Journalist becomes the story at Mark Zuckerberg SXSWi keynote

In one of the ugliest scenes at a conference I've seen, a capacity audience turned on Zuckerberg's interviewer and it only went downhill from there.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Ugh. Talk about losing an audience.

During Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's keynote address Sunday here at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), on-stage interviewer Sarah Lacy out-and-out bombed, becoming much more of the story than she should have been and having the capacity crowd turn on her over the course of the hour discussion.

The interview between journalist Sarah Lacy and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got ugly quick and then went downhill. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News.com

"Other than rough interviews," an audience member asked Zuckerberg during a short Q&A session at the end of the keynote, "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 audience member said.

The battle between Lacy and the audience began almost immediately. From the beginning of her interview with Zuckerberg, she repeatedly interrupted him, and all around me, I started to hear annoyed murmurs of people saying that she should stop doing so.

Later on, Zuckerberg himself seemed to get annoyed by Lacy's style. As he was answering one of her questions, she began to talk over him, only to notice his reaction.

"I kind of cut you off," she said. "You kind of had this hurt look, like, 'I was talking.'"

Near me in the third row of the ballroom, someone said, "Is she serious?"

It only got worse from there. At one point, Lacy got confused about how much time was left for the interview, and Zuckerberg teased her.

"Did you run out of questions?" he asked.

The line got a huge cheer from the thousands in the audience.

Burning questions about journals
By now, it became clear to me and everyone around me that the audience was totally on Zuckerberg's side and totally against Lacy. A few minutes later she began to ask him about a series of journals he has kept about Facebook's progress over the years. Zuckerberg clearly felt that she was leading him, and seemed to clam up a little bit.

"You have to ask questions," he said.

Again, his line generated a massive cheer from the crowd.

By now, Lacy was becoming aware of how she was losing the crowd, and said, "Anybody who's seen my (TV) show...has seen me throw a whole glass of water on (Techcrunch founder Michael) Arrington."

With a sly look, Zuckerberg grabbed her water glass and moved it out of her reach.

She then tried to follow up the line of questioning about the journals, saying that one of the interesting things about his process was that he burned the journals when he was done with them.

"I don't do that," Zuckerberg said. "You made that up."

Shocked, Lacy called out to the back of the room where someone who had apparently sat and talked with Lacy and Zuckerberg the night before was sitting in an attempt to get confirmation that he had said he burned his journals.

Someone from the crowd yelled out at the top of his lungs, "Talk about something interesting!"

Again, a monstrous cheer.

At this point, Lacy lost it.

"Try doing what I do for a living," she said. "It's not that easy."

The crowd was not sympathetic, and some demanded that she turn the microphone over to the audience so they could ask questions.

So she responded angrily, "Let's go with the Digg model and let them have mob rule."

And as the audience members began to ask questions, she said, "Someone send me a message afterward about exactly why I sucked so much."

In response, someone yelled out, "What's your e-mail address?"

And someone else shouted, "Check Twitter."

Harsh and immediate criticism
Indeed, a quick glance at some of the Tweets that went out during the interview were devastating to Lacy.

"It sounds like the Zuckerberg keynote was one of the worst things in Internet history," Sean Bonner, the creator of Metroblogging, wrote in a Twitter post.

Added famous video blogger Robert Scoble, "(The) audience in the back of the room is totally ripping her apart. Saying she should just ask questions, not put herself in the interview."

And another Twitter poster wrote, "OK, now this is getting good now that she is getting her (butt) handed to her repeatedly."

As a fellow journalist, I found this all deeply uncomfortable. It is sort of anathema to write a story that is critical of another journalist. But there's no question that from the beginning of the interview, Lacy was injecting herself into the story in a way that was far out of balance with the dynamic that should have been in evidence during a discussion between her and the CEO of one of the most talked-about companies in the world. (Editors' note: Sarah Lacy spoke on video after the Q&A with Omar L. Gallaga of the Austin American-Statesman.)

The reality is, I thought the substance of her interview was pretty strong. She asked a lot of good questions, including some that put Zuckerberg on the spot. He kept asking her how she had learned about certain points she was asking him about.

So in that regard, on paper, her interview would have been a success.

But it was her style that lost her the audience almost from the minute it started. She seemed flirty with him, trying to put on an air of being his buddy, when what the audience wanted was to listen to Zuckerberg talk.

"This interview should have been forty minutes of Q and A," said Janetti Chon, the community and content manager for the Web 2.0 Expo. "Facebook is a phenomenon. The people who are participants in it want to be involved rather than reading it on a blog. I mean, this is the god of Facebook."

To be sure, it didn't occur to Lacy to let the audience ask questions until about 10 minutes before the end of the session, and the crowd clearly didn't appreciate that.

"It definitely seemed like it became a big deal," said Caleb Eubanks, studio directory at VM Foundry, an Austin company. "Instead of focusing on the speaker, we were focusing on the moderator."

This was all very odd.

I had come to the session expecting to do a story on audience reaction to Zuckerberg, since my colleague Caroline McCarthy was writing CNET News.com's main story on the keynote.

Early on, the energy among the crowd was electric. I've been to many Steve Jobs keynote addresses, and I would have to say the crowd for Zuckerberg here was much more on the edge of their seat for him than I've ever seen for Jobs.

And much of that might have to do with his age.

"Age is an influencing factor in encouraging people to come here," blogger Tamar Weinberg told me before the keynote began. "He's 23 or 24, and people are in awe of what he's accomplished at his age."

Then, some high-energy song came on and all around me, people stood up and began to dance raucously. This is not anything I've seen at a keynote before.

The crowd was very high-energy prior to the Zuckerber keynote address. Some audience members were dancing. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

But once Zuckerberg and Lacy began to talk, he became far less of the focus, as Eubanks told me, than the audience wanted.

And in a last ditch attempt afterward to win back her dignity, Lacy tried one last riposte.

"I'm sorry to torture you for an hour," she said.

The line did not go over well.

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).