I watched yesterday’s South by Southwest keynote interview between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Business Week columnist Sarah Lacy from the comfort of the overflow room (here’s the video). Normally, in a situation where the story becomes the reaction of the crowd, I would be kicking myself for choosing the comfy chair over a bit of wall space in the back of the ballroom where it all went down. I mean, how can you really get the vibe of such an event when you’re watching it on a big screen?
But in this case, with my laptop and Twitter open, plenty of other shocked fellow onlookers in the “cheap seats”, and a train wreck in progress on the other side of the ballroom wall, I think I pretty much got it.
There are plenty of accounts in blogs and on Twitter of what happened yesterday. Some, showing remarkable restraint, actually provide a straight report on what Zuckerberg said in answer to Lacy’s questions. I think it’s fabulous that both kinds of stories made it to the Web, and I suggest you read them.
In very brief, Lacy, with whom I wasn’t previously familiar, and who was not introduced, proceeded to let us know that she had interviewed Zuckerberg many times. Her questions seemed to be part of an ongoing conversation with him that the audience had just now joined. She was at once fawning and singularly focused on the business aspects of Facebook, at the expense of the kinds of structural and technical issues that would have been important to the SXSW audience, and about which Zuckerberg has probably not been pressed in such a venue before. That was a missed opportunity. She reminded Zuckerboer and us (in case we might have missed) that he is a very young man. Her queries were not well-framed, and were often organized as statements rather than questions. When she lost the audience in the middle of the conversation, she made the mistake of turning on the crowd and even inviting their scorn when she suggested that what she was doing on stage was difficult to do.
These are my stylistic critiques of what Lacy did. Like her, I am a journalist (and a podcaster/blogger). Like her, I don’t think journalist is a bad word. And though I’m completely in agreement with many of her critics, I fear that this incident could become another opportunity for bloggers and journalists to take up their cudgels, to the detriment of both.
In a post-keynote video interview, Lacy was unapologetic, even condescending toward the audience, and suggesting that their reaction to the interview would dissuade high-profile people like Zuckerberg from agreeing to speak at SXSW in the future. She said she felt good about the interview and that “mainstream press expect you to break news.” I can just hear the collective blogosphere rising up to take another easy swipe at the hapless Lacy as she wrapped herself in the sanctimonious cloak of journalism and even pointed out that she is one of the few women covering tech. (Too true, and one of my pet soapboxes, but not something that explains the reaction to this interview. In fact, it might have been helpful to her when people started feeling guilty for piling on. At least for a little while.)
But this isn’t a “journalist” problem, or a “mob” problem. This is a problem of Lacy’s making. She’s right. She was the wrong person to conduct this interview, and in the wrong venue. Plenty of tech journalists or bloggers could have done better. It’s not the description on your badge that determines how well you conduct an interview. It’s your own skill at the task, an effort to keep yourself out of the equation, and your ability to ask questions to which people in the room want answers.