Sarah Lacy takes on Gnomedex

Months after her infamous South by Southwest interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the tech journalist faces another geek conference audience.

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
6 min read
Tech journalist and author Sarah Lacy listens to a question from a Gnomedex participant during her presentation at the Seattle conference Saturday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

SEATTLE--Since there is significant attendee crossover between the Gnomedex conference here and the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, it's safe to say that when Sarah Lacy took the stage Saturday, a lot of the audience had some pretty strong memories of the last time they'd seen her.

Last March, it was Lacy whose SXSW keynote interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ended up in a Twitter-fueled mutiny by the audience. Many on hand in Austin had felt she conducted that session in an overtly flirty and self-promotional style that left little room for participation from a crowd eager to interact with the young billionaire.

With that recent history, then, the packed house on hand for Lacy's Gnomedex talk Saturday, "What happens when you get what you want: The growing blogosphere angst," was keyed up and wondering what kind of fireworks might erupt this time around.

And fireworks there were, though they came from uber-blogger Robert Scoble, who at one point during the session oddly got up out of his seat near the front of the auditorium and marched toward the back of the room to tensely confront author and entrepreneur Geoff Livingston.

But more on that later.

To her credit, Lacy, a journalist and author, eschewed the normal kind of conference presentation and instead chose to walk around the auditorium letting attendees ask and answer questions related to her topic. And while there were some in the room and online who expressed frustration with her subject matter and style, the crowd was extremely engaged, almost always a good thing, at least from the perspective of conference organizers. When it was over, Lacy got an energetic ovation.

Lacy began the session by posing the theory that in some ways, the PR industry has co-opted blogging--taking advantage of the fact that many bloggers trying to earn a living are so eager for page views that they will post just about anything they are spoon-fed.

Her theme was that because of that co-opting, blogging as a medium has become less and less distinguishable from technology journalism, as bloggers and traditional reporters alike find themselves too worried about pumping out content to focus on meeting people and finding good stories.

And while that is a well-established pattern among mainstream technology journalists, Lacy suggested, it's a growing--and unfortunate trend in the blogosphere.

As a result, she argued that some prominent bloggers are saying they've had enough and abandoning the medium.

Scoble is one such person she singled out, and given a chance to share his thoughts, he said that working with an ever-increasing number of unprofessional PR people has turned him off.

Still, some in the audience said they feel that people get too caught up in the specific word, "blog," and that people shouldn't try to "pin" down what the term means.

In contrast to the famous keynote interview she did with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last March at SXSW, Lacy decided to spend much of her time Saturday engaging directly with the audience. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

"I just look at each one as an individual case," one person in the audience said. "People have blogs that become very popular....Maybe blogging is just the activity of posting content to the Web. Some blogs are journalism and some aren't."

Others agreed, saying that the problem is that while the architecture of blogging is fairly standard, what people do with it can be quite different: Some may write a small personal blog and TechCrunch may be a large media company, but both use similar tools and are therefore lumped together to the detriment of the terminology.

Lacy wanted one major focus of the discussion to be what bloggers need to do to, on the one hand, make money with their sites, and on the other, to build scalable community around quality.

To that point, one audience member agreed that the point is that community follows quality.

"It's about keeping an audience," the speaker said. "(Gnomedex founder) Chris Pirillo is good at keeping an audience. Why? Because he writes good (stuff). Either you write good (stuff) or you write crap. Bottom line."

The blog as loss leader
To Lacy, who wanted to continue talking about whether bloggers could make money using their sites, one point was that some people--herself included--may find that the blog itself is itself not a direct moneymaker but rather a means to an end.

"I consider my blog a loss leader for my other businesses," Lacy, who does some consulting and gives paid speeches in addition to her professional writing, said. "I do all of those things, but ultimately my blog is the heart of it."

In other words, she was saying that, in her opinion, her blog--which may not itself generate much income directly--builds the community that creates lucrative business for her elsewhere.

And that, she suggested, is precisely the point. By not worrying whether her blog is making money, she is free to write what she wants and not be concerned with how much traffic she gets--in that medium, at least.

Charlene Li, a well-known blogger who until recently was an analyst with Forrester Research, agreed.

"From the beginning of my blog (in 2004, I decided) it's not about driving traffic, it's about driving influence," Li said. "From the beginning, I said I wasn't going to overblog, I was only going to blog when I had something to say."

And because she's developed significant influence, she says even abandoning her official Forrester blog hasn't cost her her community.

"What's amazing to me," Li continued, "is that the audience is starting to follow me....It's really about people wanting to hear what I have to say."

A tense moment
By now, for reasons that were not entirely clear, the room had started to get very charged up. Afterward, people told me they couldn't understand why the tension had ratcheted up, but some of it seemed to have to do with the definition of the terms and whether some people thought the discussion itself was much ado about nothing.

Livingston argued that the people in the room who were debating the question--Lacy, Li, Scoble and others, were "people who already have influential positions."

And that's when the really odd developments began.

"Why should the average Joe Metroblogger care," Livingston asked.

Lacy suggested that there were plenty of people wanting to make a living as bloggers and that these questions were germane to them. Livingston seemed unconvinced.

But at that point, Scoble came marching up the aisle toward Livingston's row with a head of steam.

"When I was first coming to Gnomedex (in 2001)," Scoble said, "I was a nobody."

It was hard to follow exactly what happened next, for me at least, because I was stunned that Scoble had felt he couldn't make his point from his seat.

Suffice it to say that he and Livingston had words, disagreeing with each other's points. Finally, Scoble turned around and walked back to his seat, muttering, "That's (B.S.)"

From here, the conversation seemed to stall. Discussion continued for a bit longer, but it mainly was more people making the same points that had already been made.

Lacy said she wanted to change the topic to talk about new technologies that could be used for better blog commenting systems, but time was running out and there were still people who wanted to keep the discussion on the same track.

It still wasn't entirely clear why there had been so much tension, or precisely what people had been arguing about. For Pirillo, though, there's no doubt the experiment--having Lacy and the history of the SXSW imbroglio that she brought--paid off due to the engaged audience, and even the tense moment between Scoble and Livingston.

As Pirillo told me the night before Gnomedex started, what conference organizer wouldn't want that controversy.