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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?


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.

47 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Sarah Lacy on Sarah Lacy and the Infamous SXSW Mark Zuckerberg Keynote”

  1. Chip Griffin says:

    Nice thoughtful piece on the events of yesterday. It is refreshing to see something well-considered to balance out the heated rhetoric that has been out there. I have yet to see video of the interview, but it sounds like the crowd had it out for her almost no matter how she conducted the interview.

  2. dyerbrookME says:

    Sounds to me like the tekkie old boys’ network now trying to groom Lacy because she didn’t handle the childen of their new media revolution properly when they rebelled in the back of the room.

    To me, there are three parties at fault here, in a very untrustworthy transaction that should have been the focus of your analysis:

    the HIRING of what ostensibly is an independent and free media reporter from Business Week for what amounts to a public-relations job and service as a shill for the gaming industry at a gaming conference.

    Thus SWSX, Business Week, and Facebook, have all lost their integrity with the public as media.

    Although, apparently not their integrity as…games.


  3. Colin McKay says:

    Thanks for this, Brian. It’s always good to get both sides of the story – especially when a feeding frenzy takes lead.

  4. Susan B says:

    No way, Brian. Sarah did a terrible job and as a PR expert, I think you know she needs to apologize. She was condescending in so many ways to both Mark and the audience it left me speechless.

    I have four blog posts on this that I’d like to share here:

    The Sarah Lacy Fiasco – The Bratton Perspective.

    Sarah Lacy – Here’s How to FIX Your Reputation

    How to Conduct A Live On-Stage Interview

    SXSW vs. TED – The Value of Preparation and Maturity

    Thanks, Buddy. I know you were trying to smooth things over. A gallant attempt.

  5. Crystal says:

    This totally changed my view on the interview. Thanks for the cute story at the end!

  6. Mark Evans says:

    Having watched the interview via Viddler, it’s nowhere near as the disaster some people make it out to be. That said, it was an interview that could have been much better. Perhaps the biggest issue is Lacy conducted an interview that she wanted to do as opposed to the interview the audience wanted, which explains why things got sour so quickly.

    Personally, I question the call by SXSW organizers in having Lacy interview her friend, Mark Zuckerberg, because it calls into question her objectivity given they have a personal relationship. As much as you want to be 100% objective, it’s pretty much impossible if the person you’re sitting across from is your friend.

    As an ex-journalist, I guess the other thing that disappoined me was
    her lack of grace under pressure. I expected more from a person with her professional experience.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Nice attempt at spin, Brian, but…

    …as someone who’s heard Sarah speak publicly a few times, I find it very hard to believe that all she cares about is whether her interview subject looks good.

    Is that why she blabbers on about herself and her book everywhere she goes now?

  8. Kristen Forbriger says:

    I’m sure there’s a good reason why attendees have been so critical of Sarah, but it’s about time someone presented the full story. From someone who watched it all go down from my couch via my twitter stream, I got this image of a cougar batting her eyes and talking down to an uncomfortable “boy CEO.” I haven’t had a chance to watch the entire interview, but your report indicates that there was much more value delivered.

    If what you/she says is true about the plan SXSW had for this keynote (a business discussion) then I think someone else is to blame for the debacle that ensued. They either didn’t know the audience would be full of geeks or chose to ignore it. Either way, it’s not fair for her to take all the blame.

    Thanks again for doing the legwork to get the other side out there.

    By the way, I agree that Sarah has a successul future ahead… if nothing else, I think she’s become a household name in certain circles.

  9. Karl says:

    finding herself alone in front of hundreds of zealots? WTF!!! no, she found herself alone in front of people who expect something called an interview, not an interjection of me me me time. Her only reaction worth note was, when thinges were falling apart, to talk about herself. (paraphrased) those of you who know me know that I once threw water on Arrington? That’s a comeback or valuable piece of commentary?!? No, that’s an egotastic attempt at self redemption. No one cares if her feelings were hurt. she went in front of hundreds of people and did a horrible job. end of story

  10. dyerbrookME says:

    Sorry, correction: not gaming industry, interactive media industry! Of course they overlap…

    And now reading your blog for the 3rd time, I’m left a bit puzzled. It’s Facebook and SWSX *together* that hired this journalist? Or just FB? Or just SWSX? Can you clarify that piece of it?


  11. Mike M says:

    An interesting perspective and nice to have for someone not at SXSW but receiving all the tweets. After reading a number of write-ups and seeing some video, I think you are correct that the audience was misjudged.

    The audience is developers and they expect a tech presentation and discussion. Having spent three years working on Intel Developer Forum, I’ve seen a bunch of these presentations and audience reactions.

    Unfortunately, the misjudgment went further and all parties are guilty of not setting the expectation with the audience. If this critical piece of information was left out of the introduction, then what can we expect from an audience prepared for the typical fare. One last observation: the audience also has an obligation to act in a polite manner in public settings; if they were unhappy with the keynote, then they should have left the venue.

  12. isotonic says:

    Brian, it’s apparent from Sarah’s twitter that you have an existing friendship. A little disclosure?

  13. Peter Thomas says:

    Unfortunately for you Brian, Lacy gloated that her “Amazon rank is higher than ever” in the interview *just* after the train-wreck:

    But you quote her as saying:

    “At the end of the day if Mark looked good then that’s all that matters to me”.

    As others above have commented, nice try.

  14. Andy says:

    If Mark is always a boring evasive interview then why bother with him? Surely there’s more exciting and extroverted people from the company willing to talk? I know he’s trying to style himself like Steve Jobs but he seems to lack that enthusiasm and warmth – but I know he’s working on that with media coaching and it will probably improve with time. But if he’s ‘a tough interview’ then tell him to keep his toys and stay home. I think Twitter enables drama queens to not just over-react but to churn their over-reactions together into one big stew. Keynotes with stars of this magnitude will probably always disappoint – I mean really what is he going to say that will truly be worthwhile that hadn’t already been said over drinks the night before?

  15. James Bruni says:

    Nice interview, Brian. You covered this better than Business Week, which had a lot of explaining to do in its own SxSW blog coverage.

  16. lcreekmo says:

    I’m NOT a developer, though I do work in digital media. I’m not even a Facebook groupie, though I do have and use an account.

    The interview was horrible. I think Lacy is a talented, professional person who didn’t realize how such a casual style would come across in this venue. Perhaps SXSW bears some blame….but the Henry Jenkins/Steven Johnson keynote interview the day before was also “casual” but also fascinating and well done.

    You have to make some translations to account for being on stage in front of thousands of people….no matter who is in the audience.

    I do think the one good thing that has come out of post-interview press is this: Lacy DID ask, and get answers to, some good questions. But you didn’t realize it at the time because of the other things going on.

  17. DBx says:

    I guess I’m confused…

    Why should the journalist interviewer take a bullet for the interviewee? I think that statement is indicative of the issue– the people weren’t shooting at Zuckerberg, they were aiming for her, but her reaction and subsequent comments makes it sound like she fell on a sword for him.

    And Mark actually offered most of that new knowledge with little or no prompting, often in between her interruptions (esp. the “France” info with the awkward exchange about backstage agreements).

    I think you bring up some important points, but your inability to talk about Sarah critically without immediately interjecting about her relationship with Mark speaks to the elephant in the room. They are friends, not professional acquaintances. Do you honestly think Tom Brokaw or even the twits on G4 hug their interviews?

    I completely understand why she was chosen, I think it was an honest and probably good decision that worked in getting Mark comfortable. But we need to stop pretending that this was a journalism exercise. And so does Sarah. Through the entire interview she compared herself to Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes whenever she teased Mark about answers. But when she snapped back at the audience about “her job” it revealed that she was unable to be both his friend and a reporter. It would have been better had she been one or the other. Both is asking too much of her and the audience.

  18. Michael E. Rubin, GasPedal says:

    When did this kind of rudeness become acceptable public behavior? It’s not cute, it’s not fun. In fact, it’s downright despicable.

    Don’t like the content of a panel? WALK UP AND LEAVE. Blog about it, Tweet about it, but don’t sit there and yell at the moderator. This isn’t MST3K or your f—-g dorm room, for pete’s sakes.

    Here’s another example from another SXSW panel of an audience “revolt”. It’s just as unacceptable.

    Just to be clear, I think side-conversations and Twitter back-channel is cool and adds a refreshing side-angle to public events.

    But to carry on like a boor is just downright rude and unacceptable in my book.

  19. Brad says:

    Just a slight correction. SXSW didn’t “hire” Sarah, she was picked by Facebook to conduct the interview.

  20. gamermk says:

    This really was a nice balancing act to the overwhelming negative reviews. I’ve submitted it over at Sphinn since I feel it’s important that this side of the story is told too.

  21. Bertil says:

    I think trying to make a geek-king more human is an error: Jobs, Stallman, Gates aren’t; Linus might be, but it’s far less relevant to this crowd then ‘(coding) style’, the real geek personality.

    A “fireside chat” sounds as natural as a “chick flick” to this crowd: an hour and a half of odd situations where all the men are empty, incoherent tokens and women have all the attention and in spite of creating all the drama, force you to feel their suffering with cheap music. You should see Game theorists watching “A Beautiful mind”.

    I understand why Mark wants to be more sympathetic then Gates, and I sincerely hope he won’t turn out as isolated — but this experience won’t help.

    Sarah has a major case of female lock-out: too proud to admit she did wrong, too hurt to open to what people had to say — and unable to understand a situation driven by values foreign to her.

    Thank you for offering both side of the story. I believe it is up to Mark to decide whether he wants to continue talk about what made him great, or to change, and talk about what he wants to be good at.

    I don’t think a great friendship was a problem in such an interview (he’s not a political leader yet, and any one in the room can fully appreciate his decisions): the thing was replacing a keynote; she was here to help him talk. What was the problem was that Sarah could not think outside a connexion that had nothing to do with what people wanted from this interview.

    Can my mom interview me? Yes, but she won’t be a good report for my PhD defence; some of my friends could be, those with whom I talk shop. Not those with whom I have a big-boy crush.

  22. dyerbrookME says:

    Brian said: “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. They hired Lacy because she’s a “business” reporter, not a developer or a geek capable of asking technical questions.”

    Brad said: “Just a slight correction. SXSW didn’t “hire” Sarah, she was picked by Facebook to conduct the interview.”

    Could we get some clarity here? Brian interviewed Sarah after the incident and came up with his statement that Facebook people “designed” this keynote “in collaboration with SXSW”. “They hired Lacy”. *They*.

    Did they hire her? Who signed the check for the consulting fee? Or do you mean that it was just a “pick”. But then, surely that has ramifications, too! A social media magnate gets to *pick* which journo from the old media he deigns to give an interview to?!

    Please explain this for those of us watching from the cheap seats.


  23. Anonymous says:

    I’m calling into question the validity of this controversial statement below:

    “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. They hired 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.”

    Where did you get this information? SXSW doesn’t “hire” anyone. And they did not choose Sarah Lacy. Facebook did. Even Facebook will tell you that.

  24. Wendy Piersall says:

    Brian, I respect the hell out of you, and I also really have to state my opposing view on it.

    I don’t think Lacy did any favors for Zuckerman. She was condescending, cut him off, and made him look really bad. I *don’t* think he looked great in the end, but he did look great compared to his interviewer. He basically repeated himself over and over again with each answer – quite honestly because I don’t think he knew what the hell else to say.

    She also did NO favors for women in tech, working hard to gain visibility and credibility in a male-dominated world. I was embarrassed for her throughout the entire presentation – and left wishing that a nervous, newbie blogger was the one up there interviewing Mark – at least I wouldn’t then be wondering now if this supposed woman business leader in our field is sleeping her way to her interviewees stages.

    Let me be clear after throwing that out there that I’m only saying this purely on watching this woman on stage from row 10. I think that what I and others are reacting to here are not as much the words they heard (which were bad enough) but also what her body language was saying; which were arguably louder than the words themselves.

    It quite honestly pissed me off that she would handle herself so unprofessionally in that room. The conference was supposed to be about brilliant people in the tech industry, and I feel she seriously degraded that standard with her performance on stage.

  25. avin says:

    very nice post, great to see someone getting Sarah’s (and Mark’s, for that matter) take on the story.

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