SXSWi ’08: Liveblogging the Failed Interview of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg

“Trainwreck” was many attendees’ way of describing the much-anticipated keynote.

Straight outta SXSWi, former BusinessWeek writer Sarah Lacy could not have failed more miserably in her onstage interview of keynoter Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. We chronicled the misery.

1:44: The buzz in the room is palpable. We swear it’s not just the four venti drips we chugged after 3.5 hours’ sleep.

1:53: Room’s full; people getting redirected on away from the auditorium. A trip to the loo necessitates Malta-level negotiations with the high-school-aged volunteer contingent working the door. The Zuck’s the closest thing we have to a rock star ’til the real ones arrive Wednesday (sorry, Doherty).

1:56: Everyone around us is asking if we’re online. We don’t have connectivity, we just play it on TV. None of our 1,000+ nerds-in-arms has even the barest half-bar of a connection here — thanks, interactive conference in the most wired city in the contiguous 48 states!

1:58: Two guys from New York representing Sphere just behind us. We feel right at home, as they harsh on how amped the crowd is. We entreat them to whisper jokes into our ear to feed the gaping maw of this liveblog as we go. One offers to tap us on the back of the neck. We’ll take the whisper — what New Yorker doesn’t know our innate aversion to being touched by strangers? We’re not on the frickin’ subway.

2:01: Severely ridiculous synth-heavy music starts to blare. Cue rave.

2:02: We take it back: It’s Daft Punk. Our associate editor guffaws at our musical illiteracy at right about *here.*

2:03: The caffeine/bass combo is either deadly or transcendent; we can’t tell.

2:04: We wish we had Ecstasy right now. We bet Doherty’s holding.

2:05: Inevitably, dudes stand up in their chairs to rock out. We spy the Cabbage Patch.

2:06: Lights dim. We’re seeing trails.

2:05: They enter. Lacy intros Zuckerberg, who’s blinded by the 16,000 camera flashes going off.

2:05: Lacy calls ‘the core of why you’re doing so well’ ‘the site itself.’

2:06: Z: A lot of the focus has been on stuff we at the company are not focused on. Z wants FB to build ’empathy relationships.’ FB Spain mentions nabs him a round of applause.

2:06: Colombia=locale where FB has taken off. Spain got more claps.

2:07: Lacy: Did you ever think people would be using FB to revolt against the gov’t in Colombia.
Z: No. It’s very hard to predict these things.

2:07: Empathy relationships again. This guy is a total softy.

2:08: Sartorially, Z’s rocking a North Face half-zip polar fleece he’s donned in so many other appearances. Given the duds we’ve seen at SXSWi, he gets props for knowing his audience.

2:09: Lacy wants to talk Facebook and terrorism. We don’t like where this is going. Bring back ’empathy’ please.

2:10: According to Z., terrorism’s caused by a ‘lack of empathy and understanding.’ The term ’empathy’s’ our new security blanky.

2:11: Z. stutters a bit as he speaks, swallows hard, closes eyes momentarily to collect thoughts. Sympathy rush — or caffeine sweats. Tough to tell.

2:12: The onstage armchairs they’re sitting in has Lacy looking like Lily Tomlin. She gets our mental ‘girl, get your pose right’ message and sits up.

2:13: How is FB doing anything proactively to do good in the world, Lacy asks.

2:14: Time out: Lacy accuses Z. of causing her a ‘Leslie Stahl moment,’ referencing his 60 Minutes interview when he just looked at Stahl blankly before asking her, ‘Is that a question?’ Lacy’s imitating him in monotone: ‘Wha…?’ She’s now regaling crowd w/ what an awkward public speaker he is, citing how copiously he sweat during their first in-person interview, soaking through his white t-shirt. Gross! Lacy to Z., since she seems to know she’s raving: ‘We’ll get back to you in a minute.’

2:15: Z. on philanthropy: We’re trying to build an infrastructure on top of what we’re doing to help solve these [global] problems.

2:16: Z. Why does there need to be a big organization to channel people’s voices? People should be able to be heard, now that the Internet exists and is bringing people together socially.

2:17: Z: People like ‘us’ (i.e. SXSWi attendees) building applications — one of them is Facebook — to create ‘bottom-up’ communications.

2:18: Lacy: Companies out of 2.0 Web wave will have far bigger impact on these issues, due to focus on community and communication.

2:19: Z: ‘In the first wave of the Web things were really interesting too.’
Lacy: ‘When you were five.’
Z.: ‘Way to bring it back to that.’

2:20: FB launches tonight in French. Applause indicates it’s tres bon!

2:20: Z. on international scope: There can be a time where this or something else like it can be used by every person in the world.

2:21: Upon her own interruption, Lacy accuses Z. of having ‘hurt look on [his] face like, ‘Waah, I was talking.” New Yorkers seated behind us: ‘This is mad awkward.’ She’s talking to an intelligent billionaire like he’s a five-year-old. Wake up Lacy, we’re in Web 2.0 and Z’s since cleared kindergarten.

2:22: They’re talking ads. Z: ‘Revenue growth and building our business is what we think is the most effective way of doing what we want to do in the world.’

2:23: Z: ‘We want the way we’re making money to be in line with what people do on the site.’

2:23: Some guy in the audience hoots from the back: ‘[Unintelligble] sucks!’ New Yorkers: ‘What the fuck? This is the weirdest panel ever.’

2:23: Lacy on Microsoft revenue — ‘When this deal runs out in a few years, you guys won’t have any money.’ Somehow, we doubt that.

2:24: Z. on Microsoft deal: ‘When we announced that we probably got ahead of ourselves and said we probably had more of it figured out than we actually did.’

2:25: Lacy says she respects the fact that Z’s called these plans a multi-decade process. Maybe this means she won’t mock him shamelessly any more.

2:26: Lacy: ‘Tell us about Beacon — WTF [she actually utters the initials aloud, seemingly in a bid to connect with the clearly restless crowd]? Tell us about it and we’ll try to listen with open minds.’ Clearly, we were wrong about that whole not mocking him part.

2:27: Z: ‘Beacon isn’t part of our advertising team; it’s part of our platform team.’ Lots of hand gestures from the Zuck. He’s feeling this explanation.

2:28: Z: ‘What we were trying to do with Beacon was the first step in letting people take actions in other parts of the Web and tie it back to their friends on Facebook. We view it as a very important trend in the world for these social systems to communicate out.’

2:29: Lacy: ‘Compare/contrast what happened with Beacon versus what happened w/ newsfeed. Beacon: not something that really impacts your experience so much… Newsfeed: You thought it was something so integral to the site and so integral to the vision, that you kept it [even though there was criticism]. Is there something about where you think Facebook’s going that’s in opposition to privacy?’ We’re stunned by a question we don’t hate.

2:30: Z: ‘We need to give people control over their information all the mistakes we’ve made is that we didn’t give people the control.’

2:31: Friend in the crowd text: ‘Get video of Lacy twirling her hair. She’s an idiot.’

2:32: Z: Big changes underway at FB, he says. ‘At Facebook, we believe people are basically fundamentally good. They’re not trying to game the system.’

2:32: Z: ‘These systems are all about trust. What we’re trying to do is that if you’re sending requests to people and they’re accepting your requests, the more you’re going to be able to do. We’re going to try and align the system so the apps that are getting the most use are able to be used more. It’s going from being a set of rules to a trust-based system, and responding to what they users are doing.. More laissez-faire.’ Viva la France!

2:33: Lacy on Financial Times rumors about an iTunes killer on its way via FB: What’s going on there?
Z: I don’t know. (crowd laughter at him giving her absolutely nothing to work with here)

2:34: Z on IPO: ‘At this point I can say, we have nothing to talk about right now.’

2:35: Lacy: ‘Is [an IPO] appealing to you?’
Z, waving question away: ‘We’re just trying to help people communicate and connect really efficiently.’

2:35: Lacy’s confused about where they’re at in their conversation, ‘I thought were were running out of time,’ yammering to the crowd at large about believing it’s 45 minutes in. Just feels that way due to your terribly executed line of inquiry, Lacy.

2:36: Lacy plugs her own book on Zuckerberg, not only mentioning its title but that it’s available for pre-sale on Amazon. It’s so aggravating, we have to reference it, but we’d rather be interviewed by her than link to it.

2:37: ‘Come on, you don’t really think the company’s worth $15 billion?’ Lacy asks in a tone dripping with attitude — the wrong kind of skepticism. If we ever see her out and about, we’re walking the other way.

2:37: Lacy: ‘Is having a valuation like that a negative?’

2:38: Audience muttering over Lacy’s crap interviewing skills reaching uncomfortably high volume. We’re glad tomatoes are out of season.

2:39: Z: ‘We don’t want to self-select for people at the company who think they’re going to make money very quickly. Hopefully, what the company is valued at being worth is aligned with value of what we’re doing in the world.’

2:40: Lacy: ‘Up until the Microsoft deal, talk was all about an imminent IPO… is high valuation a side benefit?’

Z: ‘We’re not opposed to going public or having an IPO: We’ll probably do that at some point. It’s not about necessarily the value. For IPO, it’s just that we’re not focused on it. For us, that’s not the goal. We want to be clear about that to anyone who’s trying to join the company.’

2:41: Z. mentions how in ’06, Yahoo offered a billion dollars for Facebook, an amount he deems ‘a lot at the time.’ “We got everyone together, and said to one another, ‘we think we might have a chance to build a platform that fundamentally changes how people connect and communicate.’ How many times do you get to do that? Zero or one. So we decided to go for it.”

2:42: Z runs Facebook through heart and sheer analytic thinking things out, or so Lacy tells him. Z. responds: ‘Ok.’

2:42: L: ‘Did you get rid of those people [who didn’t agree with you on selling to Yahoo!]?’
Z: ‘We’ve made some management changes.’

2:43: ‘Speaking of management changes, you’ve had somewhat of a revolving door.’ Zing! Clearly Lacy’s reading Might we recommend some of our fine service articles?

2:44: Lacy: ‘I think it’s good that you fire people when you they don’t mesh. People should do it more often.’ Great, Sarah. You’re fired.

2:45: Z on someone named Cheryl whom Lacy has referenced in a question yet managed not to ID for those of us who haven’t written a book on Zuckerberg [UPDATE: It’s Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg], who responds: ‘Having someone who can help us scale is just going to be an incredibly important thing in the coming years.’

2:46: L: FB as male-oriented environment; how will Sheryl handle it?
Z. doesn’t think it’ll be an issue. Seriously, Sarah, since when has anyone ever answered otherwise. “Yeah, she’s totally fucked, unless she keeps twirling her hair for charm like you.”

2:47: Matt Koller in charge of product. Z: ‘We’re building a product management organization as well. Matt Koller has been a longtime executive at this company. I think he’s been here for three years, and [Facebook has] been around for four years.” It’s like the difference between dog years and people years — normal company time, and the wee window of months it’s taken Facebook to completely change our world. Why can’t we hear about that?

2:48: Z: ‘We have over 200,000 developers.’ Can we borrow some?

2:49: Lacy: As a former developer, ‘You’d probably rather be working on the product, is being CEO hard for you?’
Z: ‘It’s definitely an interesting time for us.’

Lacy: ‘Why do you want to be CEO? Technical people hate the job of CEO. Kevin Rose at Digg — I don’t think anyone even reports to him.’ Way to throw Rose under the bus, Lacy. Incredulous New Yorkers: ‘Wh-Hat?’

2:49: Colleague: ‘She hasn’t asked about imminent launch of redesign of profiles.’ In the grand scheme of things, we think this is the least of Sarah Lacy’s problems.

2:51: Z. Execs across co. have technical background and an ’empathy towards that, empathy for developers.’ The way the masses are churning for Lacy’s head on a stick, as we infer from the now humming crowd, it’s not a bad time to bring back the blanky. ‘Being technical is just a very fundamental part of our company. In terms of community, we think about it more as a very personal thing. It’s not about how they fit into that community (high school, workplace, etc.).

2:52: Lacy: ‘Can I tell people about the books we were talking about last night, or will that embarrass you?’ As if she cares.

2:53: L. reveals that Z. has bound books about Facebook and where it’s going, dating back through four years since its launch. He writes them in longhand. Lacy thinks this is sooo significant, and in telling the already-irritated audience so, persists in making it about her declarative baloney. Through this one interview, we know more about her than we will ever in 18 lifetimes care to know, and too little about the real sensation in our midst.

2:54: Lacy accuses Z. of giving her another ‘Leslie Stahl moment’ to which he sweetly shoots back: ‘You’ve got to ask questions.’ Audience goes nuts, with cheering and applause, bonding over their mutual hatred of her. This is as feel-good a moment as they come in what’s clearly a hot mess of a public talk.

2:56: Z: ‘The part of the story you left out is that I destroyed them,’ i.e. the books.
L. ‘You burned them. How dramatic is that?’ Played for bitchy attitude effect. Not so smart.
Z: ‘I did not. You made that up.’ Audience goes crazy. If Lacy gets out of here without having anything thrown at her, we’ll drink 11 more coffees within the hour. Wait, that sounds good.

2:57: In response to booing, Lacy whines to crowd: ‘You try doing what I do for a living.’ Every day, every way. lady.

2:58: Mercifully, we go to audience questions. Somewhere, high-school door volunteers debate assigning Zuck’s security detail to Lacy.

2:59: Lacy on taking audience questions: ‘I’m going to let this guy ask a question, because he hasn’t heckled me.’ She’s doing it to herself, folks. We’re but the messenger.

3:00: Audience question to Z.: ‘Other than really rough interviews, what do you think is the single biggest obstacle Facebook faces?’ Lacy interjects in her own defense but question guy interrupts back: ‘I think I was asking Mark.’
Lacy: ‘Someone send me an email later about why I sucked so bad.’
Question guy: ‘What is your email address?’ In a simultaneous orgasm of agreement, crowd shrieks.

Z: Building easy product giving people control over info, while maintaining privacy is FB’s biggest obstacle’ says Z., bringing it back. ‘The most important thing is for us to be able to give people control.’

3:02: Audience question: Is Google pissed Mark’s trapping so much info on Facebook?
Z. ‘I’m not trapping information. Come on — those guys are nice.’ Good lord, this guy’s grace in the face of keynote ruin is mind-blowing.

3:03: Z: ‘We’re helping the growth of people being able to share so much private information. It’s going to be an interesting trend to watch.’

3:04 Audience question: ‘I feel like your messaging app is completely broken. I can just read or delete. Why does it still not work?’

3:05: Z: ‘We weren’t planning on it being an email competitor. Messaging is also set up to be very simple. People use it for an increasing amount of things. In near future, it’ll be important for us to build things you’re talking about. But it’s this way because of where it came from.’

3:06: Lacy: ‘I’m sorry for torturing you for an hour.’
Z: ‘You should feel bad!’

We couldn’t have said it better, Mark. Now come to our conference for a real interview.

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