Sarah Lacy still doesn’t get it


After the debacle that the Mark Zuckerberg SXSW keynote turned into, BusinessWeek has been surprisingly quiet. They published an article that talks only about the information gleaned without any of the debacle context whatsoever. With the blogosphere going nuts about this train wreck (and yes, it really was a train wreck in a way that video alone can’t show you), you’d think they’d be taking a hit to their credibility a bit more seriously. (For a full recap, check out this Wired story)

Sarah Lacy, moderator turned internet quasi-celeb has published an article defending herself. (On top of her angry tweet and clueless video) Not only does her article not defend her position, it supports the naysayers and adds more fuel to the fire. Her theory seems to be that a good defense is an aggressive offense.

Her article is so off the mark, it’s hard not to break it down, point by point. So what the heck, here it goes.

I’m just back from four days in sunny Austin, Tex., where I attended the South by Southwest Interactive Conference and conducted an on-stage keynote interview with Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. You might have read a thing or two about it.

Needless to say, I think the negative response to the interview was, well, overdone. But I don’t intend to rehash the episode here. I’ve done that elsewhere.

Yes, you’ve participated out in the Social Web, good for you. But why didn’t BusinessWeek demand that Lacy post an official, humble piece? Why didn’t BusinessWeek assign another reporter to assess the situation? An all positive piece that mentions nothing of this hit to their reputation amongst the wired set seems odd and out of touch.

But let’s see what Lacy took away from this event….

1. There’s a dearth of innovation online right now. The Valley typically works in peaks and troughs of creativity. In the early 2000s, the Web 2.0 movement was in a stunning state of breakthrough innovation. This is the period that gave rise to some of today’s most successful sites and companies such as Facebook, Digg, YouTube, and Flickr.


But there was no breakout company at this year’s SXSW. If there had been, and if there were more innovation on the Web in general, there would have been a lot more for reporters and bloggers to write about than the style of questioning in the Zuckerberg interview.

First off, saying that a “dearth of innovation” exists helps remind us how out of touch Lacy really is. Innovation is happening all around us. Certainly social networking isn’t new, but look at the discussion her favorite company, Facebook, is having at the moment around the future of advertising. This Silicon Valley mindset that innovation only happens when a new shiny toy emerges is just ridiculous. The “innovation” that’s happening is continuing to crank along, even if not at a “surprise!” pace, and innovation is happening in all parts of business, not just the tech design lab. Look at what GetSatisfaction is doing to change the way traditional customer service works.

Secondly, Lacy has confused “lack of innovation” with “industry maturity”. When the first automobiles came on the scene, it was such a radical departure from the horse drawn carriage that even minor improvements felt incredibly new. Today’s automotive innovations may be incredibly impressive, but the maturity of the automobile overall makes it hard to be amazingly revolutionary in that “dear god that’s cool!” sorta way. We hear things like “50 mpg” and think “well, of course that’s possible”.

This isn’t inherently bad. In fact, for someone who has evangalized the Web for 15 years, I’m happy that it’s finally matured to a point where we are seeing amazing new sites like Utterz, or kick ass products like the Flip video camera and it just seems like “Well, of course this exists”. You’d think a tech reporter would understand this dynamic.

Third, trying to use the “lack of innovation” to cover up piss poor session moderation is just embarrassing. Bloggers and reporters are blogging about it because it’s a big story – the CEO of a major keystone site bombs. Big news. By this logic, the only reason that Twitter made news last year is because they had service problems. Had their servers been up to the task, by Lacy’s logic, they wouldn’t have been the “standout app” that everyone was writing about.

2. Twitter is as socially transformative as blogging. My experience aside (many Twitter users were not kind), this is breakthrough technology. Ever since I’ve started using the microblogging site, I’ve loved it. I’ve found it a mind-bogglingly efficient way to keep in touch with a large number of people. If you follow a friend on Twitter, you never start a conversation with “What’s up?” because you know what’s up. Instead you ask something like, “How was the dentist this morning?” It fosters an intimacy rarely seen outside a college or collaborative work setting. What’s more, a microblog is easier to write and digest, making the barriers to Twitter low.

I’m in total agreement on this one. Twitter has made the concept of micro-blogging (versus this long ass entry) acceptable. But Lacy is proving my point above – Twitter wasn’t “innovative”, it wasn’t revolutionary. It was highly evolutionary, building out of blogging’s shortcomings. Twitter’s acceptance curve is far shorter than that of blogging generally.

Evolution serves it’s purpose too. Imagine if every day you heard about a new, crazy cool thing that was coming out and was never before imagined. Every day. Launch after launch, year after year. Even tech addicts like me (and probably you, if you’re reading this blog) would get tired. Really, really tired. Innovation needs a cooling offer period (not a slow down or slump) to let the world catch up as much as it needs a constant stream of ideas, products, and activities.

This is especially true when you consider that much of the Web-based innovation of the last few years is changing our fundamental social structure. The way people interact with each other is dramatically different today than even just a few years ago. Innovation on the Web includes a larger acceptance of these fundamental shifts.

3. Bridging the gap between the Web and business communities isn’t easy. The Valley is rife with stories of geeky kids who hit on a great idea, then turned it into a business. Likewise the conferences that showcase what these casual groups of passionate visionaries produce often morph into more businesslike, dealmaking affairs.

Many people thought SXSW may be heading in that same direction when it booked Zuckerberg and invited a business reporter to interview him.

SXSW is still largely focused on the tech side. Attendees wanted Zuckerberg to talk code, not business strategy—API, not IPO. Like it or not, Web dreamers need business savvy, too. Hell, some of them need to become businessmen and entrepreneurs themselves, following in the footsteps of a long line of successful visionaries, from Marc Andreessen to Mark Zuckerberg.

Lacy’s right! Bridging that gap is tough… especially when the gap increasingly doesn’t exist. The idea that APIs and IPOs aren’t intricately linked is foolishness. How many people are building (or want to build) businesses around Facebook’s application platform? How companies are having concerns recommending Facebook Ads due to privacy issues?

Chalking up “technical discussions” to a lack of business understanding is laughable. Just like the lines between online and offline are getting increasingly muddy, so too are the lines between “tech” and “business”. The fact that a tech reporter for BusinessWeek doesn’t understand this proves the point that an innovation cooling off period is just what we need.

(NOTE: Lacy had one other poorly developed point about how the negativity towards her was a result of sexism. Or maybe it wasn’t. I dont’ really want to address that because I’m not sure what she’s driving at. We’ll stick to the issues of innovation for this blog post)


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