Explaining the Trainwreck at the SXSW Zuckerberg-Lacy Interview

Sarah Lacy interviews Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW (c|net image)Wow, are people hating on Sarah Lacy of “Business Week.” She conducted a live interview of Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg in front of a large audience at the Austin South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW). She got the kind of response I experience in nightmares. Here’s a sampling.

I want to get video of the uncomfortable keynote with Mark Zuckerberg and Business Week’s Sarah Lacy at SXSW today so I can use it as an object lesson in my journalism classes about how not do conduct an interview. From buzzmachine with Jeff Jarvis.

Lacy’s interview w/Zuckerberg truly embarassing (for her) and awkward (for him and for audience). From valleywag commentor.

“Stop Sarah Lacy before she kills again,” pleaded MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin. Also from valleywag.

. . . 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. From c|net news.

If you do your own search on Ms. Lacy’s name and Mark Zuckerberg, you will find even more graphic evaluations in the same vein. Finally, you can see and hear Ms. Lacy’s take on the interview and audience response to it here. She talks like a Big Kid who can take it, but she was definitely aware of the angst in the audience.

First of all this case is a fabulous illustration of the Internet and the world wide weirdness it creates. This is an event that most people did not experience, but are able to discuss through all the mechanisms available only through the Net. We can read real time blogs (text and images and sounds and video), learn about it from news aggregators like Google’s, and perhaps uncover it from traditional media sources like print, radio, and TV. Finally, virtually any human with a computer can comment (as I’m doing here) and possibly interact with other humans in real time and virtual real time. The Internet is a different medium, but remember, we’re all still the same humans we were before.

Second, this event is a massive illustration of attribution theory. Briefly, this theory looks at what factors determine how people view and explain themselves and other people in social situations. It strongly suggests that our perceptions and evaluations are widely and wildly variable not on the basis of physical reality, but of our role in the situation.

Consider, now, the “situation” here. We have Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, a booming Internet business in social networking. Sarah Lacy, a journalist with the respected magazine, “Business Week,” is interviewing him in front of a large audience who knows that an audience Q&A session will follow the formal interview. This all takes place at the South by Southwest Interactive, a “music, film, and interactive conference and festival” held annually in Austin, Texas. Now, add the fact that “we” (meaning me and most of you) did not see the event and have for now only news and blog reports and comments.

This situation contains people who are guaranteed to be at cross-purposes with each other. The audience is part of a large and diverse festival that pulls together music, film, and interactives in both a festival and conference format. The audience itself is composed of people with widely diverse expectations and goals.

Now add Zuckerberg and Lacy.   Zuckerberg is trying to run one of those dream/nightmare Internet businesses. The “dream” is that he is famous and rich and powerful. The nightmare is that this thing grew into a monster in just a couple years and Zuckerberg is just 23 years old and definitely swimming with much older and craftier sharks. It could all go south like Pets.com in a flash. What do you think Mark’s goals are?

And, Ms. Lacy. She’s a professional print journalist with a respected weekly magazine. She gets paid to find and make news and here she is with one of the biggest news makers in the world today and she’s got him onstage in front of a live audience. She will not have to worry about being accused of fabricating or twisting things that Zuckerberg says. Literally hundreds of people will witness his response to her questions. What do you think that Sarah wanted here?

I’d argue (until I see the video of the interview) that most of the negative evaluation you can find is based on the crossways goals of the people involved. Lacy played the journalist doing a live interview. Zuckerberg played the web wizard trying to swim with the sharks while keeping the fishes happy. The audience wanted . . . gee whiz . . . you could probably find as many different goals and expectations as there were different people.

The negative evaluations I’m reading are coming from the more web literate and technically oriented observers who all appear to be projecting themselves as actors in the situation they are observing. In other words, they are telling us what they would have done if they had been in Sarah Lacy’s role. Except, the SXSW planners didn’t invite them to interview Mark Zuckerberg, so these observers are truly engaged in fantasy projection.

One of my rules is this: You’re always the smartest person in the room when it’s not your job. I try to repeat this to myself like a mantra whenever I’m watching an event like the Zuckerberg-Lacy interview. Of course, I’d act differently than Sarah Lacy if I was up on the stage interviewing this guy. I’m Steve, not Sarah. And simply because I’d do it differently doesn’t mean it would work out any better.

One commenter suggested that Sarah Lacy had failed because she didn’t do any audience analysis prior to the event. The commenter advised that she could have contacted a sample of people (through the ease of the Internet) and gotten a sense of what the audience wanted to hear.

That’s great persuasion and communication advice and I heartily agree. Unless, of course, your goal is not to please that audience, but rather to make and get news for your magazine. And, how can any observer expect that Sarah Lacy, professional journalist with “Business Week,” is NOT interested in a story for her magazine and instead wanting to please the local audience?

Think about it.

Lacy’s behavior in the interview as it is described in currently available sources, sounds like an aggressive journalistic style where she is trying to make her target say and do things the target would prefer to avoid. That’s journalism, kids. Playing nice with the target to get cheers from an audience of SXSW participants is not journalism. Get Ryan Seacrest if you want that.

In summary, understand the much of the hubbub here can be understood from a great persuasion and social psychology theory, Attribution. We’re seeing here a great illustration of the actor-observer effect which demonstrates that our perceptions and evaluations of social events depends upon our role.

UPDATE from May 25, 2012.  External links in this post, mainly from the quote boxes, have been corrupted at the local source with viruses.  The links were once safe, but now are not.  I’ve killed them.