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Everyone Isn’t Great in Every Medium: The Sarah Lacy Story

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 11, 2008

Wow!  Sarah Lacy’s interview of Mark Zuckerberg at the South by Southwest conference is the story of an audience that turned militant on an interviewer.  Were they justified?  What went wrong here?  Was it a train wreck of an interview, or a witch hunt gone mad?

Taking opposite sides of that argument are Dave “it was an astonishing case of Nuclear F-Bomb Fail” McClure and Michael “the crowd was out for blood” Arrington.

If you weren’t at the conference, Arrington has the video up on Techcrunch so you can watch it and form your own opinion.  McClure didn’t like Arrington taking exception to his analysis that Lacy bombed, BTW.  In a later post, he basically tells Arrington his point of view is worthless because he wasn’t at the presentation.  Aside from the fact that it makes a classic ad hominem attack on Arrington rather than addressing his points, I found it disappointing because it doesn’t reflect the spirit of the web.  Claiming the only way to have insight into something is to go be there and physically report on it is surprisingly old school coming from a guy that’s complaining about how Lacy couldn’t relate to the latest greatest Geek Think well enough to interview the Zuck.  Is all this really just about who is cool and who is not and who gets to be at which conferences and meet which people?  Perhaps, people are like that, but the web generally tries to claim it’s about a better way.

I did watch the video, and came away with a somewhat different impression than either the view that Lacy totally botched the interview or that it was purely a witch hunt by a few bad actors in the audience.  First, the whole blogosphere controversy is a mountain out of a molehill.  Yes, the interview was boring.  Yes, Lacy seemed to have a hard time relating to Zuck and the audience.  She was trying to match her world and strengths to his, and frankly she wanted to control things and couldn’t quite get a grip on Zuckerberg because his personality and values are so different than hers.  She was visibly uncomfortable, and when she couldn’t find good touchpoints for the interview she tried being flirtatious, I think as much to be funny and keep control as anything.   And yes, the crowd was unfair.  Arrington did a poll where most people voting agreed that was the case.

Some folks think it was the questions Lacy asked were just not interesting (some don’t think she asked enough questions).  Maybe better questions would have helped.  Lacy did try to engage with questions, they just didn’t get interesting answers and they seemed a little too focused on being provacative from the perspective her Forbes business audiences have rather than the perspective the attendees at SxSW would have.

Others took the view that the interview was doomed because Zuckerberg was set on not providing any news.  He would not chat about anything that wasn’t already well-known and scripted.  When asked about a Facebook music service, for example, he replied, ““We have nothing to talk about right now.”

I think something a little different happened.  Something that is a lot harder to fix.  This interview was not only not in front of Lacy’s home audience, it also wasn’t her home medium.

If it was just a matter of knowing the audience a little better and coming up with some different questions, that would be one thing.  But a really good interviewer would have done what many suggested: they would have read the crowd and done a course correction.  That didn’t happen. 

I often comment in the world of UI design (what the heck does that have to do with this?) that everyone isn’t great in every medium.  Everyone thinks they’re great UI designers because everyone consumes UI.  Marketing people tell me everyone thinks they’re a great marketer because they all consume ads.  But the reality is that only a few people really understand these different mediums.  Steven Spielberg is a fabulous director.  John Grisham is a wonderful author.  They’re two different mediums.  Spielberg is as unlikely to be a great author as Grisham is to be a great film director.

So it was with Sarah Lacy.  You would have to assume its fun to be interviewed by her for one of her books, even watching the long boring interview of Mark Zuckerberg.  But authors are different than interviewers that work in front of crowds.  They take away their interview notes and they synthesize a conclusion that is the theme of their book.   It’s their book, not the interviewees.  If you talk to people who’ve been written about in books, they often say the book didn’t resonate at all and they can’t understand how the author got they ideas they printed.

Lacy was trying to replay her book up on stage with Zuckerberg, and it wasn’t working.  It was neither an interview nor a book.  She couldn’t play out her theme regardless of what Zuck said because he was sitting right there. 

It’s important to know your medium and stick to it.  Lots of lessons to be learned there.

Here’s another lesson:  Twitter fundamentally changed the old interviewing in front of a cloud medium.  By cutting friction down and linking the crowd, it empowered sharper dynamics.  If you’re sitting in a disconnected crowd, you may be thinking, “This interview is really boring,”  but absent confirmation from others, you remain silent.  Perhaps you daydream or think about what the next session at the conference may bring.  Now here comes Twitter.  Your attention is not only split between speakers and Twitter, but others are confirming you darkest thoughts.  That confirmation is what emboldens people to speak up.  Ultimately, it emboldens them to become an ugly mob.

Think carefully about that kind of dynamic in anything you do, because the Internet can touch all of it.  David Armano calls it The Age of Improvisation.

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2 Responses to “Everyone Isn’t Great in Every Medium: The Sarah Lacy Story”

  1. wallyton said

    Nice recap of all of this bru-hah. Well said, documented, and referenced on all fronts. Man, I have spent a lot of time chasing ALL these links down. Just one exception:

    “But the reality is that only a few people really understand these different mediums. Steven Spielberg is a fabulous director. John Grisham is a wonderful author. They’re two different mediums. Spielberg is as unlikely to be a great author as Grisham is to be a great film director.”

    I personally would characterize Spielberg as a fabulous film maker. I would call Grisham as a GREAT story teller, not a great author. MHO.

  2. […] on-demand business is.  Yeah, that Sarah Lacy that didn’t do so well playing the curmudgeon face to face with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  When you want to play the curmudgeon its usually important not to have too many representatives […]

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