Crowd turns on female journalist at SXSW

// 11 March 2008

Journalist Sarah Lacy interviewed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the massive SXSW conference going on in Austin right now. It turned nasty.

As I wasn’t there, I can’t really make any comment about whether or not the session was any good. But it’s hard to understand how anything she could have done or said would justify this ugly response from the audience:

Someone from the crowd yelled out at the top of his lungs, “Talk about something interesting!”

Again, a monstrous cheer.

At this point, Lacy lost it.

“Try doing what I do for a living,” she said. “It’s not that easy.”

The crowd was not sympathetic, and some demanded that she turn the microphone over to the audience so they could ask questions.

So she responded angrily, “Let’s go with the Digg model and let them have mob rule.”

And as the audience members began to ask questions, she said, “Someone send me a message afterward about exactly why I sucked so much.”

In response, someone yelled out, “What’s your e-mail address?”

And someone else shouted, “Check Twitter.”

Indeed, the techie audience had been using Twitter to ping each other about how bad she was, getting riled up and abusive in the meantime.

As Gia points out, interviews go down the pan all the time. She suggests (rightly, I think), that Lacy’s gender played into the whole mess:

When an interview goes badly, the interviewee is as much at fault as the interviewer (anyone remember Christopher Lloyd and Anne Bancroft on Wogan?).

So why go after Sarah Lacy?

Well, I wonder if it has to do with her gender? When you Google Sarah Lacy, the second result is a Valley Wag piece on her entitled “Smoking Sarah Lacy”: “… there’s one salient fact about Sarah Lacy that most commentators are way too politically correct to mention: she is the hottest reporter in the Valley. No, make that the hottest reporter in the tech world – ever.” The hottest reporter in the tech world. Hmmmm. Not the smartest? The best writer? So, her value is in her ‘cuteness’? Am I getting that right?

Have a look at the results for Mark Zuckerberg – do you notice how there’s nothing about his gender nor his sexual attractiveness (or lack thereof) nor is there a photo of him sticking out any of his ’sexually alluring’ body parts? Interesting that. Well, it isn’t really interesting. That’s just how things are.

This typically repellant comment on the c:net coverage of what happens says it all:

Sarah was given the same treatment that Michelle Madigan was given when she tried to sneak into DEFCON. Both women broke the cardinal rule of covering geek news as a woman: understand the geek mind and respect it. Instead of presenting the interview that apparently was well researched and insightful, Sarah opted to play the “let me pretend to be your girlfriend” trick. She killed the substance of her questions by picking the wrong approach to posing them. I don’t know if she thought that this would put Zuckerberg at ease, but it completely back fired.

This points to love/hate relationship that geeks have with the women who try to invade their territory. Treat them with respect and genuinely act as one of them, and you get treated like Veronica Belmont or Cali Lewis. Fail to do this, and you get treated like Sarah Lacy.

Comments From You

Benjamin A'Lee // Posted 11 March 2008 at 3:12 pm

As a geek, I completely understand a lack of patience with non-geeks. Blaming it on her gender, though, is completely uncalled for; the line “[t]his points to love/hate relationship that geeks have with the women who try to invade their territory” could just as well apply to men.

If she was a bad interviewer, then she was a bad interviewer; that has nothing to do with her gender. Blaming it on that is (part of) the reason geeks have a bad name.

Chloe // Posted 11 March 2008 at 3:15 pm

Lacy’s questions were nowhere near as boring and rambling as Zuckerberg’s answers. From what I’ve seen of their interview, it seemed like she was asking him some good questions about Facebook, and he was giving the most boring answers I’ve ever heard.

Also, the comment about women “invading” the geeks’ “territory” is one I’ve experienced first-hand in comic book shops, where apparently it’s such a rare occurance for a woman to meander into one that we’re then stared at by the male staff and customers until we make a purchase and leave. And god forbid you might want to buy a graphic novel by a woman.

Jess McCabe // Posted 11 March 2008 at 3:20 pm

Benjamin – I included that comment, partly to illustrate the way that the commenter assumes that all geeks are men, and no women are geeks. Which I think perhaps you are doing a bit too?

Gia // Posted 11 March 2008 at 4:52 pm

I agree, Chloe, I’ve only seen the cut down interview (so didn’t spend an hour getting bored!), but I really didn’t find Sarah’s mannerisms offensive at all. I just saw that she was trying, desperately, to have a relaxed, conversational interview with Mark and he was boring, unhelpful and uncharismatic.

Also, I would like to point out (as someone who has done her fair share of work on camera!) that just because someone can write for a magazine (or a blog) does not mean that they can get on stage (on in front of a camera) and be comfortable about it. Maybe she was a bit nervous. Maybe she thought, ‘I’ve interviewed so many people before, it’ll be fine’ and was under-prepared. Maybe she just misjudged the audience. Maybe she thought she was cooler than she is. Whatever. I mean, it’s not genocide. I don’t understand the nasty, insane reaction to it all.

Again, if Zuckerberg had been interviewed by a man and it had gone badly, we wouldn’t have heard about it.

So in the past couple years we’ve had Kathy Sierra, Mena Trott, Maryam Scoble, now Sarah Lacy… at what point are people going to admit that there’s witch hunting going on?

Anne Onne // Posted 11 March 2008 at 5:43 pm


I’m so sock fo women being chased out of technology because a bunch of idiots with the maturity of 13-year-olds decided that they don’t like playing with girls. I’m sick of how this isn’t just technology, that this statement could be referring to the sciences, or to sports. I’m sick that this kinf of attitude filters down right to schoolchildren, and discourages many girls.

And Benjamin, I’m not quite buying it. Yes, geeks have a rep for being antisocial, and I guess a lot of them are. But that doesn’t change the fact that even being antisocial, they would treat non-geek women worse than non-geek men. Come to think of it, they give so much crap to geek women it wouldn’t suprise me if they treated them worse than non-geek men. They clearly reacted to her being a woman in the same way that people who hate Hillary Clinton’s voice or wrinkles or whatever. Just because they don’t out and out admit it’s because she’s a woman doesn’t mean it wasn’t.

Tracy // Posted 11 March 2008 at 7:48 pm

I thought her body language was far from professional and I think he resented some of her questions. The interview stunk.

Genevieve // Posted 11 March 2008 at 8:49 pm

Anne Onne–Agreed, I’m sick of this as well. The DM of the last D&D guild I was part of was extremely sexist in his behaviour–to give one example, two female members of the group started talking off-topic about music, he told them to shut up immediately. Two dudes started talking about books they enjoyed in middle school, they got to talk for about five minutes–until I chimed in, THEN he told us to shut up.

One girl had a habit of making slightly-annoying high-pitched exclamations ‘in character’–she’d get death glares and be told to not be so loud. A dude (who had a habit of making a huge deal out of every tiny thing that happened to him,whether it was stubbing his toe, getting a hair stuck in his mouth, whatever) started singing a song ‘in character’ that literally went: “It’s raping time, it’s raping time, it’s raping time” and he was allowed to continue forever, as far as I know, as that was when I left, never to return.

I honestly believe that his (and other geeks’) reasons for doing this is that they feel marginalized, and their method of correcting this marginalization is to marginalize others. The DM in question was shorter-than-average, overweight, unattractive, and socially awkward. However, he was taller than every girl in this group with the exception of me, and he was definitely physically ‘bigger’ than all of us including me. He was in a position of slight authority. So it would make sense that he would assert his authority over those of us who he had the physical advantage over (geeky girls) and not those who he didn’t (still geeky, but almost-all taller and stronger guys).

Li // Posted 11 March 2008 at 11:39 pm

Male geeks endlessly annoy me with behaviour like this. A lot of them seem to believe that there is no such thing as a true female geek, and that “normal” females are stupid, easily manipulated if they learn the right technique (see the PUA phenomenon) yet not interested in obvious geeks.

If they encounter a female geek, they first go into denial. No, she’s not one of us! No, she’s not actually a woman, she’s a man trying to trick us! Then they start with the abuse, because clearly, obviously, any woman encroaching on their territory is asking for it.

Ugh. Never mind that the first computer programmer was a woman! They make me so angry!

I have plenty of personal experience of this stuff, but the worst was when I used to play a text only MUD. Oh, the attention I got from playing a female character! Insults, questions about my “real” sex, supposed attempts at flirting, gross uses of action commands…

Max // Posted 7 April 2008 at 5:23 pm

Lacy┬┤s reaction in the interview was reasonable I think.

Qubit // Posted 7 April 2008 at 8:27 pm

I have to admit I have rarely had problems interacting with male geeks, most of those that I met haven’t treated me any differently because I was a woman. I am not sure if this is because I mainly interact with physics geeks rather than computer geeks. However even the computer, theatre tech, sci-fi and anime geeks I have met haven’t been prejudice against me for being female. This could always be a sign things are improving or could just reflect the group I met.

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