The Lacy Clusterfuck: Anaylzing the Web’s Elite(ism) [Updated, 3 Effin’ Times]

[Disclaimer: Don’t read this post. It was a waste of time then and it’s a waste of time now. Oh, if you came here looking for pictures of Sarah Lacy’s tits – you’re not very bright are you?]

136144940_4f2d236941_m.jpgIf you’re reading this post, then there’s no need to encapsulate. So let’s get down to it, with two disclaimers: 1) I wasn’t there, but have watched the interview, and refuse to believe that this negates the validity of my opinion; 2) I am an academic, not an employee at a startup and thus, am not immersed in the ultra-competitive world of social media and new web app creation. I still feel, however, that my outsider status gives me some perspective others have lost.

So – the discussion seems to have revolved around whether or not the interview was bad, a debate which seems rather futile. Of course it was bad – that much I think is obvious. Lacy attempts to behave like Zuckerberg’s friend, rather than interviewer, and throws softball non-questions that the interviewee, muzzled as he is, can barely answer. To make matters worse, Lacy’s pandering to hecklers is an obvious no-no – once you acknowledge they have power, you’re done; an elementary school teacher knows that. All of which is to say, of course… that these concerns are completely irrelevant. The question is ‘what is the appropriate response when an interview goes bad or does not address the interests of the audience?’

The answer is that being a dick is not the proper one. Was heckling here some sort of resistance against oppression? A youthful rebellion against a tyrannical, corporate giant? No. It was against a half-assed interviewer (update: I now wish I had said ‘interview’ rather than ‘interviewer’) who didn’t ask two crucial questions: 1) “how can my audience make money from Facebook?”, or; 2) or “how can my audience’s startups follow where you’re going?”. There is a time and a place for rebellion, and a room full of privileged, affluent web 2.0 types was not it. This was not a rebellion but a petulant sense of entitlement gone bad, a group of content creators and commentators doing their best to prove every stereotype about bloggers/new media folks being juvenile idiots (thanks for that, by the way – ‘ppreciate it). A commenter on Mathew Ingram’s post says that it was “it was 80% poor interview, 20% mob”, which sounds rather like a child who, after being prodded, admits “well, I guess it was a little my fault the table lamp got broked”. Indeed, when Mashable’s Kristen Nicole suggested ” it turned into a real-life manifestation of a Digg revolt”, she inadvertently hit on what was so damn wrong and childish about the whole mess.

And in all of this, some serious questions need to be asked about the mentality behind the people leading the web revolution. One is the impossible to ignore reading of Lacy’s odd friendliness as flirtatiousness – how can one argue that this is not a retreat into sexism in which ingratiation is seen as a moral-sexual – and not professional – failing? Something no-one wants to talk about is that the technorati’s version of feminism essentially boils down to “women can be just as good men as men can”, a charming little throwback to the seventies that needs to be done away with. And perhaps all this has coloured my vision, but these sorts of blindspots also hit me as I read the usually inoffensive (and generally pretty great) Veronica Belmont talk about attending the web awards in which she indirectly claims knowledge of ‘the internet’. I know, it’s microscopic, but it’s also something Valley/Alley insiders talk about a lot – that they “know the ‘net”. If you ask me, this sounds suspiciously like other elites saying they “know culture” or “know music” or “know film” – which is to say that they know a very culturally specific slice of those areas and ignore the cultural production of the rest of the world, denying it the same status of ‘culture’. And this question of an elite being ‘the group who defines’ is crystallised by Dave McClure’s argument that things would have been better if ‘Sarah Lacy was a geek’. To wit, people need to conform to a particular, constructed identity in order to be seen as either legitimate participants or reflective of ‘other geeks’. Conformity much?

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the interview was bad – and that the reaction was worse. Like all movements, whatever egalitarian ideals new media started with, they’re dead now.

[Update]: Now that things – and I – have cooled off a bit, here are some thoughts:

1) I like hyperbole, and my last line was just that. 2) Anyone who cares has probably seen these, but: here’s Lacy’s reaction; an interview with her on PR 2.0; a Mashable piece on the open Q&A that Zuckerberg had today. 3) The elitism that bothers me is not that someone had the temerity to criticise a crappy interview. Rather, it was that: a) yelling out at an interview because you weren’t getting what you wanted smacks of entitlement and arrogance; b) the fact that the interviewer was a woman and was accused of being flirtatious made me wonder – would the same thing have happened if Waxy or Arrington were up there? It’s hard to ignore the issue of sexism. 4) Why did I previously condone what others called Gizmodo’s juvenile behaviour and condemn it here? There, at least the prank could be read as something interesting, as an attack on the inanity and futility of corporate presentations. Here it was an attack on an individual from a bunch of people already empowered, which to my mind was immature and classless. That may seem like a trite difference, but to me, it’s a big deal. Alright, now let’s move on.

[Update 2]: Please see the comments for my apology to Veronica Belmont.

[FINAL UPDATE 3]: Okay, this is getting stupid, but when you’re really embarrassed about a post and commenters have very politely and smartly disagreed, all you can do (if I’m to believe my own philosophy) is try and refine, re-try and apologise. So.

1) What I was circulating around and not actually saying is that the reaction to the event through the blogosphere was more troubling than the actual heckling itself. As has been pointed out, something very weird was going on in that room and, taking on faith the opinions of some who I really respect, it was not healthy. So, I’m sorry my analysis was not on point or wasn’t even relevant in certain aspects.

2) While I think my analysis here was ineffective and rambling (which I have apologised for in the comments), there is still something odd and disconcerting about the reaction, as if people were really out for blood. Okay, so there was a bad, uncomfortable interview that a lot of people were looking forward to. But why the vitriol? Why are people being so harsh? Why are people still, more than a week on, writing posts asking Lacy to apologise? Doesn’t that seem pretty unprecedented – or at least little weird? Sorta’ smacks of a witch-hunt, with the emphasis on ‘witch’. It bears thinking about honestly.

3) So, someone needs to be at least willing to acknowledge the idea that there is a disproportionate sense of entitlement here. And while this certainly wouldn’t be the first time a group of affluent business people were aggressive, it does suddenly paint the once-egalitarian ideals of Web 2.0 in a new light.

4) Finally, to my mind, it is difficult – and irresponsible – to evacuate sex and gender out of this equation. And it may seem trite, but I also think it’s fair to say self-consciously interject that ‘Sarah Lacy is good looking’. Keep in mind, I don’t mean that literally. So let’s not fall into some common traps, namely: that one’s response to the dynamics of sex and gender are conscious such that one can say “oh I didn’t mean that in a sexist way” and then expect that to be taken at face value; and that it is not also sexist to expect masculine, ‘sexually neutral’ behaviour from people. What is neutral is so often actually just the unnamed norm, in much the same way curry is ‘ethnic food’ but hamburgers are ‘just food’. The sheer anger and entitlement at the root of the demands for contrition are almost certainly bound up in the dynamics of sex and sexism, regardless of whether the person involved is a man or woman. Beyond the simple fact that there were unequivocally misogynistic comments on YouTube and blogs covering this, and beyond the usual ‘would this have happened if Lacy were a man’ questions, somebody needs to ask whether traditional masculinity and masculine behaviours aren’t being prioritised here. To wit, things are cool until you actually ‘act like a woman’, whatever the hell that nebulous phrase actually means.

5) I swear on whatever my version of the bible is (Derrida’s Of Grammatology, perhaps? ;)) that this is the last I will ever say of it. Until the next comment anyway…

13 thoughts on “The Lacy Clusterfuck: Anaylzing the Web’s Elite(ism) [Updated, 3 Effin’ Times]

  1. Very interesting points here — I wasn’t there either and am just now trying to piece together what happened from various blogosphere reactions. Views seem to be all over the place on where the “blame”(?) belongs. Sounds like it was a perfect storm of high expectations and big egos!

  2. I think that whenever an interview bombs, the responsibility is solely on the interviewer. Saying otherwise is similar to saying that a book that bombs is the responsibility of anyone other than the author.

    Like you, I am not a “tech insider” nor was I there. However, from the footage that I have seen, it seems clear that Lacy broke the two rules of interviewing. 1. Know your interviewee. 2. Know your audience. Lacy overestimated her knowledge of and relationship with both the former and the latter.

  3. @Maria: Thanks for the comment.

    @Anjuan: I absolutely agree that the fault lay with Lacy for the poor quality of the interview. What I was arguing, however, was that the quality of the interview did nothing to justify the response, the public heckling and the public excoriation on Twitter and blogs. I am also troubled by the potentially sexist undertones of the reaction.

    Also, as an aside, I actually don’t believe that authors are solely responsible for their works – it assumes too much about the how ‘conscious’ the author is and how much control s/he has over language.

  4. Yes, actually, it’s my job to know what’s on the Internet. I was poking fun at the fact that most of the websites at the Web Awards were virtually unknown. Trust me, if you had been there you would have seen the relatively lackluster response as every site was announced (the only clapping came from the tables where the nominees sat). Even one of the sites I did recognize, Bitstrips, had only been public for a manner of a few days. So it’s leads me to ask what exactly the nominations are based on, and how the winners are chosen (certainly not the general public which uses these sites, if they’re still in private beta).

    I don’t claim to be leading any kind of web revolution. My job is to simply inform and entertain. I’m sorry if you somehow found my coverage offensive.

  5. Aww, crap. I always end up doing this.

    @Veronica: I obviously misread your comments in the heat of my (inexplicably angry) reaction to the whole Lacy/Zuckerberg mess. I do think that there is a centralisation of perspective on ‘the internet’ that is rooted in a very North American/European perspective – and I do legitimately think that there is possibly inadvertent potential for elitism there – but it seems I was just looking for targets rather than doing good analysis, so I’m sorry for unnecessarily singling you out and offending you. I actually consider myself a fan, so, yeah – apologies dude.

  6. I think that whenever an interview bombs, the responsibility is solely on the interviewer.

    But this was a planned production, not a simple interview. Thus the blame lies with the casting director (Facebook and SXSW flacks), the interviewer (Lacy) and her co-star (Zuckerberg). All parties, not just Lacy. The Twittertard revolt is something entirely different, but is also blame-worthy.

  7. The sexism angle on this seems misguided to me. If Kara Swisher or Caroline McCarthy or Veronica Belmont had been up there doing the interview, I don’t think this would have happened. There’s a decent history of female interviewers at SXSW (last year, a woman interviewed Dan Rather, for instance) that never elicited this kind of reaction.

    (That said, there’s was definitely a male/female dynamic of flirtation going on up there. I’m not sure how to analyze that though. I bet it did contribute to the irritation of some.)

  8. @Rex: Well, I obviously wasn’t there and you were – but I’m not sure that b/c other women haven’t encountered such a response, it’s therefore misguided to talk of sexism. It assumes that sexism is about people being in particular bodies and not about exhibiting particular (‘feminine’) traits. People like McCarthy and Swisher have become good at working in a masculine world (notice I didn’t say “a man’s world”) – and the fact that you refer to flirtation seems to be indicative of how difficult it is to discuss femininity or its presence in this context. I’m not saying that Lacy wasn’t being overly friendly – it’s that it was read as a personal rather than professional failing that seemed off to me. That’s to say nothing of all the explicitly sexist comments on tech blogs and even Youtube – and, c’mon, it wasn’t your regular YouTube commenter who was watching Sarah Lacy respond, it was people like us. Oh also, people have arrived at SiW by searching for “Sarah Lacy big tits”, so yeah…

    ‘Course that said, you know how much I respect your opinion, so I’m not entirely disagreeing – as I said, I wasn’t there, and I also did a crappy job with this post, so… thanks for the comment dude.

  9. I’m still sorting out my thoughts as I read and watch the reactions. I think there’s an equally good case to be made both for the mob mentality being unacceptable and for accepting that conferences are no longer about sitting in an audience and watching an expert spew expertness. (I’m a frequent speaker myself, and nobody is harder on my performances than me)

    One thing I will take objection to, however, is the idea that being in the room doesn’t matter. It mattered a great deal, actually. I was in an overflow room, and I’ve watched the video. The video misses a significant part of the story – the fact that the room was nearly alive with frustration and annoyance and confusion as literally hundreds of people grew more and more uncomfortable watching the oddness.

    Have you ever been caught a few feet away from a couple fighting? Incredibly uncomfortable in a “down in the gut” sorta way, right? Then you try to explain to someone else just exactly how uncomfortable it was, and they’re simply not able to comprehend?

    Yeah, same deal here.

  10. @Jake: Thanks for the comment and the insight. I suppose I was trying to get away from the “you weren’t there so you don’t get it” mentality but, as you and others have said, I obviously missed something. All things told, I wish I could have rewritten this post in this even-handed and balanced style now. I just know it’s bad blogger etiquette to take a post down after it’s been posted – even when, like this one, it starts to get embarrassing.

  11. hey nav –

    like others above, i wonder if you might have had a different reaction had you been there in person. after 45 minutes of an interview that made me thin “what twilight zone episode did we step into?”, i don’t believe it was surprising most everyone in the room was frustrated enough to vocalize their feelings. and yes a few hecklers took it a bit further, but most folks kept their cool for quite a bit before things boiled over. even mark himself seemed to be trying hard to help her recover, and was actually rather reserved throughout the situation. but his “you need to ask questions” comment seemed to hit a nerve with the audience, and at that point they heartily agreed with extended cheers & applause.

    still i don’t agree the crowd became a “lynch mob”… they were simply expressing a strong opinion that they wanted a real interview, and that sarah was waaaaay off track. oddly, she still had plenty of time before the 0:40-45m mark to get it together, but unfortunately it never happened and ultimately she herself decided to let the audience take over (& opened the floor to questions).

    finally my post about sarah not being a geek wasn’t an attempt to emphasize geek conformity, but rather an explanation for why so many people think it’s “hard” to interview mark. i don’t think it’s a call for conformity to ask that the interviewer have some relevance to the material being discussed. that fact of the matter is that IT ISN’T THAT HARD to interview mark if you ask questions that he cares about / knows about, and have some understanding of the world he comes from. to wit: the following day at the Facebook Dev Garage, he took a number of [occasionally tough] questions from a largely technical audience about Facebook platform & strategy, and he sounded intelligent, eloquent, and at ease.

    maybe after this happens a few more times, people will realize it’s not just a coincidence that when people who don’t know tech keep asking him why he’s so young, so rich, who he’s dating, etc etc that the interview ends up sucking ass. anyway, maybe i’m a biased geek, but that’s my perspective.

    peace,

    – dmc

  12. @Dave, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I think it’s now become apparent that I have messed this up. I made a couple of rather amateur mistakes, namely that I wrote while angry, and also that I tried to make the event conform to my (quite possibly wrong) broader perspective. So, can I just to say to everyone: I was wrong, I’ll do better next time. On the plus side though, I used ‘clusterfuck’ in a post title ;)

    But I am still troubled by what I read as the sexist reaction as news of the event disseminated. It seems that most now agree that the in-the-moment response was not determined by a sort of misogyny, but I still wonder to what extent a mentality that privileges masculinity and masculine behaviour amplified the vociferous – and often vitriolic – response.

    -Nav

  13. I can understand where you’re coming from – I almost hate to say “you weren’t there” too. But it’s been striking how different the experience and reaction has been between those in the room and those not.

    Interesting stuff either way!

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