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Designed for disaster: SXSW's Zuckerberg keynote discussion

Chelsea Holden Baker, of frog design, looks at how better planning and a different design choice could have changed the outcome of the now-infamous 2008 SXSW discussion between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and reporter Sarah Lacy.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
3 min read

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talks to BusinessWeek's Sarah Lacy at SXSW. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News.com

Chelsea Holden Baker, of frog design, says better planning and a different design choice could have changed the outcome during the now-infamous 2008 SXSW keynote discussion between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and reporter Sarah Lacy.

Here is Chelsea's blog on the matter from Tuesday:

If you have any interest in South by Southwest and/or the blogosphere, then you've probably seen something on the infamous train-wreck-of-an-interview, aka the SXSW keynote discussion with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and journalist Sarah Lacy. (In this metaphor Zuckerberg is the Little Engine That Could and Lacy is the conductor that derailed the train). Forty-five minutes into it, the crowd wrestled control of the mikes, cutting short Lacy's interview to ask their own questions.

Recaps can be found elsewhere, but there are two interesting things to think about in the aftermath of this mob-jacking. One is how Twittering can amplify a crowd's reaction, and how it could make future keynotes better. The other is how bad design can change the outcome on a stage.

What was amazing, from the point of view of someone in the room, and someone who was following the live chat on Meebo, was that if Lacy had had a laptop she could have seen the crowd revolt coming. Or rather, she could have changed her questions, style, even body language (so many comments about hair twirling!) so that it wouldn't have happened.

Yes, there is much speculation about Facebook's PR interest in an event like this, and yes, Zuckerman has a reputation for tight lips and short answers. But this is a scenario where an old-school back-and-forth is a dated approach. In the end it didn't serve anyone--Zuckerberg (he came off "nice," but not exciting), Lacy, or the audience. The audience had a parallel conversation online, which at least with the Meebo strain, is archived in perpetuity. A lot of it was snarky, but the sentiments, and some of the questions raised there, were important.

Twittering (on Twitter and elsewhere) pushed people to act out; it accelerated interruption. People who did not like the way the interview was going had assurance that the crowd was with them; and it intensified those feelings. In traditional passive audience situations, for every person who acts out, the ratio of those who wanted to but didn't, is probably much higher. Instead, because people knew that not only the people sitting next to them, but also those in all four corners of the room had the same gripes--or pointed out new ones--many people acted out. As Lacy said, what we got was "Digg-style mob-rule." Essentially: Twittering lowers the threshold for lash-out. Of course, the positive spin on this is that at next year's SXSW, people on panels could (should) get to see feedback and respond accordingly.

Secondly, early on in the Meebo chat, there were comments about Lacy's posture and body language. To this I say: Don't blame Lacy, blame bad design. Zuckerberg and Lacy both had club chairs. You have two options with that kind of seat: Zuckerberg chose to perch on the edge, sitting very upright, looking a bit eager and uptight. Lacy chose the traditional club chair posture: Lean back, cross your legs, and keep one arm up as if you're smoking a cigarette in the wood-paneled library at the Fair Oaks Golf Course.

One user in the Meebo chat, dango3kyoudai, said: "Watching her sit sprawled back in her chair just turns me off in some way; a metaphor for journalistic sloth." While I'm not sure what the best interview chair is, this certainly isn't it. Lacy's posture was the first turn-off. Unfortunately, much of what came from her mouth amplified an initial bad reaction to what was perceived as flirtatious (however unfair that is), overly-casual/intimate nonverbal signals.

A nice Bertoia-style stool would be great: There's only one way to sit in them. And yes, it may be uncomfortable for an hour, but so was what we witnessed. There's no reason why Lacy shouldn't have had a clue the audience wasn't with her until 40 minutes into the discussion.

Lessons for next year's keynotes: Provide a peek at what's happening on Meebo/Twitter (edited by a third party, and read on handheld device), and high chairs for the pair of presenters.

Clips of audience responding to the stage: