The Twitterverse exploded this afternoon with a prime example of how micro blogging can take people backstage at a main event like SXSW’s Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. People were abuzz even before the keynote interview with Mark Zuckerman, founder of FaceBook. They were excited to hear what he had to say to this room full of geeks and online gurus.
Meanwhile, even as the tech crowd in Austin geared up for what was supposed to be the don’t miss interview of the conference, a peek behind the curtain to the self made Oz driving FaceBook’s innovation, people wondered if BusinessWeek reporter Sarah Lacy was up to the task. Conducting an in-person interview for an audience is vastly different than any other kind of interview reporters are usually called to do.
In the end, Sarah Lacy’s mannerisms and lack of “geek cred” (or even technological knowledge) combined with Zuckerberg’s well-known public awkwardness struck a chord with the crowd. As the tide turned in the room, something unusual happened – people began to post their real-time impressions of the interview on social micro blog cum message program Twitter.
About halfway through the interview, my own Twitter screen lit up like a switchboard with comments that grew increasingly more combative, detailing what many were calling Sarah Lacy’s colossal “fail” of this important hour of people’s time. People who go to SXSW want to socialize at night and learn during the day. They want the scoop on the technical side of where FaceBook is going and why it has made the decisions it has made. They want to talk about its API and more.
Instead of answers to the hard hitting geek questions the audience got softball questions akin to the social section of a College yearbook, peppered with fawning, flirting, giggling commentary and several plugs for Sarah’s own book. As the interview went on, you could feel the atmosphere change on Twitter, and I found myself squirming in my seat from thousands of miles away as I watched the skewering of Sarah Lacy by a roomful of angry geeks.
People who hear “skewered on Twitter” may not understand the severity of this tar and feathering. It involved industry heavy hitters like Scoble and Arrington as well as the rest of the SXSW attendees and online watchers. Not only that, it didn’t contain itself to Twitter. By the time the interview was done, the crowd was heckling Sarah in person, going as far as to ask for her email to send her a list of reasons why the interview went wrong.
Why would they do that? Because Lacy not only lost control of the interview, she lost control of herself, openly challenging the audience and eventually Tweeting back to the Twitterverse that they could go “screw themselves“. In addition to being what amounts to a sore loser, where did she go so horribly wrong?
I had the opportunity to view the interview earlier, and I can say that if she had done that interview almost anywhere else, or even kept it off camera, it would have been fine, if mildly annoying. Two of her biggest problems were her demeanor and her mannerisms. Hair twirling, leg flopping and visible flirting do not belong in a serious interview, and give girls in tech a bad name, frankly. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously without someone pulling the bimbo card and setting us back ten years.
Her other issue was over prepping the subject. Zuckerberg knew so many of the questions beforehand that not only did the interview feel forced, it didn’t have room for spontaneous direction. Zuckerberg is a stick in the mud to listen to, and by allowing him to ramble on without taking charge and guiding the conversation was shooting herself in the foot.
Then you saw her third issue: not enough technical knowledge. You have to have a working knowledge of technology to conduct a really great tech interview in a room full of geeks. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to study your subject and your audience and find out what questions are heaviest on people’s minds. Lacy didn’t do that, and it was the final straw that broke the audience’s sympathy down.
On the whole I was completely embarrassed by the way the Twitterverse picked the woman apart, almost as if the Internet was talking behind her back right in front of her face. Even so, they were all right – it was a terrible interview. Her name is already being used as a synonym for a bad interview. Her video defense of her atrocious interview and ungracious behavior following it didn’t help her cause, either. A little grace would have gone a long way to heal the wounds. Meanwhile, that’s a precious hour that Zuckerberg and the rest of the tech heads at SXSW won’t get back.