Under normal circumstances a Q&A session with a tech CEO is a fairly bland event. Sure sometime you get a Ballmer-esque monkey-boy moment, but usually it’s an opportunity for the CEO to break some news and to get out without looking clueless. This week though we are reminded why a room full of tech-savvy web developers is a very different crowd.
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was to appear in what was billed as a keynote but ultimately was a sit down Q&A with Business week reporter Sarah Lacy. Lacy and Zuckerberg have a history together in that she has written a book about Web 2.0 and this newest wave of internet movers and shakers that Zuckerberg is currently riding. It should’ve been a simple session with everyone going home with some more extra information on Facebook and not much else. It wasn’t.
Lacy seemed to be interested in engaging Zuckerberg in a casual conversation. She told stories about how they had hung out, she interrupted him several times and generally danced around any serious discussion. Normally, this wouldn’t garner much more of a reaction from a crowd than simple eye rolling but this group wasn’t going to have any of it. The crowd became unruly and began yelling to the stage. One spectator yelled “Ask something interesting!” at the stage to which Lacy responded “Try doing what I do for a living. It’s not that easy.” She then invited the audience members to ask their own questions. The session was now completely in the crowd’s hands. The crowd peppered Zuckerberg with questions about the unpopular Beacon privacy problem, the API and assorted other topics that the room full of web developers had an interest in.
Perhaps the most striking thing to come from this meltdown was the complete back channel discussion that went on through Twitter. Without the crowd ever having to do more than stare at their phones, they developed a mob mentality and thus gained the upper hand on the interview. The Twitter feed was awash in comments about the interview and opinion of Lacy’s poor skills had converged in Twitter before the first heckler even raised his voice.
The genie has been out of the bottle on two-way media communication for quite a while now. It’s clear that this type of crowd interaction is going to grow. The traditional media’s desire to make itself into a one way conversation is over. Between comment threads, forums, blog posts and Twitter, the audience is no longer simply staring at a show passively. It is an open discussion as to whether or not the crowd at the Zuckerberg interview was just plain rude or if Lacy deserved to have her Q&A disrupted, but the truth is that even at media events as traditional as the staged Q&A the game has been completely changed. The audience is not only listening, but it is also participating.