANK YOU EVERYONE!!! I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to respond. I’m on the road heading back from SXSW. I will responded to each and everyone when I get back. I just wanted to take a quick minute to thank you for your feedback, whether or not we agree, your time and words are important…

  • Amy

    “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.”

    This belongs in Cosmo Girl! not a tech blog. Seriously.

    You would never see this kind of “reporting” if the interviewer was a man. A look at her world? Sincere? Bruised spirits?

    Why stop there? Why not add a heart-wrenching half-tearful, half-hopeful glisten to her eye and a slight and not unattractive heave to her saintly chest?

    The woman did a terrible job, acted utterly without dignity and she deserves the criticism heaped on her. For all I know, she always does a terrible job, but I had never heard of her before the keynote and certainly have no desire to learn anything more about her in the future.

    I am, however, more than slightly disgusted to see her get a free pass because she’s got breasts.

  • Francine Hardaway

    Sweet! Nice job, Brian. This approach is really typical of the new PR model of engagement with the customer. Lacy is your customer and you treat her with the utmost respect.

  • dyerbrookME

    Ok, just so I can keep all this straight with the new media and all. Re: “the new PR model of engagement with the customer. Lacy is your customer”

    So, now did Sarah hire Brian as a PR agent? or was that just a figure of speech?

  • Anonymous

    As someone sitting in the room when this session went down, let me say that it was absolutely painful.

    Brian, thanks for seeking out the other side of the story, but it doesn’t begin to make me think I’m at all wrong to think this was an unmitigated disaster.

    Sadly, knowing the “rest of the story” doesn’t make me feel better because the rest of the story is that basically Facebook asked a reporter with very odd journalistic boundaries and horrendous moderation abilities to conduct a pre-scripted, likely rehearsed “fireside chat” covering topics and answers that could have just as easily been released in press release format.

    Strangely, this background doesn’t really help their case…

    Jake McKee
    communityguy.com

  • Brian Solis

    Just to be clear, Sarah is not a client.

  • Michael

    You hit on it, knowing your audience is a big part of this.

    The thing about her friendship with Zuckerberg and her wanting to show people his personality, etc….OK, but what happened to the idea that journalists are the 4th branch of the government? When does ‘friendship’ come into this? When did impartiality give way to flaunting? I’ve had reporters who I know pretty well still refuse to let me buy them a drink or a meal, let alone hug me on stage…(Yes, you can say no to what a CEO asks you to do).

    Sorry, man, realize it’s a bit cynical but there’s a higher standard for this.

  • Aaron

    everywhere I look lately she is blaming someone else for this event gone wrong. The problem was NOT the focus of the interview, it was the way she managed it. She needs to work harder and practice at publc interviews. It is an art. Being a good journalist doesn’t mean you are a good interviewer. She lost control of the crowd and never appeared to have control of herself. Blame the crowd, blame sxsw, blame everyone by youself.

  • Cindy Royal

    I’ve attended SXSW for years, and none of the Keynotes are technical. They are usually familiar and informal, as when Jimmy Wales hosted the conversation with Craig Newmark in 2006. The audience has a developer constituency, but also consists of designers, students, journalists, executives, professionals, academics…anyone with an enthusiasm for technology.

    I was at the Zuckerberg keynote, about 7th row, experienced it firsthand. Lacy was a terrible interviewer…period. People were annoyed by her style of not asking questions and talking about herself. However, I found the content of Mark’s comments to be intelligent, providing a much better insight on his character and motivations.

    Students in my Issues in New Media course blogged the event at sxtsu.blogspot.com, so visit to get their perspective.

    SXSWi was amazing this year. They know what they are doing.

  • Susan Reynolds

    More of the story in this case seems like simply more of the story, not something that changes my take on it.

    I’m not sure anyone could have done this sort of interview in a way that would have pleased everyone in the room, but put a flirtatious reporter twirling her hair and doing the “I’m so tight with Mark” shtick on-stage with a self-involved young guy like Zuckerberg and you’ve got a situation almost preordained to explode in a most unhappy way.

    It’s all about entitlement. The audience felt entitled to a conversation between two individuals of substance. What they got were two people who may have good qualities but who ooze their own sense of entitlement; in this case, entitlement to stardom.

    The organizers seem to have felt that landing Zuckerberg meant they were entitled to stop there and let his fame/youth/reticence thing override a substantive presentation. They had to know that their audience would be disappointed – and in this case say so vociferously.

    The reactions of all parties after the fact speaks volumes: not much of it involving the word “class.”

  • dyerbrookME

    Susan Reynolds has had by far the best cultural take on this event. But there is still the problem of journalism.

    I’m glad that Cindy weighed in here with the excellent point — finally! — that SXSW does not belong only to tekkies. So this barking mandate from all these male tekkies to “know your audience” and “play to the coders making APIs” is off based.

    The crowd there by now a huge amalgam of new media users, bloggers, designers, artists, machinimists, etc. So the notion of some sort of constituency that is “entitled” to a memcache sort of discussion (as Scoble called it) is just that — more entitlement-happyness from this constituency. They should have been told to simmer down, they’d have their Dev Garage in the next hour, and meanwhile, more broader questions about business *can and should be asked* of a social media magnate claiming to be worth a billion plus and claiming to have the attention — and more — of 60 million people. You don’t get to just talk about memcache when you have that kind of power — sorry!

    And that’s the moral of this story: it’s not just that “power is shifting” as the blogger said linked below, it’s that the old media and the new media consumers are failing to realize that social media is a corporate power like any other corporate power, and the fourth estate has to prevent itself from being subservient to it as it would to any other.

    As we’ve now had spelt out many times, Facebook and SXSW *themselves* choreographed this show. Few seem to be unwilling to blame *choreographing itself* as the problem. The critique here, new-media style, seems to be about performance, about hair-twirling, or breaking the proscenium arch, and asking the audience to confirm a fact that the interview subject was stalling about.

    Whatever Lacy’s failure to gain rapport, or her tendency to use the occasion to pump herself, the fact is, when you have an impassive, passive/aggressive figure like Zuckerberg *not* answering questions, and making long, half-insolent, half-innocent stalls, it merely becomes a distorted mirror itself to reflect back the interviewer’s struggles.

    If you are going to teach journalism, however, I don’t see that you can justifiably teach merely “performance”. Leave that to the dramatics arts class, or the marketing class. You do have to teach the five ws. Lacy asked him if he thought he was worth a billion. He couldn’t answer. So he’s not. The crowd went wild at that stark realization.

    Prokofy Neva

  • pix

    Thoughtful post indeed. My response ended up being a bit epic, so I decided to post it to my own blog and link it here.

    Short version: If it could have been handled better, why wasn’t it?

    How do we as the SxSW community make it better going forward?

    [personal note] I think Lacey’s lack of professionalism and relies on her “feminine wiles” (so to speak) give women in tech a bad name.

  • jebworks

    Who cares! Aren’t there more important issues out there to write about than a flirtatious chat between a young journalist and what seems to me a pretty self-centered young geek billionaire in front of a crowd of geeks with low social skills who need a few more years of life experience that might make them acquire some of them necessary to succeed in the world as more than tech geeks.
    Pitiful, really but probably not unusual for this time of online voyeurism.

  • K.G. Schneider

    The number of comments referring to “this woman” or “that woman” creep me out. A journalist gave a softball interview to a rich white guy, and the audience acted like jerks. Gee, I want to go to SXSW next year… not.

  • Anonymous

    Since when is a bad interview on stage an excuse for audience members to behave like utter assholes? Sorry, but I don’t get it. I don’t care if you think this journalist was a “bad” interviewer or not; that’s no excuse to act like an ill bred prick while sitting in the audience.

    Or do tech people really think they should be carrying their ill mannered internet flamewars into the real world?

  • Doc Mara

    SXSW jumps the shark–creepy and entitled audience eats circus performers.

    News at 11.

  • Anonymous

    this sounds like Mark received the brunt of the blame in this piece, for being so “elusive” and unwilling to share.

    Also, claiming this isn’t a puff piece, doesn’t make it so. Yeah yeah yeah, Lacy was so selfless in the end. She wanted Mark to look good.

    Save it.

  • Scott

    “Sarah is thankful for the opportunity, appreciative of her friendship with Mark, and isn’t pointing the finger at anyone.”

    Flat-out inaccurate, in her own words:

    http://twitter.com/sarahcuda/statuses/769000309

    Web 2.0 for spin control FTL. Everyone is missing the point. *sigh*

  • zukerberghassao

    no way sarah

ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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