Lacy/Zuckerberg: Conference 2.0

Posted on March 17, 2008
Filed Under Web 2.0 Kool Aid |

The now-infamous Sarah Lacy keynote interview of Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW turned into the biggest news story of SXSW. I finally watched some of the “highlights” and while I think it was boring and messy, I also didn’t expect much to begin with anyway. After all, Sarah Lacy is the “journalist” who wrote the BusinessWeek piece hyping Digg and Mark Zuckerberg has about as much personality as my left testicle.

But apparently for some, a shitty keynote has profound implications. In an article entitled “The Sarah Lacy/Mark Zuckerberg Fiasco Has Deep Meaning For Social Media” by BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum, Bruce suggests that a new model is emerging for these types of keynote interviews.

Sarah Lacy made the mistake of playing an old, traditional, mainstream journalist role in her interview with Facebook’s Zuckerberg. Lacy is an excellent journalist with some of the best contacts in Silicon Valley. Her articles in the past have been right on. She might even know more people in the Valley than Zuckerberg. And if you read the transcript of the interview, not just view it, Lacy asked all the right, probing questions. Unfortunately, in that interview, Lacy often played the role the authority and made herself the center of attention. She focussed [sic] only on Zuckerberg and didn’t connect with the audience. She left them out of the conversation and didn’t even allow questions until the very end of the interview. Big mistake. Today, you must always involve the audience in anything that takes place onstage. People want the interraction [sic], they have the knowledge and–it’s more fun.

First, it’s appropriate to point out to Bruce that there’s no reason for him to abandon the spellcheckers that old, traditional, mainstream journalists use.

Second, in my opinion, Bruce’s argument is pure and utter bullshit of the highest order. Perhaps the attendees of Web 2.0-oriented conferences expect panels and interviews to focus on them, but the average attendee of a conference is attending because he wants to hear what “experts” and notable figures have to say, not because he wants to hear what the disrespectful narcissists in the audience have to say.

The fact that Sarah Lacy did a poor job of interviewing Zuckerberg and the fact that Zuckerberg is incapable of keeping an interesting conversation going unless he’s asked a who, what, when, where, why or how question reflects that the organizers of SXSW made a bad decision - they invited the wrong keynote speaker and they hired the wrong interviewer.

It does not reflect the need for “Conference 2.0″ as Fortune suggests in its article “Welcome to Conference 2.0.”

There were many similar episodes at this year’s SXSW, a conference packed with folks empowered by their own mini-media empires on Flickr, Facebook, YouTube,, Twitter, Utterz and a host of other tech sites. Several attendees told of being in smaller panel discussions in which people either twittering or commenting in chat rooms run by social networker Meebo turned the conversation into a new direction.

In one, “a revolution in the chat room tore apart the panel,” according to Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang. One person finally stood and requested permission to ask a question. “They said ‘No’,”Owyang recalled, “and he said, ‘The whole room is behind me. I’m going to ask it anyway’.” When the panel, on “Social Media Metrics,” started to drag, according to Dave Evans of Digital Voodoo, a social media consulting firm in Austin, “you could see the laptops flip up and see the twitters happening.” The panelists saw they were not giving the information that the audience wanted, and refocused the presentation, Evans said. “It was a really interesting collision between the Twitter back-channel and the live, public-facing channel,” Evans said. “We always say that the crowd is taking control in a marketing buzzword kind of way,” Owyang said, “but now it’s actually happening.”

I’d suggest that mob-like audiences are not desirable for obvious reasons and that the “old” model for conferences works quite well. It does require, however, that conference organizers invite the right people and hire the right interviewers. As Chris Heuer, a social media consultant in San Francisco stated, “The entire un-conference movement started from the frustration with terrible interviews and terrible panels.”

Of course, the Web 2.0 community tends to want to “kill” everything. For instance, because email isn’t perfect, many Web 2.0 proponents believe email is dying - the rest of the world just hasn’t received the memo. In this case, instead of recognizing that many conferences are worthless because the people invited to speak at them are incapable of saying anything interesting and the people invited to interview them have no skill, the Web 2.0 community apparently believes that the “old” conference model is dead.

It isn’t. I’d suggest that members of the Web 2.0 community attend conferences in other industries and observe. It’s unlikely that Twitter-fueled mobs are going to take over panels. And if a panel or interview is horrible, it’s unlikely that attendees are going to become disrespectful and interrupt the proceedings like spoiled little children. And they certainly won’t scream that an entire new model for conferences is needed. They’ll simply apply common sense and acknowledge that the conference organizer did a horrible job and will consider whether attending next year is warranted in light of that fact.

But there’s no common sense in Web 2.0. Digg dumbasses and Twitter twats will continue to attend buzzword conferences that nothing interesting could conceivably be discussed at and they’ll wonder why they come away disappointed. In the process, they’ll talk about how they need to redefine the conference, but the only thing they’re redefining is stupidity.

The thought has crossed my mind that perhaps the reason rude outbursts such as the ones seen at SXSW are apparently becoming frequent occurrences at technology-oriented conferences is that many of the geeks attending them have become so disconnected from real-world interactions that when they do have them, they are prone to acting in the same manner that they might online. It is already established that the Internet can have a disinhibiting effect. I’ve discussed some of the negative implications of this before.

Is it possible that individuals who are used to expressing themselves in a disinhibited fashion through blogs, Twitter and other Internet mediums can lose sense of what’s appropriate in real-world social interactions, thus becoming more prone to demonstrate the same disinhibited behavior in real life? It doesn’t seem too far fetched and if this is the case, maybe Web 2.0ers really do need their own “special” conferences so that the adults don’t have to deal with them.

In the meantime, while the details of Conference 2.0 are brainstormed, if you decide to attend a conference that is plagued by these types of people and they start acting up during a panel or interview that you paid good money to see, I recommend that you take matters into your own hands: a short right hand to the jaw. That should finally give the twats something interesting to tweet:

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4 Responses to “Lacy/Zuckerberg: Conference 2.0”

  1. Matt A.* on March 17th, 2008 6:07 pm

    Who cares? I watched the highlights and nothing that interesting happened or was said. What’s all the commotion about?

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