Facebook CEO's Interview Mess in Texas

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AUSTIN, TX -- Sunday's highly anticipated keynote Mark Zuckerberg interview with BusinessWeek's Sarah Lacy at the South by Southwest Interactive conference was panned by the audience here -- and in near-real time in the blogosphere.

That the social-media circus turned against its reigning ringmaster had more to with Ms. Lacy's meandering questions and diversions into anecdotal tales of her previous interviews with Mr. Zuckerberg than it did with the Facebook CEO's answers. Indeed, at one point he even suggested to her that she ought to ask questions -- as opposed to sharing her thoughts -- prompting the restless SXSW crowd to burst into applause.

Strange interview technique
Early in the interview when Mr. Zuckerberg started talking about Facebook's Spanish-language expansion, Ms. Lacy, a BusinessWeek.com technology columnist, interrupted to talk about her enthusiasm for Spain; when Mr. Zuckerberg got the floor back he explained that the expansion was more about his site's popularity in Colombia. At another point she told a story about a previous interview she had done with the 23-year-old billionaire at Facebook's office, relating that when the session had ended, Mr. Zuckerberg was drenched in sweat, and that he had a prevalent facial tick "like a little bird."

In a languid slouch on stage more coffee shop than keynote, Ms. Lacy continued to interrupt Mr. Zuckerberg, to tell insider stories and make statements about how much she loved Facebook. She also reminded the audience about her book on the CEO, who was recently anointed by Forbes as the youngest billionaire. The crowd's murmurs at Ms. Lacy's soft non-questions and personal anecdotes grew into open annoyance. One heckler hollered: "Talk about something interesting!"

Zuckerberg on FARC, Beacon
Actually when Mr. Zuckerberg got the floor, he did have some interesting things to say. He passed along stories he'd heard about Facebook connections helping bring Western cultural influence to students of fundamentalist Islam in Lebanon and uniting people in Colombia against FARC, a Marxist guerilla group in the country classified by some nations as a terrorist group. He also talked about a system that will reward users for posting relevant items other people find useful and limit those who send unpopular items. And he addressed the failures of Beacon, a feature that published online shopping information and endorsements to your friends when you purchased, say, movie tickets with a partner site.

After Ms. Lacy ceded control to the audience so they could ask their questions, crowd members asked about Facebook's privacy controls and data retention, before one smart aleck said: "Other than rough interviews, what are some of the biggest challenges Facebook faces?"

Slammed on Twitter
Critics were quick to voice their displeasure on Twitter and and in the conference's Meebo chatroom for the event. Soon after the event, blogger and technologist Robert Scoble wrote: "I've never seen such a bad interview of someone on stage here. Totally disappointing." Mr. Scoble later apologized, saying he was "disappointed with how I treated Sarah Lacy," but that his messages were tame in comparison to the responses he heard from where he was watching.

Ms. Lacy rebutted Twitter critics soon after the session ended. "Seriously screw all you guys. I did my best to ask a range of things" -- a response that's hardly likely to help win her critics over.

"I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry, but in the end I just shifted uncomfortably in my seat," said Marcelino Alvarez, an executive producer of interactive at ad agency Wieden + Kennedy.

Soon after the interview, SXSW Interactive conference director Hugh Forrest played down the problem, although he also admitted he hadn't seen the whole talk, as he was checking in on the four overflow rooms. "It was great to have such a great crowd there, it was fun to have him involved and I think it took the event to the next level," he said. "I thought he was as nervous as everyone else was, but it seemed like he warmed to the crowd after a little while. Taken as a whole, it was wonderful to have him involved in the event, to give us a level of credibility that we have not achieved yet, and I hope it helped them achieve some of their goals as well."
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