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The Sarah Lacy/Mark Zuckerberg Fiasco Has Deep Meaning For Social Media.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on March 12, 2008

I just got back from Death Valley and was hoping to share some deep thoughts about our future but everyone is yakking about the Zuckerberg/Sarah Lacy interview fiasco (and the Eliot Spitzer fiasco)so I’m going to hold off on the heavy stuff. Here’s my take on lessons we can learn from the interview at the SXSW conference.

When I was editorial page editor at Business Week in the 90s, I was called, literally, The Voice of Authority. Indeed, the entire magazine was advertised as The Voice of Authority. After launching the Innovation & Design channel and my blog, NussbaumOndesign, I now see myself as The Curator of Conversations. In the past, as a journalist, my role was that of learned authority. In the present, as a journalist, my role is that of learning participant, sometimes leading an open discussion on innovaton and design, but just as often listening and getting new information and analysis from convsersations.

Sarah Lacy made the mistake of playing an old, traditional, mainstream journalist role in her interview with Facebook’s

Zuckerberg. Lacy is an excellent journalist with some of the best contacts in Silicon Valley. Her articles in the past have been right on. She might even know more people in the Valley than Zuckerberg. And if you read the transcript of the interview, not just view it, Lacy asked all the right, probing questions. Unfortunately, in that interview, Lacy often played the role the authority and made herself the center of attention. She focussed only on Zuckerberg and didn't connect with the audience. She left them out of the conversation and didn't even allow questions until the very end of the interview. Big mistake. Today, you must always involve the audience in anything that takes place onstage. People want the interraction, they have the knowledge and--it's more fun.

Zuckerberg was doing all that. He did have his own conversation going on with the audience. He connected with them with talk of how Facebook helps people connect and communicate. He used words, such empathy, understanding, relationships, helping, trusting. He told stories of how Facebook helped people in Colombia and people in Lebanon. The audience of developers were one with Zuckerberg. Lacy didn't see that and didn't response when the audience began to assert itself and intervene.

There was also an issue of rudeness and conversational style. Lacy is an interruptor. Lots of journalists are. So are lots of New Yorkers and folks from LA. But Zuckerberg is not. He's shy, slow-talking and easily interrupted. Lacy's conversational style led her to control Zuckerberg and appear to be rude to him (even though the two know each other very well). The audience didn't like that. Again, Lacy was trying to control, not lead, dominate, not participate.

Then there was Lacy interviewing herself. She gave her own opinions because she sees herself as a Valley authority. She said "I think it's good to fire people" because so many ventures have people who see their employees as friends. Good point, but no one asked or cared.

Finally, Lacy attacked the audience when it began to protest. She talked of digg-style mob rule and challenged people to send her an email explaining why she sucked so badly in interviewing Zuckerberg. Well... here's why Sarah.

Reader Comments

Chelsea Holden Baker

March 12, 2008 11:09 PM

Cheers to someone whose not afraid to let the conversation continue. I'm fed up with the people who are saying THEY are fed up with this discussion, because there's clearly a lot to take away from what happened-- it was a "groundswell" moment, as this post posits:

I also appreciate how you shared the way in which your concept of yourself as a journalist has changed with the times.

In the end, there is a LOT to be said about the keynote. As someone who was there I was struck by two things: 1)It seems crazy that the stage had no connection to the audience: Lacy didn't know she was losing the audience until it was too late, yet had she had a way to receive feedback from the meebo and twitter conversations that could have been different. Considering the subject, and the knowledgeable audience it was a dated approach. 2) People were really turned off by her body language-- there was a lot of whispering in the crowd early on. The day before the keynote speakers had directors' chairs to sit in, and it made the conversation more energized and less casual than the club chair set-up.

For more specifics, my blog is here:

Christa Avampato

March 13, 2008 3:19 PM

I am really impressed with your comments about your changing role within the journalism field. I know that many times the content of a discussion, presentation, or art exhibit for that matter, overshadows the design and organization of the exhibit itself. Curating is as much an art as being a content creator. If an event or exhibit is curated well, the content takes center stage, with the curation barely being noticed. If it's curated badly, the whole things falls into chaos. Good curation is very much like good management - if its competent, the content shines.


March 14, 2008 10:37 PM

As one of those who was reading the as-it-happened Twitter feed coming from attendees and industry insiders I was interested in knowing what all the fuss was about. I'd like to point out also that I had no particular investment in Lacy, Zuckerberg or SXSW so I didn't feel inclined towards anybody's opinion.

I waited until I could see the interview on video and read the transcript.

Based purely on what I saw and read, I felt that she did not conduct herself professionally and did not "control" the interview. Granted, she did ask a few good questions but much of the rest of it was self indulgent and flirty.

I was quite surprised to learn that Lacy had so much experience in professional journalism. It certainly didn't show.

It's clear that she has a lot of friends in the valley and industry. Less well connected media professionals would have been fired.

Brad Templeton

March 15, 2008 6:25 PM

Alas, no, she didn't ask the "right probing questions" at all. She asked bold questions for a business/VC conference, about valuations, and management styles, and being a boy billionaire, and dealmaking. Perhaps it would have been a good set of questions for a BW story.

But not at all what the SXSW audience wanted. She was to be their proxy and they wanted to know about _product_ issues, like privacy, and applications, and where Facebook is going. And I suspect that's what Zuckerberg wanted to speak of.

She lost her audience the old fashioned way. They didn't like what she was doing, a groundswell of old fashioned muttering to neighbours took place (you won't learn that from the video) with the twittering playing a minor role. When Zuckerberg countered in the slightest, the crowd cheered, the dam broke and she had lost them.

Narr Vi

March 28, 2008 10:53 PM

Zuckerberg. Shy. Not exactly.

I watched the video, and think the main issue is that Sarah Lacy is pretty, out of reach for the audience boys, and smart, also something that would get their reaction.

Fault? She was far too nice, and careful as a method. This allowed Zuckerberg free rein to keep repeating himself until his own message was clear: we got here first, and that's about all we think about. Except whatever I though of Tuesday. Narrow band, as young probably always are.

I think she uncovered him, friend though she may be. And as far as the audience : if not able to decode his transparent comments about those who did build the platform and those he hopes will build the platform, then more statements about internal issues Zuckerman has not actually imagined would be no more help.

Example: the question which revealed you can't even search your own material. How smart, hip, etc., is that?

No, it is another Bill Gates situation. The thruster.

Sorry to have to say.

Narr vi.

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May 10, 2011 11:20 AM

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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