What Really Happened During Evan Williams’s Worst SXSW Moment?

The Twitter cofounder and other attendees explain how his 2010 “keynote from hell” went so wrong in an excerpt from our definitive oral history of SXSW Interactive.

What Really Happened During Evan Williams’s Worst SXSW Moment?
Ev Williams, during the 2010 SXSWi Keynote [Image: Flickr user Randy Stewart]

With attendance now up to 14,251, in 2010, Twitter CEO and former Blogger founder Ev Williams returns to SXSW for what most assume will be a triumphant homecoming keynote interview with Umair Haque, director of Havas Media Labs and a blogger for the Harvard Business Review.


Sweet John Muehlbauer, sales team, T-Mobile (now director of social media, SiteGoals): My memorable moment in 2010 is when Ev Williams did the keynote from hell.

Anil Dash, blogger; new-media development, Village Voice Media; VP, Six Apart (now CEO, ThinkUp): The Ev keynote with Umair was kind of rough. Again, the back channel. It was very parallel to Zuckerberg’s interview, where the room is reading one way and the only people who can’t read Twitter are onstage. It’s especially ironic because one is the cofounder of Twitter.

Umair Haque, director, Havas Media Labs; founder, Bubblegeneration; blogger: It’s funny, me and Ev left the venue, and we were like, “That was a cool discussion, right?” We didn’t really understand what had gone on at all.

Christopher Poole, founder, 4chan; CEO, Canvas Networks: People were going into the Ev one with Zuck in mind. Ev was a more verbose speaker, but maybe they were expecting such a contrast and it wasn’t radically different. Their expectations were too high.

Muehlbauer: So many people at one time were trying to pack into this room. Someone had dressed up as the Twitter bird standing outside and was trying to get everyone pumped up. Everyone was so excited, fighting for seats, sitting on the floor and in overflow rooms. Fifteen minutes into it they had to open up extra doors to let people leave. People couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. That is the only time I’ve ever seen that. The guy interviewing him was more of an Ev Williams fanboy, and the conversation just never got going.

Fred Benenson, product manager, Creative Commons (now data engineer, Kickstarter): You could tell Ev wasn’t really comfortable and was under pressure to give a Twitter keynote. Ev is just a product guy and liked building something good that people wanted. With a keynote speaker, people are looking for someone to give inspiration or really frame a problem.

Umair Haque, left, and Ev Williams during the 2010 “keynote from hell”Photo by Yoomi Park

Omar Gallaga, technology culture reporter, Austin American-Statesman: The Zuckerberg thing was interesting in a lot of train-wrecky ways. Ev Williams was just boring.

Evan Williams, cofounder, Blogger; cofounder, Twitter: Yes, my keynote conversation was apparently terrible. Some people blamed the guy interviewing me, Umair Haque, but he did what we asked him to do. I’m sure I was a bit boring and/or rambling, which I can be, and the SXSW audience is not a forgiving one.

Haque: Having spoken to the Twitter guys about it, one of the things we wanted to discuss was the philosophy and the mission and the point of all this stuff. And that’s precisely what we did. We discussed the idea of Twitter as a force for good in the world, and its guiding principles. Now, whether or not the audience wanted to hear that is not really my thing. I was there to have a discussion about stuff we thought was cool and important.

danah boyd, researcher,; digital director, V-Day (now an author and principal researcher, Microsoft Research; fellow, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society): Ev always was awkward in large audiences, that was never new. His brilliance was always in the interpersonal. It was about being able to sit down and talk with him and realize how whip-smart he was. He wasn’t a performer. Biz [Stone] was the jokester. Biz was the one who would come out and tell crazy stories about Blogger. Ev was very much the thinker sitting behind him, imagining new forms of interaction and new possibilities.

Dash: Ev’s perception was probably still of when he had been going to SXSW 10 years prior. All his answers were about how to build a company and community, how to think about product. Umair had this very academic, jargon-filled way of asking him questions. Either of those could have succeeded five years prior, but the audience had changed. They wanted a rock star to come out and talk to them about their hot new band. That was like a clear demonstration of this not being for us anymore.

Haque: Having never been to SXSW, I didn’t really get that it’s very much a party. I think people were expecting pyrotechnics and a kind of victory dance. The idea I had and that the Twitter guys had was that it would be more of a reflection than a celebration. Maybe that was out of sync with the mood at SXSW. I think it points to the way the tech industry has gone. Now we find ourselves in a situation where a lot of people are lamenting the rise of “bro” culture in the tech industry.


Alex Payne, platform lead, Twitter (now president/owner, Syntax Atelier): I was still working at Twitter when that happened and it was certainly a little embarrassing to see the feedback–of course, on Twitter itself: “What’s up with this interview?” “What’s up with all of these softball questions?” and stuff like that. But I don’t think that’s Ev’s fault, necessarily. I don’t think he has an incentive to go into an interview and say, “Ask me as many difficult and uncomfortable questions as you can.” It was harmless, but maybe a bit embarrassing around the office.

Hugh Forrest, director, SXSW Interactive: The Ev thing was not quite on the scale of Mark and Sarah, but just kind of disappointing because we had thought we’d done a much better job of preparation and it didn’t come off as so. But, again, disappointing that we’d gotten this great speaker who was in many ways the poster boy of all things great at SXSW, and it just didn’t come out that way.

Williams: The primary problem, I’d say, was a mistake in strategy. We tried to have a high-level, somewhat intellectual conversation. We thought that would be interesting, but it was completely wrong for the time and place. Had we made it a straightforward interview and just asked me about Twitter and the Internet, it probably would have gone much better.

Haque: One of the things that is so unfortunate about this whole thing is that when you look three years back and think about the founder of one of the most important companies in the world standing on the stage, announcing this set of principles–about human freedom, about liberation–in those three years, what has Twitter done? Here is the company that has not participated in all this NSA spying stuff, that has played a role in the Arab Spring. Now it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world and it’s squarely tied to those principles and that vision. But when we look at the tech industry today, people are lamenting exactly the loss of that ethos, the lack of that spirit. One of the things we do badly in the tech industry is that we focus so much on the surface of these things that we don’t actually go to the substance. So I think connecting those dots is actually really important. I mean, it’s three years later and we’re still talking about this. It’s indicative of how the tech industry focuses on really tiny things instead of taking on the big challenges in the world today. I would rather talk about how we end world hunger or poverty or fix the financial system instead of fetishizing the latest rock-star entrepreneur. What happened on that stage was a warning of things to come.


Read more of our oral history of SXSW Interactive here.

This is an excerpt from our new e-book, “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 from Amazon.