The Untold Story Behind Mark Zuckerberg's SXSW Keynote Debacle

The Facebook founder's 2008 presentation was famously disastrous. Find out what really happened in this excerpt from our definitive oral history of SXSW Interactive.

In 2008, SXSW pulled off something of a coup by booking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—who had never attended the festival—as a keynote interview. The Q&A was conducted by journalist Sarah Lacy. Anticipation was remarkably high before the event, but things quickly went wrong. In this excerpt from our complete oral history of SXSW Interactive, we get the inside story from the people who were there.

Brian Solis, blogger, author, and principal, FutureWorks Labs (now principal analyst, Altimeter Group): We were on Facebook all the time, and there he was onstage in front of all the cool kids. It was everybody’s first time to really learn more about him.

Baratunde Thurston, director of digital, The Onion (now cofounder and CEO, Cultivated Wit; Fast Company columnist): The Sarah Lacy–Mark Zuckerberg keynote interview. I was there for that. This is pre–IPO Facebook, but it’s still one of the most important companies in the world—to this community, definitely. There are overflow rooms, and thousands of people are tuning in. There’s a level of curiosity from people who want Facebook to work. There’s a level of criticism and issues with Facebook censorship, how the messaging tools work or the reliability of service. There are questions about Zuckerberg—is he the right person, this college dropout, to lead a billion-dollar company? He didn’t do a lot of media either. So you had this rare access to a clearly important person about a tool we all use and have issues with.

Anil Dash, blogger; new-media development, Village Voice Media; VP, Six Apart (now CEO, ThinkUp): I was sitting there with [tech journalist] Sarah Lacy and Mark Zuckerberg right before they were about to go on. They were about to do their keynote and we were in the green room, and Mark was visibly nervous. He knew SXSW was a big deal among the older web people. So being able to go out there was a big platform.

Solis: You just couldn’t contain the excitement. The energy in that room was so amped up. Something was going to go down. It was so intense when you walked in there. People were dancing on the chairs because they were playing house music before, as they were bringing people into the room. Before anything even happened, there was stuff happening. I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a room like that again.

Hugh Forrest, director, SXSW Interactive: There was this great energy. There were people dancing in the front row. The crowd seemed happy and into it. I could see he was not too comfortable with the number of people in the room—at least I assumed that. Bottom line is we didn’t do a good enough job preparing Mark or Sarah.

Omar Gallaga, technology culture reporter, Austin American-Statesman: Me and another reporter were in the front row. We got there an hour and a half early. We camped out with a video camera and watched it all unfold.

Thurston: A lot of her questions, as I recall, they didn’t matter. It was a lot of BS, almost human interest, morning-show stuff. This is such a rare opportunity, and there’s a finite time slot. We’ve got 45 minutes; why waste 15 on bullshit?

Ari Steinberg, engineering manager, Facebook (now founder, Vamo): My takeaway was that it was a developer-oriented audience and she was asking business-oriented questions and people didn’t really want that. My recollection is she was grilling him on business stuff, trying to be a little defiant and looking for a "gotcha." The audience got frustrated with that.

Tim Nolan, content director, Firstborn Multimedia (now head of BBH Labs NY): He was getting grilled, dude. He was physically sweating. That was a bad moment for him. You can blame it on the lights onstage, but I think his level of shame caused him to sweat that one out. He was in front of his contemporaries. That multiplied the stress. Everyone he was talking in front of knew exactly what he was guilty of. Guilty is probably a strong word, but Facebook is notorious for swapping out its privacy statements and just making it extremely difficult to opt out of things like advertising or tracking.

Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk novelist: I think people were not on Zuck’s side at that point. They really felt he’d come there with something to prove and they didn’t like his attitude. They weren’t giving him a friendly hearing. It was a remarkably hostile crowd by South By standards. Usually, they put up with anything.

Ari Steinberg, engineering manager, Facebook (now founder, Vamo): He had done a few big events, but this was definitely one of the first of that scale. At the time, he was still developing his public persona. That’s a challenging skill for anyone, let alone someone who has gotten where they are not through that but through good business decisions and building a good team and product. None of that correlated with being a good public speaker. I think the party atmosphere—people were riled up—combined with Mark not necessarily being able to fully handle certain types of questions, that combination was maybe a recipe for disaster.

Gallaga: It was a huge room of people, and being in the front row, you just felt the unease. You felt a physical wave of people’s discomfort and just the tide of the conversation turning. I don’t think there’s ever been anything as uncomfortable at SXSW as that.

Steinberg: We were in the Facebook section of the crowd. At the time, we were amused. It seemed like there was this spiral where the mood in the room set on people. While it was happening it was, "This is a little awkward." Then it got more and more awkward.

Gallaga: At one point, someone shouted out, "Ask some real questions!" People started booing and shouting out questions. At one point, Sarah opened up to a Q&A, and then it turned into a free-for-all, people shouting out questions and just being very dismissive of her. It got very ugly. Then on Twitter, people were writing their own questions.

Thurston: I joined the Twitter back channel being like, "What is going on here?" That was actually important techno-culturally because it’s like the audience had a shared mind of its own; all these individual experiences and disappointment became a collective.

Dash: Without Twitter, the room wouldn’t have turned against them. That was one of the things that jumped out, separate from whatever he or she said. They didn’t know there was this whole back conversation going on.

Dennis Crowley, founder, Dodgeball; cofounder and CEO, Foursquare: It was the first time I was in a room where everyone was on Twitter at the same time, and the back channel overtook the main event. It was one of those moments where it was like, "Wow. This is different. This is one of the first times where anyone has ever experienced this particular type of chaos, where the crowd is unruly, the crowd is organizing, and the people onstage are oblivious to it."

Shawn O’Keefe, festival producer, SXSW Interactive: The traditional conference—one-to-many—the paradigm had shifted. Obviously, with these back channels in place now, conferences and events were never going to be the same. You’ve got a highly engaged, supercreative group of people who were able to take over that dialogue in real time and really turn the tables. It was kind of a fascinating thing to watch.

Thurston: In the audience, we all realized we could see and hear each other, so we were egging each other on. We were able to heckle without audibly disturbing the show. It affected the mood of the crowd. It’s very strange. It’s like there were two different events happening: There was the physical layer and the virtual layer. We had so much more information than she did. It was an invisible divide. That’s not new anymore, but at the time it was revelatory. It wasn’t all good but it was all-important, what happened there.

Forrest: A lot of the negativity toward Sarah was valid criticism in her not preparing enough, and one part was thinly disguised misogyny and gender bias in the tech industry. One of the mistakes we made, which was very basic in retrospect, we had these chairs on stage that just didn’t quite work. It created this weird body language between Sarah and Mark. So much of what I heard was she looked like she was flirting with him. It was a little bit of that, but that could have been mitigated if we had better seating. But she bore more of the blame from the public of how that thing went down than Mark or SXSW did. To this day, I think she feels pretty resentful that she was the scapegoat of it.

danah boyd, researcher, Tribe.net; digital director, V-Day (now an author and principal researcher, Microsoft Research; fellow, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society): It doesn’t take long to figure out some of the gender politics that played out. The ways in which people started commenting became ugly.

Forrest: Some of the challenge here was that Mark was just not very savvy at that point. I’m not sure if he was just intimidated by the size of the audience or he was preoccupied with something at the time of the keynote.

boyd: Mark was never a part of the scene. He was never goofy and lighthearted and just hanging out with everybody. Ev [Williams of Twitter], who was also awkward, was always hanging out with people. So Mark was doing a keynote not to a community that was his community but to a room full of strangers.

Dash: The reading I took on it was that he hadn’t been in the first wave of social web people, but that he wanted to be validated by them. Afterward, I was walking down the street and saw Zuck, Kevin Rose, and someone else. They were reassuring each other like after your team loses a game. They were obviously a little down, but being a little too macho to admit it. Like, "We’ll get ’em next time." It was funny because there was a sense of bravado but also a little swagger because it was Kevin Rose, who was as hot as it gets then, with Digg. They were the cool kids to some degree.

Gallaga: I ran into Sarah probably three or four hours later at a rooftop party. She’d had a glass of wine or two, and I had a tiny point-and-shoot video camera. I said, "Do you mind if I ask a few questions?" She said sure. What she said got a lot of attention just because it was so far from what a lot of people wanted to hear from her.

Sarah Lacy [to Gallaga in the video]: The sad thing is a core group of people in the back of the room got so angry that they probably ruined SXSW for getting people that high-profile again, which is a little unfortunate. But a lot of people say they got a lot out of it, and, frankly, we broke a lot of news. . . . I’m one of the only women reporting in tech. I get this constantly and guess what? I’m still employed. So obviously some people enjoy what I do. It’s happened before. I’ve had way worse shit written about me on a massive scale and it blows over. It’s the reality of living in this realm and it’s the price of being high-profile, unfortunately. Not to understate it because most people who do it don’t realize how it hurts when you publicly attack someone who is, frankly, trying to do their job. Honestly, I felt great about how it went. I asked him a range of things. There’s a huge number of constituencies when you talk about someone like Mark. Mainstream press expects you to break news. People in the room want to hear stuff. I think we touched on a number of things, and I’d like to see someone else try it. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Gallaga: People wanted an apology, and instead she was very defiant and blamed it on the audience. That video became kind of infamous.

Solis: The whole Internet was in a firestorm over it. I remember taking Sarah and having a drink with her to get her perspective. I wrote this epic blog post to publish her side of the story. That helped make it less of a shit storm. I did that because that wasn’t what SXSW was about to me.

Forrest: That [Zuckerberg] interview and the disaster that ensued got us a whole lot of press and attention we might not have otherwise gotten. I certainly wish we’d gotten press for it being the best interview ever. It was the complete opposite end of the scale. In this Internet-connected world we live in, bad publicity is sometimes almost as valuable as good publicity. We survived that disaster.

Read more from our oral history of SXSW Interactive here.

This is an excerpt from our new ebook, SXSWi Uncensored: The Complete Oral History as Told by the Entrepreneurs, Geeks, and Dreamers who Remade the Web. Author David Peisner led a team of Fast Company reporters who interviewed more than 100 people to compile—for the first time—the definitive story of the festival. Now available on iBooks or in Amazon.

[Image: Flickr user Kris Krüg]

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3 Comments

  • God help you if you ever give one bad interview. I'm not a huge Zuck fan but this was in 2008, can someone please tell me why this is news in 2014?

  • Michael E. Rubin

    Where were the SXSW organizers at the point things got ugly? If the moderator can't handle the unruly crowd, then it is the responsibility of the conference organizers to jump in and calm things down.

    As for Sarah Lacy, I remember following the story from my office and just being utterly disgusted by her pissy reaction. I felt bad that she was getting slammed in some very gender-specific ways that were completely uncalled for. But she clearly exacerbated the mob and indirectly incited them further. I'm thrilled that she's still working, but I've gone out of my way NOT to read her work ever since.